Over the last two months, the specter of the novel coronavirus loomed for colleges and universities in the U.S., though they were largely unaffected save for some that had to close international campuses and cancel study abroad trips. 

In the last week, however, the dynamic has shifted as the virus and the respiratory infection it causes, COVID-19, spreads in the U.S. On Wednesday, officials at the World Health Organization said the situation is now a pandemic. 

Dozens of colleges in the U.S. are canceling in-person classes and events and are taking instruction online. Some institutions are even asking students to leave campus, telling them it’s uncertain when they’ll be able to return. (For more details on cancellations, see this crowd-sourced list created by Bryan Alexander, a researcher and senior scholar at Georgetown University.)

Federal agencies, including the education and homeland security departments, have relaxed their rules for how online platforms can be used to deliver instruction. Several other organizations have shared tips for preparing for a potential outbreak on campus, quickly shifting instruction online and ensuring technology platforms can handle more frequent use. The academic community has also developed a list of colleges’ online teaching resources.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance on best practices for colleges and universities that have confirmed cases of COVID-19 on campus, and for those that do not. 

Moving classes online and closing campuses raises important questions of equity and access to education that colleges shouldn’t overlook. Not all students have a place to stay or access to meals if dorms and dining halls close, and travel home may be unaffordable for others. (The CDC recommends colleges maintain access to food and housing for students who need it.) Similarly, students may lack reliable internet access away from campus. 

Some colleges are taking these factors into consideration with their response to the coronavirus. Berea College, in Kentucky, is asking students to leave campus by Saturday, March 14 if they are able. The college is also stopping instruction on Friday, “because most students will have left campus and not all will have internet access,” its president, Lyle Roelofs, wrote to the campus on Tuesday. 

Other institutions canceling in-person classes are keeping their campuses open so students can use the internet and technology resources, as well as access dining and housing.

It’s too early to determine what effect the decisive shift to online instruction will have on institutions’ use of such platforms once concerns about the virus subside. However, ed tech experts suggest the situation could raise the importance of remote learning in contingency plans and give momentum to schools thinking about offering more online instruction.

We will continue to update this page as we report on the impact of the coronavirus on campuses across the country. Do you have a question or topic we should look into? Let us know.

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