“The quality of education, it’s just not the same,” said Eric Lipka, a sophomore majoring in government at Georgetown University. The 19-year-old from Connecticut is taking remote classes from an apartment in Jacksonville, Fla., as the Jesuit university in the nation’s capital is teaching mainly online. Lipka who said the forced regimen of education at a distance is taking a toll in terms of academics and mental health, might take the next semester off.
“I chose Georgetown for the resources available on campus,” Lipka said. “The city of D.C. and what it provides. Not having access to any of that is a hindrance, I believe, to my progress.”
Georgetown expects to announce its spring plans on Monday. About 500 students with special circumstances live on campus now. Officials say they might be able to accommodate more, but they have ruled out returning to normal levels of in-person activity at the 19,500-student university for the rest of the school year.
“I can appreciate the disappointment that comes with the virtual learning environment and the desire for a physical connection to our campus home,” Georgetown President John J. DeGioia said last month in a video message. “Particularly for those who are new members of our community. This is not how any of us would like to be operating.”
Higher education leaders are caught in a vise. They are eager to move toward normalcy, and thereby secure tuition and housing revenue in a perilous fiscal climate. But they are also fearful of public health missteps that could hasten the spread of a virus responsible for the deaths of at least 243,000 people in the United States.
As of September, about 37 percent of four-year colleges were running fully or primarily online, according to data from a crisis-monitoring initiative at Davidson College in North Carolina. About 34 percent were teaching primarily or fully in person. Most of the rest had a mixed approach, known as hybrid learning.
Some schools that opened up significantly were quickly overwhelmed by the virus and forced to scale back or pause in-person instruction. Others that brought sizable shares of students to campus, including Duke, Cornell and Purdue universities, have avoided shutdowns. There is growing consensus that widespread and frequent viral testing can help identify potential clusters of infection early enough to stop the spread.
“We have templates of this working,” said Christopher R. Marsicano, an assistant professor of the practice of higher education at Davidson.
Johns Hopkins University said Nov. 2 that it would bring undergraduates to its main campus in Baltimore for in-person classes in the spring term and test them for the virus twice a week.
Many students at other schools who are unable to live on campus are growing restless.
Jonathan Sewell, 20, a sophomore at George Washington University, eats whatever his parents prepare for dinner. His school is in the District of Columbia, but he takes classes online from his childhood bedroom in Lynchburg, Va., and studies alone.
Meanwhile, Sewell’s twin, Christopher, a sophomore at the University of Lynchburg, lives on that school’s campus and can study in the library.
“I wish I was in a dorm with my friends. He has all his friends around,” Jonathan Sewell said of his brother. “It seems that his school is listening to students about their opinions, whereas GW is hearing our complaints, then saying, ‘We hear you, but we don’t care.’ ”
The university, which has about 500 students on campus, is teaching remotely. Last month, GWU said it would expand the student presence modestly but continue teaching mostly online. Officials say an additional 1,100 students have applied for spring housing and will move to the Foggy Bottom campus next semester. That’s far fewer than the roughly 6,500 who would ordinarily live in university housing.
GWU’s decision shocked many families.
“We understood why they decided to pull back in the fall,” said Samara Ghougassian, of Duluth, Ga., whose son is in his first year at GWU. “There was so much unknown.”
But since then, she said, other universities have shown that residential education can succeed. “We want our freshmen students to be given as much of the freshman experience as possible, and watching them be denied that . . . it’s just not right,” Ghougassian said.
Experts say caution is warranted because the pandemic remains dangerous and unpredictable. Lynn Goldman, dean of GWU’s School of Public Health, said the university wants to avoid sending students home abruptly.
“We don’t want to find ourselves in a position where we have created the environment where the virus can go out of control and then we have to take a drastic measure like that, which we are seeing in many other instances,” Goldman said.
Elsewhere in Washington, Catholic University and Trinity Washington University have each housed some students this fall and taught some in-person classes. American University is delivering classes online but plans to invite more students to campus next semester and expand in-person teaching. The University of the District of Columbia, which is teaching remotely, has not yet announced spring plans.
Howard University, in a message to students, said it will continue teaching remotely and introduce at least two mental health days — time off that will hopefully mitigate some of the stress around virtual learning — officials said. The school will make a decision about bringing more students back to campus by Sunday.
Kylie Burke, 20, a junior at Howard, said the remote fall has robbed the university community of the chance to gather for landmark occasions such as the election of Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) as vice president. Harris is a graduate of Howard.
“We haven’t been able to truly, fully celebrate everything that’s going on,” said Burke, who is living off campus in D.C. But she worries that a full opening of campus could bring risks to the neighborhoods around Howard.
“We would get a win, as students, to come back,” Burke said. “But if that ends up impacting our immediate community, that wouldn’t really be worth it.”
At Princeton University, which is operating remotely, officials say they expect by December to decide on spring plans. To lobby them, a group of parents and students from the Ivy League school has sprung up on Facebook to “Bring Back Princeton.”
Daniel Flyer, 18, a freshman at Princeton, is living in an apartment in Brooklyn with two high school friends who, like him, have begun college remotely. One attends the University of Pennsylvania and the other is enrolled at the California Institute of Technology. Flyer is forging ahead with a full slate of online classes, but he said it is far from satisfying to be so isolated from classmates.
Flyer wanted the immersive feeling of residential education, on the Gothic campus in New Jersey. Instead, he got “this crazy other thing.”
“Never in a million years could have imagined this is how my college experience would start,” Flyer said. But he said he is optimistic that “they can make something happen for the spring.”