Northeastern’s $50-Million Bet

Covid-19 is surging on college campuses. Many are abandoning plans to bring students back. But Adam Azoulay, lounging in an orange Adirondack chair on the grass of Northeastern University’s campus, is hopeful that his institution may succeed where others have failed.Azoulay, a third-year computer engineering and computer-science student, will be tested for Covid-19 every three days. Everywhere he goes on campus, red and white symbolic footprints remind him to stay six feet apart from other students; signs tell everyone to wear a mask, wash their hands, and, in a nod to the Husky mascot, “Protect the Pack.” On social media, he said, students are urging one another to follow those policies. They’re even using Instagram to share photos or videos to rat out those who don’t.“If we pull it off … it’d be great for Northeastern’s reputation, because we’d be known as, like, ‘Oh, that’s the school that made it work,’” Azoulay, 19, said on Tuesday.Northeastern has spent more than $50 million planning for a safe re-entry, an investment that will be put to the test this weekend, when approximately 8,000 of the university’s undergraduates begin moving in to campus residence halls. The university has built its own labs for frequent testing with fast turnarounds, continually sanitizes buildings, and created a flexible-learning system that allows students to move back and forth between virtual and in-person classes in a richer, more interactive way than in a typical Zoom class.

Ruby Wallau, Northeastern UniversityNortheastern’s Covid-19 testing operation is housed inside the Cabot Physical Education Center.

Northeastern has booked nearly 1,500 hotel and apartment rooms to ensure that no more than two students share a room, and has leased a wing of Boston Symphony Hall for student dining and meal distribution.What’s noteworthy about Northeastern’s reopening plans, said Christopher R. Marsicano, an assistant professor of the practice of higher education at Davidson College, is “the scale at which they’re doing it and the fact that they’re trying to pull off, in a major city, what the University of North Carolina couldn’t do in a suburb.”In May, as many colleges were still hedging their bets on fall-reopening plans, Northeastern’s president, Joseph E. Aoun, went on national TV to announce, emphatically, that the university would open for in-person instruction. Epidemiologists and other public-health experts had convinced administrators that reopening was essential “not because the Covid-19 virus isn’t a serious, highly transmissible threat, but because it is,” Aoun wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post this month. The pandemic is likely to remain a problem for at least four years, he wrote, and keeping education remote for that long would devastate students and colleges.Even a one-year delay in returning for face-to-face instruction, Aoun wrote, “would disproportionately hurt low-income students who spent the spring continuing their studies online, without adequate technology, sometimes in overcrowded and even traumatic living conditions. And it would impair universities’ ability to discover solutions that would make the world safer — from this pandemic, and from ones that are yet to come.”But as other campuses have learned, the success of such efforts depends on everyone’s willingness to follow guidelines that require significant changes in behavior. Whether that’s too big an ask remains to be seen.Northeastern was monitoring social media for hints on what to expect when an Instagram account for accepted freshmen set off alarm bells. Twelve percent of those responding to a student-posted poll on whether they planned to party chose the “Hell Yeah” response, according to a screenshot captured in the student newspaper, The Huntington News.Northeastern officials then asked the student who ran the Instagram account to hand over the names of those who — jokingly or not — had indicated they weren’t going to let the university’s rules interfere with their social plans. The student agreed to do so, a campus spokeswoman said.Last week, Northeastern’s senior vice chancellor for student affairs, Madeleine Estabrook, sent a letter to the 115 identified students, copying their parents. “Even if this gesture on social media was made in jest, your willingness to mock the well-being of our community, and the efforts made to protect it, demonstrates a degree of carelessness that does not meet the values and principles we uphold,” it said. Students who refused to sign a letter affirming their intent to play by the rules would have their acceptance offers to the university rescinded. The identified students are also required to actively participate in Northeastern’s “Protect the Pack” campaign for encouraging safe behavior.On Friday, the university published a message warning students that under an expedited disciplinary system, they could be suspended or expelled for hosting or even attending unsafe gatherings, with no refunds for tuition or housing.An anonymous tip line has been set up for anyone on campus or in the surrounding community to notify the university of plans that violate Covid-19 rules.Parties in off-campus houses have been blamed for recent surges of Covid-19 cases at other college campuses that have pivoted back to virtual instruction. Boston, which houses several large universities that draw students from around the country, is bracing for the return of tens of thousands of students who some fear could cause a resurgence there.In an interview on Wednesday, Estabrook said she “strongly disagrees” with those who say students who have been cooped up, away from their friends, can’t be expected to remain six feet apart and in masks outside the classroom. “Our students are known for being driven, and I know they can and will abide by the rules and understand why they were put in place,” she said.Asked whether students might balk at the idea of “snitching” on their peers, Estabrook said students who are grateful for the chance to be back on campus don’t seem to have any qualms about that now. But that shouldn’t be the first response, she suggested.“What I want to encourage students to do is not just to snitch but, if they walk by someone who isn’t wearing a mask, stop and offer them one. We want students to be actively involved” in keeping the campus open, she said.Meanwhile, Northeastern has doubled down on expensive safety measures. Air circulation and ventilation was upgraded in classrooms, labs, and dorms. Thousands of touchless hand-sanitizer and paper-towel dispensers were installed across campus. Cleaning crews were set to spray and scrub public spaces up to three times a day. Student move-in was spread over 11 days.Many of these steps are, of course, ubiquitous at campuses throughout the region. But some — the aggressive testing schedule and the investment of millions in upgrading technology for hundreds of classrooms — go beyond what is happening elsewhere.“What Northeastern is doing is certainly very comprehensive,” said Marsicano, who is tracking pandemic responses in partnership with The Chronicle. “But what’s unique is how loud they’re being about it.”

What’s unique is how loud they’re being about it.

Northeastern, he said, seems to be using the reopening challenge as a way to continue its rapid rise in national rankings. In recent years, the university has seen a steady increase in research spending, hired hundreds of new scholars, and added Portland, Me., to its list of satellite-campus locations.At the same time, some of Northeastern’s aggressive growth strategies have raised eyebrows. The Century Foundation, for instance, objected to a marketing campaign that describes enrollment representatives as “coaches” when, the progressive think tank argues, they were paid to work more like sales representatives than true college counselors. Marsicano cited reports that the president, Aoun, is working on a book about the university’s response to the pandemic for the MIT Press. Katie Stileman, the press’s head of publicity, attributed information that got out about the book to “a data-feed accident” and told The Chronicle in an email last week that the press had “not signed a forthcoming book with Joseph Aoun.” Yet at least one copy had been sent out for peer review. In July, a Chronicle reporter was paid a small honorarium by MIT Press to provide a confidential peer review of a draft of Aoun’s book.In a statement on Saturday, Michael Armini, Northeastern’s senior vice president for external affairs, said MIT Press approached Aoun in May about writing a book “on lessons learned from the Covid-19 pandemic and the long-term implications for higher education.” The request, he wrote, was based on the success of an earlier book, Robot-Proof, that Aoun had written and that had been published by the press. “While an outline and some initial chapters covering the events of last spring were drafted, at this point no contract has been signed and there is no plan to publish a book on this topic,” Armini wrote.Regardless of its status, “Having your president say, ‘How We Beat Covid,’ in a book before they beat Covid is certainly an unusual approach,” Marsicano said.Northeastern’s plans to reopen in person have generated pushback from some students. They worry about the health hazards faced by members of the campus community. They also accuse Aoun of failing to acknowledge the danger reopening poses to low-income residents of neighborhoods surrounding Northeastern, said Deanna Schwartz, managing editor of The Huntington News.Student activists, after garnering more than 1,500 signatures on a petition criticizing the vagueness of Northeastern’s reopening plans, last week staged a “day of action” to press a series of demands. Those included reduced tuition, flexibility to cancel housing, and transparency about what specific Covid-19-infection thresholds would lead administrators to shut down campus.One Facebook meme, liked more than 300 times, mocks Northeastern with a picture of a woman who appears to be in the process of moving beneath a checkmarked list of these steps: “mask up, move in, make money, murder students/employees, mask up, move out,” according to a screenshot shared by Schwartz.Schwartz, 20, said that many students lack faith in Northeastern in part because of how its leaders handled the pandemic in March, when they abruptly reversed their initial decision to allow students to stay in housing while taking classes online.“A lot of students are scared because they have a broken trust with the university,” Schwartz said.While some were deeply skeptical of the decision to reopen, others remained cautiously hopeful that the efforts would pay off. Students interviewed on campus Tuesday described Northeastern’s extensive Covid-19 testing operation with a sense of pride. Students don’t start moving back to campus until Saturday, but the testing system was already up and running. Students lined up, got their temperatures checked by red-shirted volunteers, and then entered the cavernous gym that Northeastern converted into a Covid-19 testing facility.Tests are required on the day students arrive, as well as on Days 3 and 5. Students won’t be able to attend classes in person until they receive negative results on three consecutive tests. After that, they will generally be tested every three days while faculty, staff, and contract workers will be tested twice a week. The turnaround time for testing is expected to be 36 hours.Elsewhere on campus, a sign posted outside a dorm advised students that, for purposes of “security and cleaning,” they should check into a Northeastern Police Department mobile app called SafeZone when they entered the building. On brightly colored steps near the student center, a slogan greeted pedestrians: “Huskies Step Up. Protect the Pack.”

Ruby Wallau, Northeastern UniversityNortheastern plans to test students for Covid-19 every three days.

STEM majors stressed the importance of being on campus to access facilities and equipment. Dijana Masic, 19, a second-year student studying marine biology, said, “I do trust the institution. I wouldn’t be going back to campus if I didn’t.” She plans to prioritize her studies and spend a lot of time in her room. She might put on a mask to see friends for coffee perhaps once a week, she said.As for the university’s response to the Instagram party poll, she understands the need to monitor and react to students’ social-media posts.“There should be a certain amount of respect for privacy, but in this world that we’re living in right now, we have to actually follow the regulations,” she said. “And if people aren’t following those regulations, then obviously the university’s gonna have to do something about it.”James Zemartis, a fourth-year environmental-engineering student from New Jersey, agreed that the tough approach was warranted. After getting a Covid-19 test Tuesday — his fourth — Zemartis, 21, said he was both happy to be back on campus and worried about a shutdown should things go wrong. Asked about criticism of Aoun, Zemartis said it was possible that “he could just be getting us back on campus to take our money again and sending us home.”His impression so far: People are generally being careful. “You have to have a little bit of faith that things are gonna work out,” he said. “And, you know, people will be OK and do the right thing. Because right now, I think hope is what we all need.”Update (8/29/2020, 3:05 p.m.): This article has been updated with comment from a Northeastern spokesman on reports that President Joseph E. Aoun was writing a book about the university’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.Correction (8/29/2020, 5:40 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misstated when MIT Press approached Aoun about writing the book. Aoun was approached in May, according to a Northeastern spokesman.

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