Uncertain when campuses can open, colleges make their fall plans flexible

Residential colleges are scrambling to get and provide clarity as to how the COVID-19 pandemic might alter their educational offerings. This guesswork involves questions such as whether campuses will even be allowed to reopen in the fall — and if so, what sorts of changes ought to be implemented to ensure they can operate regardless of how the virus pans out. 

None can say for sure whether in-person learning will resume in the fall. For one, the novel coronavirus is far more unpredictable than, say, the flu. Although the body of research on COVID-19 is growing, it remains slippery; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is regularly tweaking its advisories amid the steady trickle of new findings. The virus’s uneven trajectory across the U.S. further complicates matters. Come fall, the best practices — and stipulations — in one state or locale might look vastly different from those in another. Plus, residential colleges may face unique restrictions given how many people they house in confined spaces.

“There’s a great deal of speculation about everything,” said Terry Hartle, the American Council on Education’s senior vice president of government and public affairs. “When you’re in the middle of a hurricane, it’s hard to see what things are going to look like” after it passes. 

Despite the uncertainty, most residential colleges say they intend to reopen their campuses in a few months. They face immense pressure to assure their constituents that some semblance of normalcy will resume even as they extend deposit deadlines, forfeit auxiliary revenue and brace for potential tuition refunds, among other demands. 

In an effort to set expectations, college leaders are developing open-ended contingency plans, convening task forces focused on areas ranging from building security to personal protective equipment. As a Plan B, many are adapting at least a portion of students’ coursework — and elements of campus life, such as clubs and events — to remote platforms. Others are restructuring the academic term. Some are experimenting with a combination of these strategies. 

“Every institution I talk to is planning for multiple scenarios while hoping for the best,” Hartle said. 

A wide range of strategies

All that planning was largely speculative — until last Tuesday, when California State University’s chancellor announced the 23-campus system will keep most classes online in the fall. McGill University, in Canada, made a similar announcement last week.

Many schools and systems have asked faculty to prepare for the possibility of teaching online this fall. Still others, including Indiana’s Purdue University, are confident campus will reopen, with some modifications for safety. 

Some schools are adjusting the parameters of their fall term or recalibrating their pedagogy to accommodate a variety of scenarios.

Michigan Technological University has developed what it calls a “flex” plan that President Richard Koubek said will enable students to return to the Upper Peninsula campus “as quickly as possible in a safe manner.” While the research-centric institution plans to resume in-person learning for the fall semester, it’s prepared to provide instruction virtually, perhaps keeping the lecture portion online while holding labs in person. 

This instructional remixing is accompanied by adjustments to the academic calendar, which many higher ed leaders cited as one of the few factors they can control. “If you stand back and look,” said Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University, “we can take any one of the pieces of the system and put it under a microscope and say, ‘Does this really make sense?'” Southern New Hampshire is offering all incoming freshmen a full-tuition scholarship for the 2020-21 year, allowing them to participate in campus life while taking classes virtually. 

Some colleges are exploring the idea of Saturday classes as a way to help space out students in a course to comply with social distancing requirements. Michigan Tech’s faculty senate recently voted to move the institution’s calendar up by a few days. In the event the campus must close for a portion of the semester, Koubek said, the early start will build in time to put classes on hold for students to travel to, or from, their dorms. 

Wisconsin’s Beloit College has adopted a module-based semester that condenses courses into roughly seven-week terms, with students taking just two classes at a time. The structure gives the private liberal arts college flexibility to switch to or from remote learning without disrupting their coursework. For students, the decision offers some certainty about what to expect this fall.

Eric Boynton, Beloit’s provost and dean, said officials wanted to avoid “a nuclear option” that would limit their ability to change course. “We decided, ‘OK … What’s the thing we can control, that can bring confidence, in what is an utterly uncertain time?'”

Keeping students engaged

Much of the timetable reimagining is driven by retaining as much of the campus experience as possible. Students at residential institutions place a premium on what they get outside of the classroom. In some cases, they are suing to recoup spring tuition, alleging schools are overcharging in light of the move off campus. 

Michelle Samuels-Jones, vice president for student success at higher education consulting firm Credo, applauded institutions that have created virtual student centers and facilitated events such as remote lunch gatherings, Instagram concerts and Netflix parties. 

Then there’s the physical-space question, which amid social-distancing concerns may require institutions to repurpose facilities such as gyms and auditoriums into lecture halls where students can sit farther apart. To ensure students aren’t overly clustered in dorms and dining halls, they might have to limit who can live on campus so fewer people are sharing dorm spaces. Grab-and-go distribution points for meals may also be required. 

“We decided, ‘OK … What’s the thing we can control, that can bring confidence, in what is an utterly uncertain time?'”

Eric Boynton

Provost and dean, Beloit College

These strategies will only fulfill their purpose if students buy in to the social-distancing requirements and are willing to forgo certain aspects of the campus experience. Beloit has tapped a team of students to develop “living principles” that will outline how the institution’s community will coexist on campus amid the pandemic. 

Southern New Hampshire has similarly asked prospective recipients of the full-tuition scholarship this fall to help the institution reinvent its campus-based education, giving those students “a direct hand in what their experience will be” in subsequent years, LeBlanc said. The megauniversity, which serves refugees in five countries, has also charged the team that works with those students to write a report outlining what kinds of remote instruction they’ve found most effective. Students who are refugees often have poor internet access, among other technology issues. The university will weigh that feedback in its pandemic plan to make sure all students, especially those who are disadvantaged, can easily access classes away from campus.

Residential colleges won’t be able to replicate every nuance of the on-campus experience, but they can take steps to ensure students are engaged, particularly those who are historically disadvantaged. “What are the greatest needs for fill-in-the-blank population?” Samuels-Jones asked, encouraging colleges to focus resources around those needs. 

The classroom is just one component of the college experience, she said. “The engagement — the community, the psychological sense of belonging, the affirmation, the way ‘I’m connected to and through people’ — is as critical.”

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