Latest News on Coronavirus and Higher Education

UNC Chapel Hill Reports 2 COVID-19 Clusters

Aug. 14, 4:32 p.m. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill informed students, faculty and staff members this afternoon that it has identified two clusters of COVID-19 cases at student housing complexes.

A cluster is five or more cases in close proximity within a single residential hall or dwelling.  Those in the clusters “are isolating and receiving medical monitoring,” according to an alert issued this afternoon. Local health officials have been notified, and efforts are under way to identify others who could have been exposed.

“All residents in these living spaces have been provided additional information about these clusters and next steps,” the alert said. “Contact tracing has been initiated with direct communication to anyone determined to have been a close contact with a positive individual. A close contact is defined as someone who has been within 6 feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes when either person has not been wearing a face covering. Those identified as a close contact will be notified directly and provided with further guidance.”

The clusters are at the Ehringhaus Community and Granville Towers. Ehringhaus has four-bedroom suites and is heavily skewed toward first-year student residents. Granville Towers are privately managed.

Chapel Hill’s COID-19 dashboard shows main campus housing occupancy at 60.7 percent as of Monday and Granville Towers occupancy at 76.6 percent.

The university cited the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Crime Statistics Act when issuing the alert. That act set requirements for disseminating health and safety information on campus. But Chapel Hill does not plan to provide details about individual positive cases, citing privacy considerations and laws.

Chapel Hill held its first day of classes Monday.

— Rick Seltzer


Twenty-Eight COVID-19 Cases at the U. of Tennessee, Knoxville

Aug. 13, 5:30 p.m. The University of Tennessee at Knoxville reported that 20 students and 8 staff members have COVID-19, WATE News reported today. Due to potential exposure, 155 people are self-isolating, officials said. Students started moving into residence halls at the university on Aug. 9.

— Lilah Burke


Medical Advisers to NCAA Discourage Fall Sports Competition

Aug. 13, 1:30 p.m. Several medical experts with key roles in advising the National Collegiate Athletic Association offered discouraging words about fall sports competition in a conference call with reporters Thursday, according to news reports.

“I feel like the Titanic. We have hit the iceberg, and we’re trying to make decisions of what time should we have the band play,” ESPN quoted Dr. Carlos Del Rio, executive associate dean at Emory University and a member of the NCAA’s COVID-19 advisory panel, as saying. “We need to focus on what’s important. What’s important right now is we need to control this virus. Not having fall sports this year, in controlling this virus, would be to me the No. 1 priority.”

Most college sports conferences have opted not to hold intercollegiate competition this fall, but several leagues that play high-profile (and high-dollar) football are planning to play on.

Dr. Colleen Kraft, an associate professor of infectious diseases at Emory and a member of the NCAA panel, said of the leagues planning to compete: “There will be transmissions [of COVID-19], and they will have to stop their games,” according to ESPN.

Officials at the Big Ten and the Pac-12, the two leagues in the Power Five football series that have opted not to play this fall, have especially cited concerns about apparently increased incidence of myocarditis, a potentially deadly heart condition, related to COVID-19. The NCAA’s chief medical officer, Dr. Brian Hainline, said on the conference call that between 1 and 2 percent of all athletes who’ve been tested by NCAA members have tested positive for the coronavirus, and that at least a dozen have myocarditis, ESPN reported.

Dr. Kraft said colleges were “playing with fire” regarding myocarditis.

— Doug Lederman

Athletic Departments May Need ‘Extraordinary Support’ as Cancellations Hit Revenue

Aug. 13, 12:23 p.m. The recent spate of athletic conference decisions to postpone fall sports means substantial revenue shocks for college athletic departments, and cutting expenses will not always be enough to absorb the blow, according to a new report from Moody’s Investors Service.

Because sports are strategically important for universities, Moody’s expects universities to provide “extraordinary support” like internal loans in order to stay current on debt payments for athletic facilities. Colleges and universities may tap their financial reserves to close budget gaps tied to the pandemic, the ratings agency said in a report released Thursday morning.

“Athletic expenses have grown significantly in recent years, including certain fixed costs such as debt service, which will impact universities’ ability to adjust to the disruption,” said Dennis Gephardt, vice president at Moody’s, in a statement.

Fall sports cancellations reached a crescendo this week when two of the most important conferences for college football, the Big Ten and the Pac-12, joined many non-Power Five conferences and programs in pulling the plug on fall sports amid COVID-19 concerns. Although the Atlantic Coast Conference, Southeastern Conference and Big 12 were still hoping to play football, the ramifications of existing cancellations will be felt across higher education.

Football has been the biggest driver of athletic revenue in the sector. Football contributed $5.8 billion in 2018, a whopping 40 percent of the $14.6 billion in total athletic revenue counted by Moody’s. Growth in revenue has been driven by media rights like the payments television networks make for the right to broadcast games.

Disappearing ticket sales will also hit revenue. Although some donor support might be expected to offset losses, a significant portion of donor support comes from seating priority programs — donors buying the right to pick seats under certain conditions.

This situation is particularly important because the median athletic department broke even in 2018, meaning a significant number of departments lost money.

Moody’s called that year a relatively strong revenue year. Still, more than a third of Division I public universities, 37 percent, reported expenses exceeded revenue that year. The median operating deficit among that group was 3 percent.

Conferences that generate more athletic revenue generally reported better operating performance than others. The financial health of operations varies greatly across athletic conferences.

“Compensation for coaches as well as other athletic support and administrative expenses among NCAA Division I members make up the largest portion of the expense base for a combined 35 percent and will be a focus for expense management efforts in fiscal 2021,” Moody’s said in its note. “With games canceled, universities will save some money on game day operations and travel expenses.”

Athletics requires more capital than other arms of higher education. Median debt-to-operating-revenue was 58 percent for public higher education overall, compared to 66 percent for institutions competing in the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision. Facility expenses and debt service at Division I public universities drove increases in debt between 2013 and 2018, with debt growing 54 percent in that period to a total of $2.3 billion.

“Given the revenue shocks, many athletic departments will not be able to cover debt service with net revenue from recurring operations, prompting the need to fill the gap from appropriate auxiliary and/or other reserves. In many cases, this is likely to take the form of internal loans that the athletic departments will need to repay the university over time,” the Moody’s report said.

All of this follows the cancellation of the NCAA basketball tournaments in the spring. Men’s basketball accounted for about 15 percent of 2018 athletic revenue across higher education. Women’s basketball was 7 percent.

Still to be determined is how the spread of COVID-19 affects sports scheduled for later in the year and how universities balance pressures on athletics against pressures to other parts of their operations.

“Budget difficulties at athletic departments will add to the financial strains facing universities, including a tuition revenue pinch, reduced state funding and incremental expenses to combat the coronavirus,” the Moody’s report said.

— Rick Seltzer


A survey by Pearson finds that 77 percent of Americans think that reopening colleges and universities is vital to a healthy economy. But 62 percent say colleges and universities are risking the lives of students by reopening in the fall.

–Scott Jaschik


Aug. 11, 4:40 p.m. The Pac-12, another “Power Five” conference, quickly followed the Big Ten Conference with a decision to postpone fall sports for the remainder of 2020 at its institutions on the West Coast. The postponement also includes winter sports, which are on hold for the remainder of the year, and the conference will consider playing all sports impacted by the decision in 2021, the Pac-12 said in a release about the decision.

Three Power Five conferences, the Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference, which include the nation’s top football programs and gain most from the sport’s financial benefits, have not yet announced postponement of the fall sports season and are moving forward with modified schedules as of Aug. 11.

Aug. 11, 3:32 p.m. The Big Ten Conference officially postponed its 2020-21 fall sports season, including football. The decision affects some of the top college football teams in the country and was discouraged by several federal lawmakers on Monday.

Kevin Warren, commissioner of the Big Ten, said in a news release that athletes’ mental and physical health was “at the center” of the decision and that the coronavirus posed too many potential medical risks for the season to proceed this fall. Spring competition for football and other fall sports, including cross country, field hockey, soccer and volleyball, will be considered, the Big Ten said in the statement.

— Greta Anderson


Notre Dame President Apologizes for Photos

Aug. 11, 7:20 a.m. Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, has apologized for letting several students take photographs of him that were not safe.

“In a few instances, over recent days, I stopped for photos with some of you on the quad,” Father Jenkins wrote to students. “While all of the scientific evidence indicates that the risk of transmission is far lower outdoors than indoors, I want to remind you (and myself!) that we should stay at least six feet apart. I recognize that it’s not easy, particularly when we are reuniting with such great friends. I am sorry for my poor example, and I am recommitting to do my best. I am confident you will too.”

— Scott Jaschik


Inside Higher Ed