With fall off to a sputtering start, colleges look ahead to spring

Table of Contents

Dive Brief:

  • As the fall term gets underway, several colleges have released plans for opening campuses and teaching classes this spring. 
  • The schools making announcements, which include the University of Connecticut and Pennsylvania State University, are largely offering online or hybrid instruction. 
  • Experts point to several factors that could influence colleges’ spring plans, including how the fall term goes, the state of the pandemic and state restrictions affecting campuses. 

Dive Insight:

Colleges are planning for the spring term with more scientific knowledge about the virus and greater awareness of how it is affecting their campuses than they had as they prepared for fall. 

Those factors, along with how colleges’ fall operational plans played out and the number of coronavirus cases in their areas, are expected to influence their spring approaches. Yet institutions’ financial positions are growing more perilous, with many having issued refunds for room, board and other fees while investing heavily in health and safety measures and online learning infrastructure. Some have also projected enrollment declines

“The larger the hit that colleges took in the fall, the more likely they will be to push for an in-person experience that brings student dollars back to campus,” said Robert Kelchen, a higher education professor at Seton Hall University, in New Jersey.

State requirements are another consideration. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, for instance, announced late last month that colleges must shift to remote instruction for two weeks if they have 100 campus cases or 5% of the population is found to be infected within a two-week period.

But setting state thresholds for college operations can be tricky and something only governors who are “really secure in their electoral position” are likely to do, Kelchen said. 

Colleges in New York state will use the fall term to see how the new state requirements impact their ability to offer instruction, particularly if they plan to increase testing.

“It gives us a very systematic way to make decisions,” said Nathan Daun-Barnett, chair of the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy at the State University of New York at Buffalo. Although the university is planning “for a spring that looks very much like the fall,” the first few weeks of the term will allow them to gauge whether that’s possible, Daun-Barnett said.

Colleges across the U.S. have responded to an uptick in campus cases by moving instruction online for a few weeks, with some asking high numbers of students to quarantine and even sending them home if necessary. A temporary shift to remote instruction could help schools get case numbers under control, experts say. 

Colleges also may delay the start of the spring term, buying time in the fight against the virus and letting them wait out some of flu season, Kelchen said, pointing to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s recent announcement that it wants to delay the start of the spring term by two weeks and eliminate spring break. It also intends to add an optional three-week session before the spring term starts, following a similar session already scheduled for the fall. The changes still need state regents’ approval

Making its decision early, Kelchen said, “gives the university and faculty time to plan some really interesting experiences for those three-week courses.”

Other schools to announce spring plans in recent days include State Center Community College District, in California, and Harrisburg Area Community College, in Pennsylvania. 

Colleges may have an easier time being decisive about their spring plans because fewer students start in the spring, meaning most have already committed to the institution, Kelchen said. Several colleges switched from in-person courses to remote instruction only a few weeks before the fall term started as a result of rising case counts in their areas. Others switched after the term had begun because of an uptick in campus cases. And some pundits have blamed last-minute decisions to concerns over losing students.

Daun-Barnett advises colleges to keep students, families and employees informed of the decision-making process.

“I think we should be cautious,” Daun-Barnett said. “But I think there’s a difference between making a hard and final decision and communicating effectively with the appropriate constituents.”

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