Pity the poor college and university administrators. Yes, we know: that’s not a sentiment you hear every day. During normal times, school administrators get along just fine without our sympathy, thank you.
But these are anything but normal times. The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown the entire world into disarray, and that of course includes institutions of higher education (IHEs). Administrators at these schools are now figuring out how to manage the fast-approaching fall semester. They have precious little time to decide whether to reconvene on-campus, continue with distance learning, or cancel the fall semester entirely. As of now, most schools seem ready to welcome students back to their actual or virtual campuses in the fall, albeit with many new restrictions and guidelines.
Regardless of their decisions, the questions facing them are massive and daunting. A college campus is a whole lot more than a place where students attend classes, after all. It’s also a workplace. It provides residences, dining facilities, recreation, and healthcare services to students. School campuses aren’t merely businesses; they are fully functioning communities, many of them as large as midsize towns. The University of Iowa, for example, is home to nearly 50,000 students, faculty, and staff.
So, what will the fall semester look like on college campuses? In this article, we discuss the various approaches schools will take to accommodate students while also preventing the spread of COVID-19. We’ll discuss:
Experts caution that a second wave of coronavirus infections is likely in the coming fall and winter. Many predict it will be more severe than the wave that claimed over 100,000 lives in the spring. Most agree that its impact will worsen as outside temperatures drop.
Many university and college campuses have reacted to these forecasts by modifying their academic calendars for the fall of 2020. They are calling students back to campus early—typically two to three weeks earlier than previously planned—canceling mid-semester breaks, and scheduling finals for the days preceding Thanksgiving. The idea is to get students off-campus for the Christmas-season holiday before the coldest winter arrives.
Other considerations are driving this strategy. Schools worry that every trip students take off and on campus increases their potential exposure to the virus and, thus, increases the risk they represent to others on campus. They are particularly concerned about students returning from a Thanksgiving break during which they would likely come into close contact with many family and friends. Ending the semester before Thanksgiving eliminates the risk of massive coronavirus outbreaks two weeks after Thanksgiving break, which coincides with the traditional finals period.
Some institutions are taking an even more creative approach. Beloit College in Wisconsin, for example, is dividing its traditional four-month semester into two seven-and-a-half-week mini-semesters. The idea is to create an agile framework so that the school can alter its strategies between terms if necessary. “If we needed to move away from campus, there would be a place, a pivot point in the semester where it’d be natural to move off campus,” Eric Boynton, the school’s provost, told Marketplace recently.
On May 30, the CDC issued guidelines for IHEs considering options for the fall semester. Noting that “IHEs vary considerably in geographic location, size, and structure” as well as in potential exposure to the virus, the CDC offers schools a range of options in terms of live classes and dormitory openings.
It does provide concrete guidance in several areas, however. Many schools appear set to adopt the CDC’s suggestions, which include:
Some schools are implementing measures beyond those recommended by the CDC. Chapman University, for example, is among the many schools that will mark doors and pathways one-way to reduce face-to-face encounters. The University of Virginia (Main Campus) will give students “Welcome Back Kits” that include two cloth face masks, hand sanitizer, and an L-shaped ‘touch tool’ for opening doors and pressing elevator buttons. University of Kentucky is considering requiring students to take their temperature daily and to record the results on a cellphone app that the school monitors.
While most students will be welcomed back to campus in the fall, what awaits them will be anything but a typical college experience. Not all schools are inviting students back, though; the entire California State University system, for one, will offer the vast majority of its academic content virtually this fall. Only classes where in-person attendance is integral to the course—e.g., clinical courses, science laboratory courses, art studios—will meet live, and then only under controlled conditions. McGill University, six of Harvard University‘s schools, and many community colleges have all announced similar approaches.
Few, if any, schools have committed to business-as-usual live classes this fall. Even those that may eventually hold conventional live classes are taking a wait-and-see approach. The obstacles to live classes are considerable. Schools will need to space students sufficiently, and then there are faculty concerns to consider. Many faculty are old enough to be at increased risk for the virus’s effects or have conditions that compromise their resistance to the disease, or live with people who meet one of those descriptions. They are understandably concerned about potential exposure.
Some schools are considering a hybrid class format. On May 28, Wichita State University announced that fall classes would include “limited in-person instruction, some synchronous online engagement (with participants meeting at the same time), and/or asynchronous content delivery (with participants engaging the materials independently).”
Others plan to implement a hybrid-flex format, or, as Biola University calls it, “the hy/flex model.” Under hy/flex, classes will be “adaptable for students who cannot be present for some or all of the semester” such as “global students whose visas may not allow them to start the first of the semester or students whose health situation may mandate a temporary on-campus quarantine…” Under hy/flex, a single class “may include students who are simultaneously in the classroom, connected via live web conference from their dorms and across the U.S. or abroad.” Classes will also be recorded for those who “experience significant time zone differences or limitations in accessing live web conference events.”
Schools aren’t shying away from even more innovative solutions. The University of Colorado Boulder is implementing a cohort system that will group freshmen by shared courses. These students will live together and attend classes together, minimizing the number of interactions they will have with other students.
Dormitories on most college campuses “will be nowhere near capacity,” US News & World Report explains. Social distancing protocols will require reduced occupancy of suites meant to be shared by many students. Limits to the number of students who can access a shared bathroom will also impact how many people can occupy a suite or dormitory floor. Some schools are in the process of renting apartments near campus to accommodate students who would normally live in on-campus housing.
Some schools will push capacities as far as they can. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill plans to operate its residences at normal capacity, explaining that its two-person living spaces shouldn’t significantly increase contagion. The school does plan to implement more frequent, more rigorous cleaning of common areas and restrooms.
One thing is for certain: buffet service and cramming students elbow-to-elbow at dining tables are out. Some schools will encourage students to choose grab-and-go meals; others will offer boxed food only. Those that allow dining on-premises will have to enforce distancing restrictions between diners; some will install protective screening such as sneeze guards. Some schools may limit dining room service to campus residents only.
Measures Duke University has implemented for its dining services include:
The NCAA has issued guidelines for the resumption of college athletics, but I would not get my hopes up. The chances of normal college athletics resuming in fall 2020 are slim; the chances that spectators will be allowed at the events are much slimmer. Likewise for parties, extracurricular clubs, concerts, and so many other events that make college life fun: unless they can be held under the CDC guidelines listed above, they’re likely not going to be allowed.
Schools are planning to open in the fall and are proceeding as though it is, indeed, going to happen. The variable in this equation, of course, is COVID-19. Absent a vaccine—which experts assure us won’t be available in time for the fall semester—those who lack immunity remain vulnerable to the virus. That means it could possibly resurge at any point, potentially forcing the world back into lockdown.
Coronavirus testing would help identify and thus help contain the virus and its spread. Schools hope to be able to implement widespread testing on campus this fall but may lack the resources to do so. Testing is expensive and requires equipment that is in high demand and, as a result, in short supply. Without the ability to test everyone, schools will have to rely on the self-reporting mechanisms described above to track potential outbreaks. Unfortunately, counting on college students to self-report bad news is probably not the most reliable failsafe.
(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)
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