Dr. Reynold Verret, president of Xavier University in New Orleans, appeared before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee (Screenshot)
WASHINGTON—Leaders in higher education from New Orleans and Miami Thursday related how colleges coped with a rough year of online learning and vaccine distribution amid the pandemic, during a hearing before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee.
The hearing included Dr. C. Reynold Verret, the president of Xavier University and Madeline Pumariega, the president of Miami Dade College, a community college which, with 100,000 students, is one of the largest higher education institutions in the U.S.
Verret was asked what advice he would give universities that are trying to move to full in-person classes this fall and also are encouraging sometimes reluctant students to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“Tell the truth,” Verret, a chemistry and immunology scholar, said. “And have venues for people to ask questions. We were founded with a mission to serve not just the nation but each other.”
In September, Verret and Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough announced that they were participating in a trial to test the effectiveness of a COVID-19 vaccine and encouraged students, faculty and alumni of their respective universities to consider taking part.
During his testimony Thursday, Verret said students and employees will be required to be vaccinated before returning to campus this fall. He said, “if we maximally vaccinate our campus, we can return to full in-person activity.”
Xavier is renowned for producing a significant percentage of the country’s Black physicians and pharmacists, and according to a 2019 news release remained “first among the nation’s colleges and universities in the number of African American graduates who go on to complete medical school.”
Stressing the necessity of in-person instruction, Verret said Thursday that Xavier’s science majors “need to be in laboratories and play and practice at being scientists.”
Verret said because there is a small percentage of people who don’t achieve full immunity levels even after being fully vaccinated, “Protection means we do not expose them to others… Therefore, we will have to have special conditions for those who cannot be vaccinated on campus for safety reasons.”
Pumariega said that because the community college is so embedded in the Miami-Dade area, officials there had the trust of local people when it came to setting up vaccine distributions and having masking and socially distant policies in place.
“Of important note is the role MDC has played in helping Greater Miami recover from the pandemic by not only offering many free and low-cost courses and programs in emerging industries since the outset of the pandemic, but also serving as the largest and most successful COVID-19 vaccination site in the southeast U.S., administering more than 350,000 shots to date,” she said.
The chair of the Senate committee, Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, said in her opening statement that it’s important to make sure that college students don’t get left behind as higher education starts to return to normal this fall.
“I hope we all take away an important message from this about the difference it makes when someone gets a helping hand during tough times,” she said.
One of the witnesses, Anthony Harris Jr., a student at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio, said an infusion of relief cash into higher education from Congress was key during a tumultuous year.
“Like many students across the country, I have had an unorthodox college experience to say the least,” he said in his opening statement. “Things seemed very bleak until students got word of the CARES Act funding that was being offered to them. Personally, I used the funding for books and the internet.”
Harris also suggested that senators should consider doubling Pell Grant funds as “this federal funding was life changing.” President Joe Biden’s budget proposal to Congress calls for maximum Pell Grants to rise by $400 per student.
“It offered a peace of mind to both me and my family to know that I had federal financial support that would follow me to whatever university I attended,” Harris said.
The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, said that he felt the committee should not be focused on higher education reopening but should instead be looking at the reopening of K-12 schools.
“We know that distance learning in higher education works better,” he said in his opening statement. “So I’m not really sure this is the right focus at the time.”
He added that he wants the federal government to remove the pause on student loans. Due to the pandemic, those with student loan debt were temporarily offered a pause on repaying their student loans, which was extended to the end of September this year.
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