University of Miami president, an ex-WHO official, says students can return safely to campus this fall because they're low risk for Covid-19

Key Points
  • University of Miami President Dr. Julio Frenk believes college students can safely return to campus in the fall, despite the threat of the coronavirus. 
  • "The key here is also to understand, this is the population with a low risk," Frenk, an ex-World Health Organization official, told CNBC on Thursday.
  • Frenk said the school's plan to hold in-person instruction involves Covid-19 testing, spacing out students in dorms and modifying classroom space.
University of Miami president on the decision to reopen campus in the fall
University of Miami president on the decision to reopen campus in the fall

Dr. Julio Frenk, an ex-World Health Organization official and current president of the University of Miami, believes college students can safely return to UM campuses in the fall despite the threat of the coronavirus.

"I am pretty confident we can keep our students safe," Frenk said Thursday on CNBC's "Squawk Box."

"The key here is also to understand, this is the population with a low risk," he contended. "That doesn't mean you let your guard down because there have been cases also among young people and sadly we have lost a few young people."

However, he said, "The risk in the particular age group of college-aged, and even graduate, students, is substantially lower and that's why we can do this safely," adding he would not recommend this for a nursing home.  

Frenk, a trained physician who formerly served as Mexico's health minister, said the University of Miami developed a four-component plan to ensure in-person instruction can resume in the fall. 

The road map relies heavily on testing for Covid-19 and contact tracing for any positive case, he said, adding it also places an emphasis on cleaning, both of spaces and personal hygiene, as well as social distancing.

Wearing masks on UM's three campuses will be a "very strong social norm," stressed Frenk, also a former dean of the faculty at Harvard University's School of Public Health.

In addition, the university canceled plans to tear down old dorms, giving it the ability to put fewer students in a room than what would have been expected, he said.

Miami President Julio Frenk (L) attended a women's college basketball game between the University of Louisville Cardinals and the University of Miami Hurricanes on January 25, 2017 at Watsco Center, Coral Gables, Florida. Louisville defeated Miami 84-74.
Richard C. Lewis | Icon Sportswire | Getty Images

Frenk also said it's going to be important that students get the seasonal flu vaccine because the regular flu and Covid-19 are "going to coincide in the fall."

Colleges and universities across the U.S. are trying to devise plans for the fall academic term after instruction went online this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. Testing and contact tracing are central components of many of the reopening plans. Boston University, for example, will have a Covid-19 testing program specifically for students, faculty and staff run out of one of its campus labs. 

Other universities — such as the University of Notre Dame and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — have announced changes to their academic calendar. The schools plan to start earlier in August, allowing the semester to end around Thanksgiving when some public health experts worry that a second wave of Covid-19 cases could start in late fall and winter.

Frenk said the University of Miami, a private school with more than 17,000 students, will also modify how it conducts in-person classes. UM is creating new space for classrooms to keep students and staff farther apart, he added.

"We're blending that with online experiences on campus," he said. "But you blend those so you actually can have a mixed experience with some students online, some students in the classroom, rotating throughout the days of the week."

Frenk said the university has approached its plans for the fall carefully, keeping in mind that older people, such as faculty and staff, are at a higher risk of severe illness from Covid-19 than students. However, people of all ages with underlying medical conditions also are more vulnerable to serious illness from Covid-19.

Robert Brown, president of Boston University, told CNBC last week that the school is planning for its semester with that in mind. "We're going to have to create environments where they feel comfortable in the classroom or let them teach remotely."

Boston University president Robert Brown on returning to campus in the fall
Boston University president Robert Brown on returning to campus in the fall