Testimony to Joint Committee on Higher Education

Update on higher education during the COVID-19 pandemic
October 6, 2020
Virtual Public Hearing
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Good afternoon Chairwoman Gobi and Chairman Roy. Good afternoon also to the members of the Joint Committee on Higher Education who have joined us today. I am Paula Johnson, and since 2016 I have served as the 14th president of Wellesley College. I am also a cardiologist and former professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and former professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. My career and research have always been focused on the intersection of science, health care, public health, and education. I also served as the chair of the Boston Public Health Commission for seven years prior to becoming the president of Wellesley College. As you can imagine, I never thought I would be using my skill set in this way so soon. As you know so well from the work you have done on behalf of the citizens of Massachusetts, the last eight months have presented unprecedented challenges and disruptions to colleges and universities across the commonwealth.  

Thank you for this opportunity to share some brief remarks that I hope will give you a better understanding of the tireless planning and preparations to develop foundational guidance that each institution may rely upon in determining how best to safely bring students, faculty, and staff back to campus.

This has been a historic undertaking, and I am incredibly proud of the ways in which the entire higher education community has worked to support one another in service to keeping our campuses and communities as safe as possible. The level of collaboration within and among institutions, both public and private, as well as with the state and local governments in responding to COVID-19 has far exceeded anything that I have seen during my career. The hard work being done by the state and its colleges and universities—as well as our invaluable partners at the Broad Institute—should serve as a model for our federal government.

This afternoon, I would like to focus my remarks on three areas:

  1. Higher education’s immediate response to the pandemic.
  2. The enormous undertaking to plan and prepare for the phased repopulating of our campuses in a way that protects the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and our surrounding communities.
  3. The astronomical, and unsustainable, costs that colleges and universities are incurring to provide robust surveillance testing, contact tracing, supply PPE, and other safety measures.


When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, colleges and universities across Massachusetts moved with urgency to support public health and safety by successfully pivoting to remote learning. We de-densified our campuses by requiring all students who could do so to return home, and by having faculty and staff work remotely if possible, to support the state’s goal of minimizing the spread of COVID-19. We simultaneously invested in the technology and training needed to continue serving our students through a fully remote learning platform. The speed at which Massachusetts’ colleges and universities, both public and private alike, were able meet these significant challenges—at staggering costs—to respond to the growing pandemic truly was remarkable.

Equally remarkable were the meaningful ways that colleges and universities across the commonwealth stepped up to support the state’s emergency response to COVID-19. These important contributions included:

  • Immediately donating any available PPE and other critically needed supplies.
  • Tapping into alumni and donor networks to organize additional PPE donations.
  • Faculty and students working together with 3D printing technology to design and produce protective shields.
  • Most critically, in order to minimize the spread of the virus in local communities, turning over dorms and other campus facilities to house and feed health care workers, first responders, the homeless and those who serve the homeless in shelters, and recovering COVID-19 patients.

It is also important to note that we did not close. We did not waver in our mission to educate. While most campus-based activities and courses were supported remotely, we continued to house and provide dining and health services to those students who were unable to return home, whether because of travel restrictions or not having a safe situation to which they could return. Essential COVID-related research was continued. Serving the needs and ensuring the safety of those students who remained on campus provided us with important insights and experiential learning that carried into the planning for how best to repopulate our campuses in the fall.


With a cautious eye toward the fall, WPI President Laurie Leshin, a member of Gov. Baker’s Reopening Advisory Board, formed the Higher Education Working Group to represent Massachusetts’ 106 diverse institutions of higher education and their 500,000 students and 130,000 employees. This working group was composed of 14 leaders from public and private colleges including large and small institutions, public and private universities, research universities, and community colleges. The group thoughtfully represented the incredible diversity of the commonwealth’s colleges and universities.

The Higher Education Working Group was charged with developing a comprehensive framework to help guide the commonwealth’s colleges and universities as they made plans to repopulate their campuses at the appropriate time. This framework was shared with the Governor’s Reopening Advisory Board and is reflected in the state’s reopening plans. This framework, and all of the work subsequently done in preparation for the fall, was based on four guiding principles:

  • Protect the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff, and people in surrounding communities.
  • Enable students to make meaningful progress toward their educational goals. 
  • Contribute to research and innovation.
  • Minimize adverse economic impact on families, employees, and the Massachusetts economy.

We have shared with the committee copies of the guiding documents that have been produced by the Higher Education Working Group, including:

  • Safe on Campus: A Framework for Reopening Colleges and Universities
  • Safe on Campus: Considerations and Checklists to Guide Massachusetts Colleges and Universities in Planning for a Safe Semester on Campus
  • Report of the Massachusetts Higher Education Testing Group. Developing an Integrated COVID-19 Testing Strategy: Considerations for Institutions of Higher Education in Massachusetts

Utilizing this guidance, college and university leaders and their staffs worked at breakneck pace for months to identify every obstacle and risk, and created plans to manage or overcome them. Our teams of staff and faculty have spent the past seven months developing and piloting plans that are based on data and science, and engineering new policies and practices to address this very real-world challenge. Each institution has prepared comprehensive—but tailored—plans and protocols for testing, symptom monitoring, social distancing, use of face masks, hand hygiene, disinfection, ventilation, contact tracing, isolation, and quarantine practices. They have worked to develop strategies to reorganize schedules and classroom spaces to enable social distancing protocols and have made many classes available in multiple formats: online, hybrid, and in person. They also reconfigured residence halls and dining services to enable proper distancing.

We did this because, as educators, our work has never been more important. Higher education is in the business of helping students become the problem solvers our world so desperately needs. And we are here to support our faculty as they advance the latest discoveries, some of which will help us contain this virus for good.

It is not hyperbole to say that Herculean efforts have become commonplace. Hours have often doubled. The boundaries between nights and weekends, work and life, have been completely blurred, and in many cases erased. The sustained commitment from every corner of our campuses has been inspirational.


The Massachusetts Higher Education Testing Troup (“Testing Group”) was initiated by the working group to provide additional guidance on testing as part of the reopening framework. I am proud to serve as chair of the testing group, which is a panel made up of leaders from both higher education (Tufts University, Boston University, Cambridge College, and Harvard University) and health care, including colleagues from Massachusetts General Hospital, Mass General Brigham, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, UMass Medical School, and the BU School of Public Health.

The Testing Group examined the rapidly evolving state of knowledge about COVID-19 testing in order to suggest a framework to help all colleges and universities in the commonwealth better understand how surveillance testing could support the reopening plans being crafted by each campus.

The Testing Group’s June report emphasized that institutions must consider multilayered strategies for minimizing the risk of infection of students, faculty, and staff, and the surrounding communities with the express understanding that each institution is different and that “one size will not fit all.” The multilayered strategies included “education, wearing masks, social distancing, hand hygiene, self-reported diagnosis, active health screening, improved ventilation, cleaning, preemptive surveillance testing, contact tracing, quarantine, and isolation.”

Our report suggested that institutions should consider adopting comprehensive testing protocols including onboarding testing, symptomatic testing, and asymptomatic surveillance testing. In terms of surveillance testing, we suggested a framework for considering the frequency of asymptomatic testing in relation to the relative risks of different campus populations. In general, populations at higher risk of infection and driving on-campus spread (e.g. residential students and individuals with high contact hours with residential students) would be tested more frequently than campus populations at relatively lower risk (e.g. staff who transit to campus who have little or no contact with students).  

The Testing Group recognized that there were no established standards for determining who should be tested and how often, and we referenced different mathematical models that “suggest testing frequency paradigms ranging from testing every two days to every 12 days.” We concluded by suggesting that institutions should “consider testing the populations most at risk every two to seven days with the outer limit being 12 days under the most favorable circumstances.”

We are extremely fortunate that Eric Lander and the Broad Institute stepped up to partner with over 100 colleges and universities throughout New England and eastern New York, including 43 private colleges and universities and 14 public institutions here in the commonwealth, to implement a robust, proactive surveillance testing program. Participating colleges and universities, working with their health care providers, determine who is eligible to be tested (such as students, faculty, and/or staff, with physician approval) and how often. The Broad Institute facilitates the distribution of test kits to the schools, and then the schools ensure that the tests are property administered and returned to the Broad, which processes the samples of the more highly accurate PCR test and returns results within about 24 hours.

The Broad Institute’s testing program is an extraordinary example of a public service and, to put it as simply as possible, we would not have been able to bring students back to campus without the Broad. 



The final point that I would like to share with the committee is the reality that Massachusetts colleges and universities have paid enormous costs to institute COVID-19 testing and safety protocols. These costs will only increase as institutions must again bear the cost of onboarding and asymptomatic surveillance testing for the spring semester. While we are extremely grateful for the commonwealth’s investment in scaling up testing capacity at the Broad Institute, and for the initial federal funding, we are deeply concerned that the ongoing costs are unsustainable for many colleges and universities in the commonwealth. Those concerns will only grow if the federal government does not provide additional funding to the commonwealth or to colleges and universities to cover or defray some portion of these costs.


Every single college or university president in the commonwealth—if not the nation—sees this fall as their single greatest leadership challenge. When making our decisions about whether it was viable to bring students back, each institution assessed its own distinct variables—as related to our students, faculty, and staff; our facilities, physical campuses, and geographic location; the resources available to us; and factors within the towns and cities where we live and learn. The colleges and universities that have chosen to roll back their plans had a difficult decision to make. Their assessments and planning led them to a conclusion that was right for their campus community. Neither choice is easy, and theirs represent a different kind of courage.

For Wellesley College, and for my colleagues who are likewise moving ahead to bring students back to our campuses, we do so clear-eyed, with humility and great care, leaning on science-based plans. This virus isn’t going away anytime soon. In the coming weeks and months, we will advance knowledge about living and learning in the age of COVID, and become even stronger students, professionals, problem solvers, and human beings. Our only way through this is together.