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Colleges, universities and public schools reopening this fall have a chance to model successful reopening in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Thursday, but increasing access to COVID-19 testing is vital for classes to resume.

As chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Alexander said he is optimistic that the testing needed will be available and he is encouraged by what he is hearing from university presidents and school leaders across the country and in Tennessee.

"Universities and schools think of themselves as micro cities, and they have a chance to show with wise leadership they can help those little cities become among the safest places to live and work in our country in the next year, and if they are able to do that they will help us take one of the biggest steps we could possibly take back towards normalcy," Alexander said at a news briefing Thursday. "The surest sign that we're beginning to regain the rhythm of American life will come when 70 million students go back to school and back to college."

In Tennessee, schools and universities are planning to reopen this fall. Local colleges and universities are strategizing what reopening will look like, but University of Tennessee System President Randy Boyd vowed earlier this month that students would be back on campus.

Public K-12 school districts across the region have also established task forces and committees to develop plans to reopen in August.

Alexander said he "is very encouraged" by what he has heard from Tennessee school leaders, but three things will be needed to ensure a successful school year and an end to the pandemic: testing, treatments and a vaccine.

"All roads back to school, back to college, back to work, lead through testing," he said.

The senator said he is optimistic that enough tests will be available this fall after information he received at the most recent Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee hearing last week. He said lawmakers expect the U.S. will have the capacity to conduct 40 to 50 million tests in the month of September, about four to five times the number of tests now available.

He also acknowledged that reopening schools poses a public health risk and said Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and the nation's top medical expert, made that clear during a Senate briefing last week.

In response to questions from a reporter, Alexander emphasized that he doesn't think state governors need to provide more stringent guidance to local school districts, but that how and when schools reopen should be a local decision. He also said schools shouldn't feel limited by guidance issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

"The thing to recognize is that CDC guidance is only guidance. It's a respected agency and it's suggestions, it's not the law. CDC officials know very well that a school in Wyoming and a school in rural Tennessee or Brooklyn are going to be different so it's up to the community to decide how to make schools safe. They should take into account the CDC guidance when they can," he said. "It should be up to the local school board, the classroom teachers and the community to decide how to make classrooms safe."

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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