Saint Louis University will kick off its fall semester in mid-
August, earlier than usual, bringing students back for classes before sending them home for the year around Thanksgiving.

Just a few miles west, Washington University, another private school, will delay the first day for its undergraduates until mid-September, part of a gradual restart of a fall term that will stretch into January.

One major Midwestern city, two approaches to the resumption of campus life during the deadly coronavirus pandemic. It’s a split that illuminates an emerging contrast between higher education leaders who are acting aggressively to reopen campuses — aiming to squeeze in most or all of an in-person semester by Thanksgiving — and those who are taking it slowly. Both camps say health is paramount. They are also mindful of fiscal pressures and the yearning of stuck-at-home students to return.

Washington, D.C., high school senior Anna Parra Jordan explains why she decided to opt to take a gap year and delay college because of the coronavirus pandemic. (The Washington Post)

“If we can do it safely, it’s got to be face-to-face,” Saint Louis President Fred P. Pestello said. He announced last week that the 14,000-student university will open in person on Aug. 17, nine days ahead of its previous plan.

Washington Chancellor Andrew D. Martin, meanwhile, said the 15,000-student university hopes to bring law, social work and public health students to campus in August for a test run of social distancing measures before undergrad classes start Sept. 14. “The best course for us is to do a staggered start,” Martin said.

The novel coronavirus, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans so far, forced college students nationwide to leave campuses in March as schools switched abruptly to remote instruction. Now, the virus poses extraordinarily complex challenges for colleges and universities as they plan for teaching, housing and dining in a way that will minimize risk for students, faculty, staff and surrounding communities.

For a growing number of schools, the answer is to pack as much face time as possible into three months ending Wednesday, Nov. 25. The University of Notre Dame and University of South Carolina were among the first to adopt that strategy. Syracuse, Duke and other universities have followed.

The University of Virginia disclosed Thursday that it plans to call students back to Charlottesville, with in-person instruction ending by Thanksgiving. Several prominent universities in the Washington region and elsewhere have not yet announced plans. Some in the Ivy League have cautioned that they could wait until July to decide on the fall.

Under the gone-by-Thanksgiving model, students return to campus in August and stay there with few or no breaks. Then they go home for the holiday, finish final exams there, if necessary, and wait until it’s safe to come back for the spring term.

Schools hope limiting movement to and from campus will reduce the threat of infection from people students would encounter while traveling, helping avoid a possible resurgence of the coronavirus during the usual influenza season of late fall and winter.

“We could potentially avoid a second wave of the virus,” said Kevin M. Guskiewicz, chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He announced May 21 that the 30,000-student state flagship will start classes in person Aug. 10, eight days earlier than planned, and wrap up by Nov. 24.

The University of Colorado at Boulder, with about 36,000 students, announced May 26 that it plans to open in person in late August and finish remotely after Thanksgiving. Almost half of the university’s undergraduates are from out of state. Those students pay about $25,000 a year more in tuition and fees than Coloradans, which provides crucial revenue. But they also are potential viral carriers coming to Boulder from all over the country. The more they travel, the more the hazards.

Campuses are almost ideal venues for viral transmission, with students packed into dormitories, apartment suites, cafeterias and lecture halls. They live, eat, study and party together. Keeping a social distance will be challenging for even the most conscientious students, faculty and staff. But universities are racing to draw up plans to contain the threat.

To reduce the density of students inside classrooms, Colorado-Boulder Chancellor Philip P. DiStefano said the university is likely to provide a significant amount of instruction online. The school might also split students into groups to attend certain courses on some days but not others. It might offer courses later in the evening to utilize more classroom space. And it might provide guidance on how to move around campus. “Do we have students entering through one door in the building and exiting through another door?” he asked.

“Students do want to come back,” DiStefano said. “Faculty for the most part want to have in-person instruction.” But he acknowledged that professors, especially those who are older, have more concerns about safety. He said the university would work to accommodate those who are vulnerable to covid-19, the disease the virus causes.

This week, some Boulder professors gathered signatures for a letter opposed to DiStefano’s plan.

“We are faculty who are committed to in-person instruction as our cherished vocation,” the letter said, according to a copy provided by organizer Andrea Dyrness, an associate professor of education. “However, we believe that any plan for face-to-face classes in Fall 2020 puts our health and safety at risk and does not serve our educational mission or the vulnerable communities the Chancellor aims to protect: low-income, rural, and communities of color.”

Robert Ferry, an associate professor of history who chairs the Faculty Assembly at the Boulder campus, said faculty have been consulted on the reopening. “There’s a reasonable amount of enthusiasm for the plan,” he said. Ferry, who is 72, said he is considering teaching remotely next semester because of his age.

At Saint Louis, Pestello said he is consulting public health experts on his faculty. It became clear quickly, he said, that student travel would be a problem.

“Everybody’s going to go home at Thanksgiving,” Pestello said. “What you don’t want to do is send those thousands of students home across the country, and across the world, and then have them come back. From an infection standpoint, it’s just a bad decision.” That drove the university to reset its calendar.

Pestello acknowledged that the university faces financial pressures, but he cast the decision to reopen campus in moral terms. It is impossible, he said, to design a plan with zero risk. “Community is very important to us,” he said. “We thought, we have to do whatever we can to be face-to-face.”

At Washington University, known as Wash U, the plan is largely designed to buy time. “We have every intention of teaching courses in the classroom this fall,” said Martin, the chancellor. But delaying the return of most students will allow officials to observe how move-in day goes at early-starting schools such as its neighbor Saint Louis and Notre Dame, he said, and discover “what’s working, what’s not working, where we need to adapt, how to pivot.”

Wash U’s plan envisions the last undergraduate classes on campus on Dec. 18, with final exams to be held remotely in early January.

And while some students might travel around Thanksgiving, Martin said plenty could stay on campus for the long holiday weekend. If they do, Martin said, the university plans to give them “the best university Thanksgiving celebration we’ve ever had.”