Dive Brief:

  • About half of college presidents say it’s “very likely” they will resume in-person classes for the coming term, according to a new American Council on Education (ACE) survey of 310 college leaders. 

  • In order to restart operations, about two-thirds of presidents with on-campus housing say they plan to set up a space to quarantine students. More than half of all respondents said they will require masks to be worn on campus.

  • The results come as institutions mull whether current and projected public health conditions and access to testing supplies will enable them to begin the new academic year in person.

Dive Insight:

As most colleges wind down the academic year with classes online, their leaders’ attention has turned to whether they will be able to reopen campuses in the fall, when health experts predict a second wave of the virus.

A majority of the institutions that have announced their fall plans say they intend to resume face-to-face classes. But they have couched those statements, saying they can only reopen campus if local and state and restrictions have been lifted. A coronavirus vaccine is not expected by the fall.

Colleges are already bracing for reductions in state support and other revenue, and some fear they will lose students, and money, if they continue instruction remotely. Some institutions have been sued for tuition refunds, with students claiming the quality of education they received online this spring was not on par with the campus experience they were promised.

ACE’s survey confirms the plans executives have been sharing publicly. Their top two concerns are meeting enrollment goals and reopening campuses in the fall, though most think it’s at least somewhat likely they will start the academic year with in-person classes. 

Only 1% of respondents said they have decided not to restart classes on campus. The California State University System is the largest higher ed entity so far to announce that most classes will remain online in the fall. 

The trend differs for two-year colleges. Fewer than 40% of presidents at those schools said they would “very likely” start the academic year in-person, compared to 53% of all leaders who said the same. Five percent of two-year college presidents said they have decided not to restart fall classes on campus.

Nearly 60% of the presidents told ACE they would announce their plans by June 30, with more than 20% saying they would decide by the end of May. A small share said they would announce their decision by the end of July.

About half of the 230 presidents with on-campus housing said their institution would “very likely” offer it this fall. But whether campus dormitories will look the same in the fall is unclear.

The University of California System floated the idea of reopening between a third and half of their dormitories, according to the Los Angeles Times, limiting how many students could live on campus. Some schools, such as Spring Hill College, in Alabama, have assured students they will be housed in single rooms at no extra cost.

Launching campus operations under the continued threat of the virus is far from simple, and may cost colleges significantly. Slightly fewer than half of the presidents said they plan to provide faculty and staff with personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face masks. Some 40% of respondents said they were still considering whether they would provide such gear. More than a third of presidents said they want to give PPE to students, while just over half are still deciding. 

A third also said they intend to require coronavirus testing throughout the year, and a similar share said they will demand regular temperature screenings for students. While many colleges include on-campus testing in their reopening strategy, it is not widely available and can prove costly for them.

And although they want to restart on-campus classes, more than 60% of presidents surveyed said they would allow some faculty and staff to work remotely. The same percentage said they would limit class sizes to maintain social distancing

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