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American University to offer more in-person classes, but remain mostly online in spring

American University will add more in-person classes and expand on-campus housing next semester. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

American University will double the number of classes it offers in person next semester, though the majority of spring courses will still be online, the school’s president announced Monday.

The university also plans to increase on-campus housing.

“We intend to ramp up activity as we carefully monitor the fundamental indicators of the pandemic and evolving public health conditions,” AU President Sylvia M. Burwell said in an email to the campus. Among the factors the university will consider: local and national coronavirus case counts, the availability of testing, public health guidelines and the operating status of area K-12 schools.

While the announcement squashes hopes of a quick return to normal, the university is making an effort to bring some semblance of pre-pandemic life back to campus, Burwell said.

The number of in-person ­classes to be offered in the spring was not immediately available. But face-to-face course offerings will expand for students in the sciences, visual and performing arts, media studies and other areas, Burwell said.

The university will also encourage faculty and students to collaborate in person next semester, opening additional rooms and buildings for small group meetings and permitting professors to lead field trips throughout the District.

On-campus housing will also grow, and officials are considering offering a residential “mini-mester,” where several hundred first-year students live on campus during the second half of the semester. Just 29 students with special circumstances were permitted to live on campus during the fall.

Since the semester started in August, the school has reported 26 cases of the novel coronavirus on or around campus, university data shows. Testing will be expanded for the spring semester, Burwell said.

The new semester will bring scheduling adjustments: Classes will begin Jan. 19, one week later than normal, and spring break has been scrapped to avoid the travel and social gatherings that traditionally come with it.

Tuition discounts offered during the fall semester will continue — 10 percent for undergraduate and graduate students and 5 percent for law school students.

The university is considering improvements to remote learning, including helping students get breaks in screen time throughout the day, finding the right balance between live and prerecorded lessons, and making accommodations for students in different time zones.

Burwell indicated the university’s plan is fluid. The roughly three months before the semester starts leaves plenty of time for the situation surrounding the pandemic to change dramatically, as was seen during the summer months when universities made last-minute alterations to their reopening plans.

“As we have learned throughout the pandemic, we face a complex situation that can change rapidly and offers no simple answers,” Burwell said. “Our creative approach reflects this reality, with a variety of elements that can be scaled based on evolving conditions.”

AU joins a handful of D.C. schools in declaring its spring semester plans. George Washington University announced early this month that it would remain mostly online. Trinity Washington University shared plans to continue offering a mix of in-person, online and hybrid courses.

“We know the pandemic will still be with us; what we don’t know is whether it will be in a surge or diminishing,” said Pat McGuire, president of Trinity. “Spring 2021 will look a lot like Fall 2020, but with improvements as we learn more about what works and what needs to change.”

Officials at Georgetown University said they will share their initial plan for the spring by Nov. 16.

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