In March, as the coronavirus outbreak began to spread rapidly across the U.S., colleges sent students home and transitioned to online instruction for the rest of the semester. Now, as colleges wrap up classes and hold virtual graduation ceremonies, the question remains whether students can safely return to campuses in the fall.
Though public-health officials have cautioned that reopening businesses and schools too soon could lead to another wave of infections, colleges have huge financial incentives to resume in-person classes next semester. This spring, with sports seasons canceled and room-and-board payments refunded, universities lost billions of dollars in revenue. On top of that, a growing number of students have filed class-action lawsuits demanding tuition refunds, arguing that online instruction is far inferior to the in-person experience they thought they were paying for. And the American Council on Education, a higher-education trade group, has predicted that enrollment is likely to drop by 15 percent this fall.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, most colleges are currently planning to reopen for an in-person semester in the fall. However, like most aspects of society, the way they operate will look a lot different. Here’s what we know.
Which colleges plan to reopen?
This week, Notre Dame became one of the first large universities to announce detailed plans for resuming campus life in the fall. According to administrators, the school plans to start its fall semester two weeks early, on August 10, and end before Thanksgiving to reduce student travel. (The semester typically ends in December, meaning that many students travel back and forth over Thanksgiving break.) The University of South Carolina has announced a similar plan, saying the school will switch to remote instruction after Thanksgiving.
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, more than 400 colleges are currently planning to hold in-person classes in the fall. A smaller number of schools, including Princeton University, say it’s still too early to make a decision.
While the majority of colleges have said that they’re currently planning for in-person classes in the fall, not all schools will reopen. Last week, California State University, the country’s largest four-year public university system, said that classes at its 23 campuses would be held remotely. McGill University in Montreal made a similar announcement, and Harvard Medical School has said that its first-year students will start remotely in the fall.
How will life on campus be different for schools that do open in the fall?
As institutions that typically bring together hundreds or thousands of students and faculty in one place, colleges face similar challenges implementing social-distancing measures as K-12 schools. As in grade schools, students and faculty will be required to wear masks. It’s likely that desks in college classes will be spaced six feet apart, schedules may be staggered, and big lectures either split up or held online. A number of schools say they’re considering a “hybrid flex” model, where classes are simultaneously held in-person and online, allowing students to choose either option.
Administrators have acknowledged that colleges will need increased testing capacity in order to reopen safely, as students will be traveling to campus from all over the country. They will also need to set up systems to screen students for symptoms, and enable them to isolate if they become sick.
An additional challenge is how to safely house students in dorms. Some schools have said they will try to give every student their own room, while others are exploring the idea of creating pods of students who live together, and limiting their interaction with other groups. Schools may also limit travel off campus — and, like Notre Dame, may rearrange the fall calendar to avoid students traveling to and from campus for fall break.