What’s Next: How long will colleges have flexibility to offer online classes due to coronavirus?

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Colleges have been moving classes online in droves to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

At first, school officials said they’d reassess the need to continue remote instruction after a few weeks. Federal agencies and accreditors afforded them some flexibility to do that, loosening rules that would typically guide how colleges use distance learning. 

But those couple of weeks could become months, experts say, as the coronavirus situation in the U.S. intensifies. That raises new questions for colleges, both about how long they’ll be afforded lenience from federal regulators and accreditors and about the extent to which they should be keeping track of what they’re doing differently. 

“Institutions are making some very rapid changes right now and all of those changes are happening under flexibility that is temporary,” said Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher ed policy at New America. While colleges may be in emergency mode, she added, “we need to be thinking further down the line.”

Colleges would be smart to document those changes, she said, adding that the U.S. Department of Education should require schools to report what they’re doing. Accreditors are also in a position to ask colleges to show their work, she noted, though their guidance has ranged widely. 

Representatives from the handful of regional accreditors Education Dive spoke with said that so far, they’re trying to stay out of colleges’ way. For their part, accreditors couldn’t have kept up with the glut of substantive change proposals institutions would have otherwise had to submit as they took programs online, said Barbara Brittingham, president of the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE). 

“It would have been a nightmare,” she said.

In a statement posted on its website as of Friday afternoon, NECHE wrote that it knows institutions are changing their academic calendars and instructional delivery modes, and that they appreciate hearing about what they’re doing.

While the group hasn’t asked for specific reports from schools, it has been getting a lot of them, Brittingham​ said. Conversations with colleges have covered how they are making the changes, what issues were raised and what questions remain, in order to get a sense of how they are balancing doing what they need to do with providing quality instruction. 

Other accreditors, such as the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges, are asking the colleges they oversee for more specific details. The Higher Learning Commission is also asking schools to notify it of changes they are making.

The U.S. Department of Education issued guidance earlier this month saying accreditors could drop some requirements for approving changes to programs that had to be moved online due to the coronavirus while remaining eligible for Title IV funding. It clarified that guidance this week, adding more details about how it would treat different scenarios and noting that the allowances cover students who enroll in payment periods that begin on or before June 1. It also is temporarily waiving steps accreditors would have needed to take to develop and enact new policies.

While the flexibility has certainly been a boon for colleges needing to quickly move online, minimal guidance from the Education Department so far as to how schools and accreditors are expected to keep track of the changes being made could prove problematic later on, some observers say. Without that knowledge, it could be hard for the department to understand how the flexibility they granted was used.

“Transparency is going to be really important here,” said Antoinette Flores, director of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress. 

‘We don’t know what’s going to happen’

Whether colleges or their accreditors will be required to share more information about how they are adapting programs is yet to be determined. Timing is one factor, said Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher ed at Seton Hall University.

If the crisis is over in a few weeks, Kelchen said, the Education Department may just forgive whatever happened. “If this goes on for months, or say, into the fall, then there may be a more rigorous process put into place,” he said, though he notes the department has limited resources to do that sort of a follow-up. 

Based on assessments from U.S. public health officials, a longer horizon is more likely, though the timing depends on a range of factors including how willing people are to abide by social distancing measures. (While colleges were among the first movers to close down to help prevent the spread of the virus, that mindset hasn’t followed some students into spring break.)

Kelchen gives colleges about two to four weeks before they “are going to think about normalizing” the situation. By then, he added, we’ll have a better sense of how long the crisis will last. “That’s also a point where much of the work in terms of stabilizing this academic term will be done.”

The Education Department didn’t respond to questions Education Dive emailed Friday asking for more details about if and when schools and accreditors would be required to share more information about the changes they are making.

Judith Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, said the organization plans to take stock of the situation at the end of the academic year. That includes talking with accreditors and deciding if a more permanent intervention with regard to its or the department’s standards is necessary.

“It’s hard because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” Eaton said. “We don’t know when a governor or mayor is going to say, ‘Open the schools.’ … We’ve got an immediate situation — let’s deal with it, but let’s be mindful that we are going to have to take additional steps in the future.” 

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