© Benoît Prieur / Wikimedia Commons

July 29, 2020; USA Today and Wall Street Journal

Many of the best made plans for reopening colleges are being changed, just a month or two after initial decisions were made. Universities that were going to teach classes in person have moved to a hybrid model with more online, and others are going to all-online with no students on campus.

The COVID-19 cases are rising in many regions, which especially affects out-of-state college students. Those attending college last spring experienced the abrupt pandemic shutdown, but those entering college for the first time are in a strange limbo. Many new students haven’t received any paperwork since the orientation information is not static.

Many university systems that had redesigned on-campus eating spaces – they are suddenly on pause. Students who have to live off-campus have usually signed leases months in advance and now many are paying rent for a place they don’t need, along with expensive tuition for online classes.

Arianna Miskin, a student at George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, DC, would have preferred to know her classes were going to be online before she signed a lease in Washington. The graduate student, who is working on her master’s degree in public health, had been living in Arlington, Virginia, and moved to be closer to classes.

This week GWU posted on their website that undergraduate classes and most graduate classes will be online. They are offering a tuition discount.

“We know just how much many of you were looking forward to being on campus this fall, and we understand that this news is disappointing,” George Washington said in a statement.

Miskin, calling the pandemic a “once-in-a-lifetime event” said GWU communicated well regarding its responses to the pandemic. She did wish the administration had come to its conclusion earlier. “We weren’t asked until June whether we preferred online or hybrid-on-campus,” with some classes online and some in person, she said. “The semester starts in a month. They moved too late.”

California State University system and Harvard made the decision earlier to be online. Atlanta’s Spelman College had announced July 1 that students would be back to classes and dorms for the fall, but reversed that last week to all online classes as Georgia’s COVID-19 numbers continue to increase.

The State University of New York (SUNY) system, which includes 64 institutions, posted on their website their list of points to consider when forming reopening plans.

Plans to repopulate the campus should include consideration of:

  • Capacity to maintain social distancing
  • PPE [personal protective equipment]
  • Screening and testing
  • Residential living
  • Operational activities
  • Restart operations
  • Extracurricular activities including intramurals and student performances
  • Vulnerable populations
  • Hygiene, cleaning and disinfection

Monitoring for COVID-19 on campus must include:

  • Testing responsibilities
  • Testing frequency and protocols.
  • Early warning signs
  • Tracing

SUNY continues to list other considerations such as containment plans for those testing positive, ramping down operations if there are in-person classes, and shutting down again as they did in the spring.

Miami University in Ohio also announced this week that all undergraduate classes will be online through September 21, at least. The University of California at Berkeley has made similar arrangements, hoping to have in-person classes later on.

The Chronicle of Higher Education has been tracking about 1,260 colleges since April. Early on, nearly two-thirds of colleges and universities had planned on in-person instruction in the fall. The count had shrunk to 49 percent on Tuesday. Approximately one third are planning for a hybrid semester of online and in-person classes, while 13 percent were planning all online instruction.

Many schools are waiting until the last minute, hoping they won’t have to lose the tuition, room, and board they receive with students on campus. And some colleges have scattered, and hard-to-enforce, plans. Ithaca College will have in-person classes but students from any of the states on New York’s mandatory quarantine list, which changes by the week, will have to take their classes online. Other institutions will require a 14-day quarantine before classes start.

Schools need comprehensive COVID-19 testing arrangements, but few have them and fewer can afford them. And that leads to questions about frequency of testing.

A person might test negative, but they could be positive three days later, Gerri Taylor, co-chair of the American College Health Association’s COVID-19 task force, said. “Who wants to go and get tested every couple of days or even once a week?” Taylor said. “I think that would be a difficult sell for college students.”

Margee Ensign, Dickinson College president, pointed out that in June, when the liberal arts college in Carlisle, Pennsylvania was still hoping to have in-person classes, COVID-19 tests results took about two days. Now it takes longer. She said Pennsylvania’s rollout of contact tracing was insufficient, and there was little federal direction. Dickinson decided to move to online instruction July 15, waving student activity fees.

“Really, it’s remote versus in-person in a pandemic,” Ensign said. “We came to the conclusion that the fully remote (classes), we could make that a better experience, actually, because faculty now have extra time to prepare for that.”

Texas A&M University sophomore, Hannah Landry, will have most classes online, but she still considered moving close to the school. She wants to have a place to live for the spring, which may look different as far as the pandemic goes. Landry took to Twitter to poll her friends to help with the decision. She was surprised that many told her to stay home, save money, and reduce her exposure to the virus.—Marian Conway