In a different year, incoming freshmen would already have in hand a tightly choreographed schedule for late summer and early fall: the move-in date, the orientation and, finally, the first day of classes.
Colleges and universities nationwide are gaming out whether, when and how they can reopen campus after the abrupt shutdowns in March. Support from governors is essential but is hardly the only factor. Every prospective and returning student is hanging on the answers.
The possibilities range from a return to normalcy, which few higher education insiders expect at this point, to a fall semester with dorms shuttered and students taking classes from home until at least January.
“Obviously, we would love to open in the fall — meaning, have students back. That’s true of my colleagues in Virginia and across the country,” said University of Virginia President James E. Ryan. “What we’re trying to do right now is ask the question: ‘Under what conditions can we safely open?’ ”
Gaming it out
Ryan sees three scenarios for the 24,000-student public university.
U-Va. could start classes on Aug. 25 as scheduled, with students in Charlottesville but under new social distancing restrictions to guard public health. It could delay the semester and plan to open in person some weeks later. Or it could launch the school year without students on campus and teach remotely until circumstances allow a return.
Schools everywhere face variations of these choices. All carry a degree of risk. Opening campuses, whether sooner or later, will require a plan for what to do when someone is found to be a carrier or falls ill with covid-19. “You can’t pretend away the virus,” Ryan said.
The most immediate question is how long higher education leaders can wait to make a decision. Several estimated they have until mid-June. Yale University President Peter Salovey said the school will make the call by early July.
Leaders have to give faculty time to prepare. And they face pressure to develop prudent plans that will ensure students enroll in adequate numbers and pay tuition. They can’t afford mass desertions.
Some are going public now, albeit with caveats. California State University at Fullerton, with 40,000 students, disclosed plans for a remote opening in the fall. “We will at least start virtually,” the university’s provost, Pamella Oliver, said this week in an online town hall. “And of course, that can change.”
Purdue University, with 44,000 students, is gearing up for an in-person opening. The public university in Indiana “intends to accept students on campus in typical numbers this fall, sober about the certain problems that the COVID-19 virus represents, but determined not to surrender helplessly to those difficulties but to tackle and manage them aggressively and creatively,” Purdue President Mitchell E. Daniels Jr. wrote.
But most schools are still biding time as students anxiously await clarity. Clara Rigaux, 17, of Kensington, Md., said she has committed to the University of Maryland. But she was startled when a virtual open house this month with engineering faculty provided admitted students with little concrete information about the start of school. “It’s freaky to think about,” she said. “Nobody seems to have any answers.”
Rigaux said she is looking forward to football and basketball games, to meeting her classmates and professors, all fundamental features of a residential university. Much of that would be on hold if the 41,000-student flagship in College Park opens remotely. “I don’t really want to start college like that,” she said.
Jay A. Perman, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, which includes U-Md. and 14 other public universities and education centers, said he is “reasonably optimistic” campuses will reopen by September. “If we can’t, we can’t,” Perman said. “But collectively, the institutions are starting to think toward being ready for a fall opening.”
Perman, a medical doctor, said universities must think through many issues. Among them: Should students, faculty and staff be screened for the virus and its antibodies? Can lectures with hundreds of students be broken into smaller groups or delivered remotely? What restrictions will be needed for dorms, dining halls and social life?
Mark Schlissel, president of the 46,000-student University of Michigan, who is an immunologist, said he is aiming for a fall reopening that is “public health-informed.” Remote teaching is exceedingly difficult, he said, with laboratory classes and others that require physical activity. “There isn’t anything that can replace doing experiments with your own hands and seeing and interpreting results,” he said.
Money on the line
Underlying questions about when and how to open are huge fiscal challenges. Schools already face shortfalls after refunding room-and-board payments this spring and paying unforeseen expenses. State budgets are under threat with the economy at a standstill. Families are rethinking how much they can afford in a time of job losses and shrunken savings — and how much they are willing to pay for a style of learning that was not what was advertised.
University leaders defend their rates. “When people pay tuition, they are paying for credit, ultimately, for a degree,” Perman said. The system will continue to provide that, he said, with a quality education regardless of format. But at schools around the country, students have already demanded discounts and refunds on spring tuition. Remaining online in the fall will fuel more calls for price cuts.
“When you save their entire lives to send them to this fabulous experience — the idyllic location, the labs, small discussion groups — and you’re writing this huge check for this comprehensive experience — to say that’s equivalent to an online course?” said Elizabeth Zehner, of Bethesda, Md., who has two daughters in college. “It’s not true.” Zehner, whose husband is a teacher, works for a nonprofit organization dedicated to international health. She said she would urge her daughters to take the next semester off if campuses aren’t open. “For us, it’s not worth the financial sacrifice.”
If colleges aren’t delivering what they promise — on time — they could be in deep trouble. Especially if competitors decide to fully reopen.
“It’s revenue pressure, and the sense that ‘if we’re the one that doesn’t open, we lose our share of the market permanently,’ ” said Robert Zemsky, a professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania.
Private colleges with modest endowments and enrollments are vulnerable. Their brands are built on close contact between professors and students. That means face to face, not through Zoom.
“It would be pretty hard to find an industry that is more threatened by this particular pandemic than residential higher education,” said Brian Rosenberg, president of Macalester College in Minnesota. “There’s almost no way for us to do what we do halfway. We’re all about closeness. And not just in the classroom. Everywhere.”
His college, with about 2,100 students, is pledging every effort to offer a full school year in person. To go online for a semester, Rosenberg said, might cost Macalester a quarter of its enrollment. For any college, he said, that would produce “very, very dramatic financial consequences.”
It could mean furloughs, layoffs, salary cuts and, for some schools, the threat of closure.
Rosenberg said one of the toughest problems is providing housing with social distance. Most schools can’t offer each student a room without a roommate. Nor do they have extra beds for those who might need to be quarantined — or those who were expecting to go overseas next fall but now can’t study abroad.
“There are so many uncertainties,” he said. “The discussions about it make your head want to explode.”
Boston University, a private school with 34,000 students, made waves recently when it floated the possibility of opening campus in January. School officials emphasize they are focused on bringing students back in the fall. “We’re planning for September,” said BU President Robert A. Brown. “But it’s irresponsible not to have backup scenarios.”
Brown said BU is consumed with planning to reopen research laboratories, clean dorm rooms, “de-densify” lecture halls and other steps. One of his core concerns is preserving the freshman experience.
“The first 90 days in college are incredibly important,” he said. “I don’t know how to do that remotely.”
Kevin Moody, 17, of Billerica, Mass., is deciding among U-Va., Villanova University and other schools. He’s itching to go away to college in the fall, but he’s heard of the January contingency plans at BU and elsewhere. “I want to experience the full student life,” Moody said. The idea that he could still be home come September? “Mind-blowing,” he said.
Coronavirus: What you need to know
Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.
The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.
Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.
Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?
Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.
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