Colleges planning for a range of fall-semester scenarios

Still grappling with the logistical and financial challenges of an academic year cut short by COVID-19, colleges and universities are looking ahead to the fall, considering various scenarios that would support learning while keeping their communities safe. The pandemic’s trajectory, as well as the outlook for testing and social distancing, remain unclear, complicating efforts to craft a definitive plan. “The hard part is that no one knows what to plan for, because you have too many variables,” says Frank Dooley, senior vice provost for teaching and learning at Purdue University.

“Whatever happens,” The Chronicle of Higher Education writes, “it looks increasingly unlikely that the fall semester will assume traditional form.”

Amid uncertainty, colleges weighing many options

Without knowing how quickly the COVID-19 pandemic will ease up, or when it might resurge, colleges and universities are mapping out a range of potential approaches to the fall semester. Some scenarios assume an on-time, in-person start with some social distancing and options for more vulnerable professors to teach virtually. Others explore hybrid models that would begin online and soon transition to an on-campus experience, or would have some students learning in-person and others remotely. Some plans consider what would happen if courses had to remain entirely online through the duration of the semester or 2020-21 academic year.

According to a recent survey by the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, 65 percent of colleges are considering offering additional online or remote courses for the fall. More than half say they might reduce their in-person offerings or schedule only online courses in the fall. 

Beloit College in Wisconsin, meanwhile, has attracted attention for swiftly transforming its academic calendar. The college recently decided to break its fall term into two 7.5-week modules, during which each student will take two classes. Beloit officials say the approach will help reduce disruption if the college must quickly transition to or from online courses at some point in the fall.

“We wanted to maximize flexibility and minimize the destruction,” said Provost Eric Boynton, adding that the college will decide mid-summer whether to start the term online or on-campus.  However, another survey from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers indicates that Beloit is in the minority: less than 20 percent of colleges report that they have added or may add course sessions shorter than 16 weeks.

Some institutions are already focusing on small details that could make a difference to minimize the spread of the virus. EdSurge reports that the University of Central Oklahoma is constructing plexiglass walls in campus buildings where students register for classes, and marking the floor with tape to guide social distancing. Purdue President Mitch Daniels has suggested removing door handles on campus, while Brown University President Christina Paxson said the university may increase the number of custodians focused on disinfecting surfaces, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Others are looking beyond their campus walls, exploring partnerships with other institutions. Bryan Alexander—a researcher, consultant, and faculty member in Georgetown University’s Learning, Design & Technology master’s program, who focuses on the future of higher education—suggests that the pandemic could prompt colleges to share courses if they need to narrow their offerings while stepping up the quality of their online instruction.

Ultimately, institutions are likely to set course based on guidance from local and state officials. “I think the colleges would obviously pay heed to whatever their governor has declared,” Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges, told EdSurge. “I don’t think anyone is going to open in lieu of what their governor is saying.”

Too early to commit for most institutions

Very few colleges have set a plan for the fall just yet. “Everyone is focused on right now,” says Parham. Higher education associations have estimated that it could be another month or so before colleges indicate whether they intend to start fall classes online or in-person.

EdSurge points out that colleges are in an “especially delicate phase of their lifecycle” right now, as they have sent out admission offers but not yet reached their enrollment deposit deadline. They may be reticent to make early predictions about or changes to the fall semester just as students are trying to make their enrollment decisions.

However, certain institution types may feel pressure to chart a path to reopening in-person as soon as possible, including colleges that serve large shares of low-income, first-generation students. “Our most vulnerable students need much more high-touch,” says Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

In addition, in many regions, community college is “one of the only places in the area, for miles and miles, that does nursing and allied health training,” says Parham, adding that “for them, it’s probably much more important for the entire community that they somehow can reestablish those classes.”

Potential ripple effects

Colleges’ decisions about the fall semester will inevitably have “big financial consequences,” the Journal reports. Institutions that choose to keep all classes virtual, for instance, could lose room and board fees, or see some incoming freshmen defer enrollment or change their plans last-minute, making planning difficult and reducing tuition revenue. Similarly, parents could balk at paying full tuition for online courses—or simply be unable to shoulder the cost of college in a worsening economy. Public institutions may face dual challenges of declining enrollment and declining state support. 

Related: Enrollment decisions in the time of COVID-19 >

Any shift to longer-term virtual instruction also will come with higher expectations for course content and delivery. Alexander, the higher education researcher, told the Chronicle that while the pandemic could spark “bold, persistent experimentation,” that potential may not be fully realized in a time of financial constraints and widespread uncertainty.
Regardless of what paths colleges choose and when they choose them, “opening isn’t going to be an event, it will be a process, it will take a couple of years to find a new normal,” Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, told The Wall Street Journal.

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