As the novel coronavirus crisis drags on, the Jesuit university still has not declared whether, when or how it will bring its 19,000 students back to its D.C. campus overlooking the Potomac River. Fall plans are equally cloudy for several other colleges and universities in the nation’s capital and neighboring Maryland and Virginia.
Their caution contrasts with aggressive moves elsewhere toward reopening, with schools such as the University of Notre Dame in Indiana and the University of South Carolina declaring that they will teach in person starting in August.
More than two months after the pandemic forced the abrupt dispersal of college students nationwide, the resumption of campus life in the Washington region is shaping up to be a delicate and complex operation. Plans may not be fully revealed until well into June or even July.
“Everybody would love to snap back to fall 2019, right? And that isn’t possible," said Katherine A. Rowe, president of the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. “What is possible is using the best evidence we have to understand what fall 2020 could be.”
The public university, with about 8,800 students, is gaming out how to bring them back to campus — “as long as it’s safe,” Rowe said. She expects to announce details by mid-June. “Coming back to campus for us is really coming to a year in which all of us are learning to adapt under pandemic conditions.”
The challenges colleges face vary depending on whether schools are urban or rural, small or large, mostly residential or entirely not, according to interviews with several of the region’s higher education leaders. Some leaders fear declining enrollment if they don’t fully reopen. That would intensify a fiscal emergency caused by the public health crisis.
Montgomery College, which serves more than 21,000 commuter students in Maryland, disclosed in mid-May that it will continue to teach remotely when the fall term begins. DeRionne P. Pollard, president of the community college, said her students and faculty needed to know. She said there were too many unknowns about safety and logistics to promise a reopening date for campuses in Rockville, Germantown and Takoma Park/Silver Spring.
“Our hypothesis is that it’s easier for us to start with remote teaching and learning,” Pollard said, and then switch to in-person classes when conditions permit. The opposite scenario ― starting face-to-face but shutting campuses again if the virus surges anew — would be “very disruptive,” she said. “It creates chaos for students.”
Prince George’s Community College, with about 12,000 students, is considering the possibility of remaining virtual next semester, but face-to-face instruction could be an option in certain programs, said spokeswoman Courtney L. Davis. Northern Virginia Community College, with more than 50,000 students, said it is waiting for guidance from state authorities.
Leaders of the region’s colleges and universities are relying heavily on direction from D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D). Without their backing, reopening a campus is essentially impossible, although Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. challenged Northam’s guidance this spring in Virginia.
In the District, 9,000-student Howard University is weighing a fall mix of face-to-face and virtual courses that would end before Thanksgiving. The school might then send students home for a mini-semester of online classes designed to help the campus avoid problems if the virus resurges at the same time as the flu season.
“The two months of most concern are December and February,” said Howard President Wayne A.I. Frederick. The historically black university must take into account that covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, has struck the African American community particularly hard, Frederick said. Howard might have a delayed spring semester that ends by Memorial Day 2021. Frederick plans to offer final guidance by mid-July.
George Washington University, with 28,000 students, is planning to resume in person on Aug. 31 at its Foggy Bottom campus near the White House. But President Thomas J. LeBlanc told faculty members recently that the school is considering various scenarios, including an entirely remote semester and a mix of online and face-to-face learning.
John Garvey, president of 6,000-student Catholic University, said he plans to bring students, faculty and staff members back in the fall. But he is focusing on safety measures for large classrooms, communal bathrooms in dormitories and dining halls. “People are talking about taking temperature checks the way some airlines are doing now,” Garvey said. “We’re working out the details of those things.”
The public University of the District of Columbia, with 4,200 students, may invite them back in groups, with some receiving in-person instruction while others take classes online, said UDC chief academic officer Lawrence T. Potter Jr.
Trinity Washington, Georgetown and American universities have not yet set plans.
“We do hope to be able to announce something by mid-June,” said Trinity Washington President Patricia McGuire, whose school has about 1,800 students. She cautioned that campuses are likely to open up in phases. “This idea of reopening as a light switch is ridiculous,” she said. Many of her students, McGuire said, prefer remote instruction for now.
The University of Maryland is deliberating how to reopen in College Park for 41,000 students. Senior U-Md. officials declined to be interviewed. But the university pointed to a virtual town hall event held in early May.
“Let me emphasize this is a very gradual, careful process,” U-Md. President Wallace D. Loh told the university community. “We turn on one faucet at a time. We don’t open the floodgates.” Loh, who is retiring this summer, said he recently received an email from a longtime professor worried about the risk of falling ill with covid-19 if she returns to the classroom too soon.
“Because I don’t want to leave my two daughters alone in the world,” the professor wrote, according to Loh. The U-Md. president said: “That really, really hit home to me.”
Mary Ann Rankin, U-Md.'s provost, noted the challenges of maintaining physical distance for public health reasons in a lecture hall. The largest classroom on campus seats more than 500, Rankin said, but social distancing would bring that total down to barely more than 50. "We haven’t worked this out yet,” she said.
Jay A. Perman, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, which oversees U-Md. and 14 other universities and regional centers, told The Washington Post that he expects to announce system plans by May 29. “There will be at least some in-person instruction,” he said. “It will probably be coupled to varying degrees with distance learning.” He even raised the possibility that students might sit together in a classroom while a professor is connected remotely.
University of Virginia leaders have said they expect to announce plans in mid-June for their 24,000 students.
In Northern Virginia, the public George Mason University, with 37,000 students, intends to have "face-to-face instruction to the extent that we can safely do so,” said Anne Holton, GMU interim president. Officials are identifying spaces on campus where sick students could be isolated and figuring out when and where students and faculty members should be required to wear masks.
Virginia Commonwealth University, with 30,000 students in Richmond, has taken one of the region’s most aggressive stances. “Following public health planning and proper safety protocols, I am committed to an in-person fall semester in which we are back together in our classrooms, laboratories, studios, and clinics on both campuses,” President Michael Rao wrote to the university community in late April.
Analysts warn that optimistic declarations may not come to pass.
“Higher education will be one of the last industries to resume business as usual, because of concerns with social distancing, contact tracing, and the intermingling of younger students and older faculty and staff members,” Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, wrote on May 18 in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “This means that a full reopening of most colleges in the fall almost certainly won’t happen.”