It’s safe to say college will be a very different experience for students this fall than what they imagined. But right now, that’s pretty much all they can be sure of.
As the coronavirus pandemic swept the country this spring, colleges almost uniformly moved students from lecture halls and dorms to virtual classrooms and quarters cramped with family. But with the fall semester looming, college officials’ plans are varying widely.
The California State University system plans to deliver classes primarily online for fall 2020. At the University of Notre Dame, officials are planning for students to return to campus on August 10 — two weeks earlier than typical — and for them to continue without breaks until Thanksgiving. The fall semester will begin as scheduled on Aug. 26 at the University of Texas at Austin, and classes will run until Thanksgiving. Students will not return after Thanksgiving and, instead, will participate in reading days and final exams remotely. New York University and Boston College have said they intend to open their campuses this fall, subject to government health directives.
Overall, roughly 68% of colleges are planning for in-person instruction this fall, compared to 6% who are planning for an online fall semester and 6% who have said they would do some kind of hybrid, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking these announcements.
But students could face a long wait for definitive answers on how their fall will look. Many colleges are likely avoiding big pronouncements about their plans as a way to sustain enrollment, said Catherine Bond Hill, managing director at Ithaka S + R, which consults with universities and nonprofits, and the president emerita of Vassar College. If families get wind that their college is going solely online in the fall, students may be hesitant to enroll.
When students and faculty scattered in the spring, “everybody was hopeful things would be back to normal in the summer and that things would be back to normal in the fall,” she said. “The reality is that we just don’t know enough yet.”
Given that uncertainty, “the only decision you can really make now that you can commit to is that you’re going to be online,” she said.
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As college officials weigh their options, they’re considering a variety of factors. Of course, the health and safety of their students, faculty and staff is top of mind, but finances are also likely playing a role. If a college chooses to go online and loses students as a result, they also lose the revenue that comes with them. Even if students do still enroll in an online environment, the schools will forgo the money they receive from residence halls and dining facilities. At the same time, taking the precautions necessary to open up safely will also be costly.
“One of the greatest things about a university is that it’s a living and a learning environment for students who come from all over, internally and nationally, and they live, and work, and play on a campus,” said Jean Chin, an associate clinical professor of medicine at the University of Georgia, who is also chairing the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 task force. “It’s one of the great advantages but it’s one of the great challenges too because this virus requires you to be physically distant from each other.”
Lawrence Schovanec, the president of Texas Tech University, is in the process of nailing down the details of a physically distant, in-person university experience. He announced last month that Texas Tech will be doing a phased-in return to campus this fall.
“That really means when the students come back to campus it’s not going to be the same experience they left in the spring,” he said. Schovanec and other officials are working through the specifics of what that will look like. They’re considering issues ranging from how to move pedestrians through campus without crowding, to whether to adjust dismissal times for classes to reduce the number of people walking through hallways at once, to how they might deal with residence halls. As of last week, dorms looked like they would be booked to nearly 100% capacity, but “we can’t have that,” Schovanec said.
The school has already determined protocols for how it will let researchers back to campus — there will be temperature checks and closed water fountains, among other restrictions — but officials are still not yet sure what exactly the experience will be like for students. Texas Tech’s provost solicited from every department details on how they plan to deliver their courses and how the school proceeds will depend in part on those plans.
Right now, Schovanec said he expects that 25% of the courses offered will be face-to-face, about 25% will be offered purely online and 50% will be offered in some kind of hybrid. “You have to look at every classroom and we’re allowing a certain number of square feet per student,” he said. “If you were to do that and comply with CDC guidelines a rough estimate would be that we would be at 25% capacity of the room.”
The idea that students might choose not to enroll at Texas Tech for the semester if the school went fully online in the fall factored into the school’s plans, Schovanec said. “I believe that when students choose an institution they become tied to an institution by virtue of the culture of that institution, not just what happens in the classroom and that culture is developed and conveyed through personal interactions,” he said. “I heard from students and from parents, ‘I didn’t choose Texas Tech to sit at home to be taking online courses.’”
The school is projected to lose an estimated $20 million in revenue this spring and summer because of the move to a virtual-only campus. Most of the loss is related to not charging fees associated with being on campus. Enrollment numbers currently appear strong and the school has budgeted for enrollment decreases, but a drop of more than 20% would require the school to take “drastic measures,” Schovanec said. He said he’s also cognizant that some parents may be hesitant to send their students to school in this environment, which is why officials are thinking through how they plan to communicate their safety plans to families.
For years, colleges have been under financial pressure thanks to losses in state funding, demographic trends that portend declining enrollment, and other factors. The pandemic has exacerbated those challenges, said Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. Colleges are likely to be forgoing tuition revenue and losing out on state funding and fundraising as the economic devastation from the pandemic continues. Colleges have a financial incentive to open up to counter the losses they’ve already experienced and likely will continue to see, Kelchen said.
But opening up schools safely will be costly too. Chin’s task force has offered schools a slew of recommendations for reopening that include access to potentially expensive testing supplies, masks, and physical changes to facilities, like installing plexi-glass walls around some public desks. To open safely, colleges will also need space to isolate infected students or employees.
Other costs could include cleaning facilities, hiring more faculty to help reduce class sizes, and extending hours for research labs so that employees can stagger their time, Kelchen said. “All of those little unseen costs,” he said. Schovanec said he’s not yet sure of the costs of the safety measures his school will take. “When it comes to these issues that relate to safety we suspend the concern of the cost,” he said.