Colleges factor flexibility for students into fall reopening plans

Dive Brief:

  • Many colleges continue to announce plans to reopen campuses for the fall term, though potentially on a shortened or altered schedule, or with a mix of face-to-face and online classes.

  • Some institutions have said if they offer a hybrid model, they will allow students to choose whether to take their courses on or off campus.

  • Whether operations can resume, however, hinges on health conditions and government restrictions.

Dive Insight:

A major concern among college administrators is whether they will be able to reopen their campuses for the fall. Institutions have not been immune to the economic turbulence the pandemic has caused. Many have taken significant hits to their budgets. 

About two-thirds of institutions that have shared fall plans say they intend to restart campus operations, albeit with some limitations, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Those include requiring people to wear facemasks in public and reducing class sizes to maintain social distancing.

So far, the California State University System is the only major higher ed entity to say definitively that it will hold the majority of classes online this fall.

Some institutions are considering a blend of traditional and online classes. Boston University said Monday it would permit students to pick either. 

Students “now have the option to either be in the classroom in person or to participate remotely from their dorm room or off-campus home, and they can exercise that remote option at any time during the semester,” President Robert Brown said in a statement

Lasell University, a private college in Massachusetts, will give students similar flexibility, allowing them to take classes in-person or online, even if they opt to live on campus.

Other colleges have said they will adjust their academic calendars as a way to host in-person classes but avoid an anticipated second wave of the virus. The University of Notre Dame, a private Catholic institution in Indiana, said it will start classes in mid-August, two weeks ahead of schedule. The university will forgo a fall break, ending the semester before Thanksgiving.

The University of South Carolina, the state’s flagship, intends to follow a similar timetable, finishing in-person classes before Thanksgiving break, with students taking their final exams remotely. The University of Virginia also plans to wrap up in-person classes by Thanksgiving.

Other schools are dividing the term in half to give students time to travel to or from campus if needed.

Campus officials fear if they can’t restart traditional classes, they will lose students who are reluctant to pay regular tuition for online courses. Brown University President Christina Paxson opined for The New York Times in April that colleges that remain closed in the fall could lose as much as half their revenue.

“This loss, only a part of which might be recouped through online courses, would be catastrophic, especially for the many institutions that were in precarious financial positions before the pandemic,” Paxson wrote. Some colleges have also already been sued for tuition refunds, with students claiming they weren’t getting the experience they paid for after campus operations went remote this spring.

Paxson outlined ways campuses could open safely, many of which have been floated by other institutions: regularly testing for the virus, using technology-enabled contact tracing to reduce the spread of infection and isolating people who are infected. But this would likely prove too costly for some colleges, and coronavirus tests are not yet widely available.

A trio of college presidents, including Paxson, are set to testify before the Senate’s health and education committee Thursday about reopening campuses. They are expected to discuss options for campus administrators, as well as liability issues associated with the spread of coronavirus.

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