The University of Hawaii is girding up for an unprecedented fall semester. Among the tasks on the prep checklist: reconfiguring spaces in classrooms, student housing and elsewhere to ensure recommended physical distancing; and revising class delivery formats to include significantly more online courses.
The heavy lift now in the works to ensure a safe environment throughout the UH’s 10-campus system and at other higher education institutions here is commendable and necessary to help shape a post-pandemic future for the state.
In addition to implementing practices specified in the UH’s interim COVID-19 guidelines, the university is now piecing together a modified quarantine plan for students traveling to Hawaii to attend college.
This week, immediately after Gov. David Ige postponed from Aug. 1 to Sept. 1 the start of a pre-travel testing program for people arriving in the state, the UH announced a plan through which arriving students can undergo the 14-day quarantine while also taking part in university activities — as long as they test negative for the virus and meet other health requirements.
Less rigid than the state’s full quarantine lockdown, this approach is potentially a good fit for higher ed communities. That’s because, as UH President David Lassner pointed out, that while most visitors “pretty much go off on their own,” the university is “committed to monitoring our students and engaging in relationships to ensure that they are safe.”
However, strict compliance with any sort of quarantine — along with mask-wearing and distancing directives — add up to a big ask for students who will be in a settings built around social interaction. It’s hard to imagine hug-free greetings among returning classmates, or parties and in-person group study sessions at which all face coverings remain in place.
The UH fall semester, starting Aug. 24, will serve as a test of whether an effective shift away from pre-coronavirus behavior is possible. Success will hinge, in part, on positive peer pressure — impressing upon students a sense of accountability for preventing the spread of the potentially deadly virus on and off campuses.
Ige’s move to delay launch of the full pre-travel program was not unexpected, given the recent increase in COVID-19 cases in the islands, along with alarming spikes in mainland states and interruption in the testing supply chain. Also concerning is the possibility of a rise in cases tied to next month’s start of the K-12 school year.
Higher ed enrollment raises still more high-caution flags. The latest figures for the UH’s flagship Manoa campus tallied upwards of 17,700 students, with a sizable portion ineligible for Hawaii resident tuition rates. Nearly 30% of students were from other states.
In regards to international students, who make up 7% of UH-Manoa’s enrollment: The UH, along with many universities and colleges across the country, breathed a sigh of relief this week when the Trump administration swiftly rescinded a directive that would have barred these students from the U.S. if their colleges offered classes entirely online this fall. Harvard and MIT, among others, had sued the administration over the order.
While it has long been the case that international students cannot take a fully online course load while in the U.S., the requirement was waived during spring and summer months when COVID-19’s spread forced an abrupt shift to fully online instruction. Until the public health threat is behind us, it’s only fair to keep the waiver in place.
All of our higher ed students, both residents and nonresidents, contribute to the local economy — in tuition and fees along with living expenses — while also training for careers and pursuing innovations that can help deliver a bright future for Hawaii. The fall semester should move forward with painstakingly careful risk-management.