Many colleges scaling back reopening plans as pandemic persists

With the fall semester rapidly approaching—and in some cases, even underway—hundreds of colleges and universities in recent weeks have revised their fall reopening plans, citing the ongoing public health crisis, widespread safety concerns, and insurmountable testing hurdles. Inside Higher Ed reports that, last week alone, more than 40 institutions changed their fall approach. The number continues to climb, as seen on trackers like The Chronicle of Higher Education’s dashboard of nearly 3,000 institutions’ reopening plans, created in partnership with Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative, and The Chronicle’s ongoing feed of live coronavirus updates.

At the end of May, around two-thirds of colleges and universities had their sights set on an in-person fall. Many crafted detailed reopening plans involving reduced density on campus, social distancing and mask-wearing protocols, hybrid-flexible instructional approaches, and extensive testing. However, coronavirus infections have surged in recent weeks, triggering local restrictions, quarantines for travelers, and a backlog at testing facilities. 

Many amending fall plans

A rapidly growing wave of institutions—Georgetown University among them—have amended their plans for the fall, deciding that courses will begin in virtual mode and that they will not be able to bring most students to campus at this time. The list of schools announcing changes spans the nation, including institutions like Stanford University, University of California at Berkeley, California State University system, DePaul University in Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and George Washington University

While some institutions are flipping to virtual mode for the whole semester, some are trying a shorter-term delay, with plans to start in-person classes in several weeks. The University of Virginia said it will start the fall semester online, with plans to hold in-person instruction and bring undergraduate students to residence halls two weeks later. Brown University, meanwhile, said it is delaying in-person undergraduate instruction until October. “The decision is notable after Brown’s president wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times in April arguing for campuses to reopen for several reasons, including that low-income students face barriers to learning remotely, that the economy depends on it, and that colleges need the revenue,” writes Inside Higher Ed.

Even The Johns Hopkins University, which had planned to make an in-person fall available “to all who want it,” reversed course last week. The university had spent months recasting the academic calendar, planning for hybrid instruction, and devising an aggressive testing plan. “The decision by Johns Hopkins—with its deep endowment, breakthrough research on and tracking of the virus itself, and close ties to world-renowned medical services—demonstrates that even higher education’s heaviest hitting research universities may see their in-person plans stymied by COVID-19,” The Chronicle writes.

Some institutions remain committed to an in-person fall

Meanwhile, an in-person semester is already underway at some colleges and universities, with many eyes on the outcome. “Perhaps no university will be watched more closely than Purdue [University],” The Chronicle notes, given that its president, Mitch Daniels, “emerged as one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of an in-person return to campus.” 

Earlier this summer, Daniels shared a video message with students reassuring them that “If you’re still not comfortable with coming in person, that’s fine” and saying that those who do choose an in-person experience “will have the satisfaction for a very long time of knowing that you played an essential part in a very significant achievement.” First-year students began arriving at Purdue on August 14, and classes begin August 24. 

HBCUs face unique calculus in setting reopening plans

Leaders of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are facing an especially complex choice in setting fall policies, recognizing that more than 70 percent of their students come from low-income families and see their campuses as a safe harbor. “COVID-19 has affected HBCUs just like every other campus, but one of the things that our institutions are disproportionately affected by is, our institutions disproportionately educate a lower-income population,” Brian Bridges, vice president of research and member engagement for the United Negro College Fund, told NBC News

Atlanta-based Morehouse University, for instance, had originally planned to offer some in-person instruction and house students in single dorm rooms. But with high infection rates in the surrounding communities, Morehouse has decided to go entirely online. Morehouse President David A. Thomas told The Chronicle that the campus’s location in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Atlanta put the school at risk of further worsening infections for a community already disproportionately feeling the effects of COVID-19. 

Roslyn Clark Artis, president of Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina, meanwhile, told Diverse Issues in Higher Education that she has tried to balance the risk of reopening against the benefits of giving vulnerable students an alternative to crowded homes, homelessness, and food insecurity, and bringing them to campus “where we have provided cleaning supplies, protocols, social distancing.” Benedict has brought about 900 students with the greatest need, half of its students, back to campus and is starting the semester with virtual classes for all. Artis says she is “worried sick” but also aware that “with low-wealth, first-generation kids of color: Many times they are safer at Benedict, even with COVID-19, than they are in their communities.”

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