Colleges walk back their fall plans as coronavirus cases spike

Dive Brief: 

  • As the pandemic worsens, more colleges are ditching plans for in-person instruction this fall in favor of a mostly virtual term. 
  • At least six colleges have announced in the past week that they’re planning for a remote term after previously indicating they might bring students back to campus. 
  • They join others including the University of Southern California, which changed its fall plans at the beginning of July. Higher education experts expect more reversals to follow over the next few weeks. 

Dive Insight: 

Confirmed coronavirus infections have surged in the last few weeks as parts of the country have reopened, with new cases rising by at least 10% in 37 states last week, according to an Axios analysis. The crisis is likely to continue into the fall term, as changing that trajectory could take weeks, according to some public health experts. 

In the wake of these developments, several colleges have publicly reversed their plans to reopen campus this fall. In some cases, they’re limiting in-person classes to those that can’t be replicated virtually and welcoming back only select students. 

“The closer we get to the start of school, the more schools are going to panic and start to become more conservative with their plans,” said Katie Felten, a data and policy analyst with Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative (C2i), which is tracking institutions’ responses to the pandemic. 

Dickinson College, a private liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, announced Wednesday that it was walking back its decision to welcome students on campus in the fall.

“In early June, when we announced our decision to bring students back, COVID-19 cases were on the decline across the country,” Margee Ensign, the college’s president, wrote in a message to the campus. “This unprecedented situation has changed significantly since that decision.” 

The college had planned to test all students and employees for the coronavirus upon their return to campus, with results expected in about two days. However, a testing company told Dickinson that it would now likely take five to seven days, Ensign wrote in her message. 

Similar issues could unravel other schools’ fall plans. “Colleges are beginning to realize that their plans are reliant on supplies,” said Chris Marsicano, C2i’s founding director. “As COVID-19 cases go up and as tests are needed in our hospitals, … colleges then don’t get access to the tests that they need.”

Moreover, Pennsylvania is asking people to quarantine for 14 days if they’re traveling from states with a high number of coronavirus cases, including Texas and California. An estimated 300 Dickinson students would have been impacted by the notice. 

Two other institutions in the state, East Stroudsburg and West Chester universities, also recently announced that they were abandoning plans for a more in-person fall. 

Other schools to do so are located in especially hard-hit areas. Occidental College, a private liberal arts college in Los Angeles, told students it’s scrapping plans to bring students back to campus as the city again shuts down businesses to curb the spread of the virus. 

“Regrettably, the pandemic has taken a turn for the worse in Los Angeles County,” Occidental President Harry Elam Jr. said in a message to the campus. The county reported 4,244 new coronavirus cases Tuesday, its largest single-day increase yet. 

Loyola University Chicago has likewise walked back its fall plans, citing concerns from faculty and staff that an in-person semester could put the campus at risk. 

Although Rhodes College, in Tennessee, also planned to reopen campus this fall, it announced this week it couldn’t do so in light of deteriorating health conditions in the surrounding community. “All along, we have known that this was a possibility and we have waited until the last practical moment to assess it,” Rhodes President Marjorie Hass said in the announcement.

The college is cutting tuition by 9% in recognition “that a remote semester cannot replicate the full on-campus experience,” she added. 

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