Coronavirus: What college and universities will look in the fall as cases surge across the US

As the fall semester looms over students, education officials, staff, and health professionals, many campuses have yet to settle on firm answers as to what the upcoming academic year could look like.

Uncertainty hinges largely on how the coronavirus pandemic will continue its spread throughout the United States at the start of August.

Will states still be reporting peak case numbers and a lack of ICU hospital beds? Or could the social distancing measures implemented across the country largely diminish the virus’ impact?

Colleges and universities are looking at a multitude of options for their fall semesters, as students begin to plan what classes might look like for them.

But uncertainty has left a strain on higher education with colleges looking towards state officials and health organisations to set the precedent for what they might expect for the upcoming academic year.

How classes will work

The University of Notre Dame in Indiana announced the school year would start on 10 August, two weeks earlier this upcoming academic year, so classes could end prior to the Thanksgiving break in November. The thought process behind this decision was concern around how the coronavirus and flu season might impact healthcare systems in the winter months.

The University of Colorado, Boulder (CU), in comparison, is one university of many that announced they will still have students on campus on 24 August, its planned start date prior to the pandemic. But at CU, fall break will be shorter and all students will switch to online learning after Thanksgiving break, also in response to the inevitable flu season.

In an ongoing survey of more than 800 schools, two-thirds said at the end of May that they were planning for in-person classes in the fall.

This number could increase or decrease in the next month, as more states in the US report a surging of coronavirus cases while other states have so far curbed the spread of the novel virus.

Universities in the coastal states have had a difficult time releasing a detailed plan of what is to come in the semester, as their states were hit harder at the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

A hybrid model recently surfaced in response to the uncertainty surrounding the virus. In most hybrid models developed by universities, a combination of in-person discussions and online lectures would dominate students’ course loads.

Fordham University in New York City is one university to create a hybrid model with other functions of its campus pending approval from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.

“We’ve adopted a more flexible and resilient approach to delivering our educational programs that will service well no matter what circumstances the virus presents us with throughout the year,” Dr Dennis Jacobs, Fordham University provost and senior vice president, told The Independent.

The hybrid model introduced by the university has two components: what will be held virtually, and what could be held in-person or virtually pending the virus

The first component focuses on the online portion of a class, such as lectures, that will limit the face-to-face interactions between students and professors. This component prioritises “the transmission of information and knowledge, and the development of skills,” Dr Jacobs said.

The second component would then include discussion hours, labs, and other interactive parts of the course, with options to occur either in-person or virtually pending the coronavirus.

“By structuring every course in the university – we have over 3,000 courses – in this format, it accommodates a variety of situations,” Dr Jacobs added.

The University of California (UC) system shocked the country when the college became the first school system to boldly announce that all classes would be online come the fall semester in response to the pandemic.

But days later, after students and parents criticised the step as “drastic”, the UC system announced it would allow individual campuses to develop a plan for what their academic year would entail – which could range from all classes online, a hybrid model of in-person and virtual, and opening campus.

What to expect in the fall semester

For students like Kamron G Williams, a junior at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and University Affairs Chair for the University of California Student Association (UCSA), waiting on an official plan has forced them to reconsider what their fall semester could look like.

When Mr Williams first spoke to The Independent, he said he was strongly considering taking all of his fall classes online from his parents’ home. He’s since decided to live in an off-campus apartment for the fall semester to allow him access to campus if it’s available.

But making plans for the fall semester hasn’t come without added stress for himself and others.

“Students are stressed out,” he said. “They want to go back to actual lecture rooms. They want to be in-person with their TA’s and the professors, learning in-person.”

Students are in limbo partly because they don’t know for some universities what will happen with on-campus facilities, such as dormitories, dining halls, libraries, and student centres.

“They still plan on keeping the library and sporting events shut down,” Mr Williams said about UCSD.

Fordham University has run into similar issues with being unable to yet tell students if dorms and other academic buildings will be available for use in the coming months.

“We have a mixture at Fordham of residential students living in dorms and commuter students who live sometimes at home or out in the community,” Dr Jacobs said. “We obviously care about the health and wellbeing of both residential and commuter populations.”

The school aimed to have a decision by “mid-July” on whether it would allow students on campus.

Not only did Fordham University want to address the safety of students living in campus buildings, but those who are using public transport to commute to school daily.

“We’re mindful of the risks across the board and would not want to proceed with opening unless we’re confident we can manage those risks, monitor potential infection on campus through testing, and that if a test comes back positive that we can immediately step into contact tracing and isolation on our campus,” he added.

No university has publicly announced if sporting events will happen in the fall with fans in the stands, but students remain unconvinced they’ll be cheering on their teams in a stadium in the near future.

The push for more testing and cleaning

Reopening universities largely hinge on the testing capabilities a school can provide on campus to monitor any potential outbreaks.

UCSD announced after months of uncertainty that it would launch a Return to Learn program that would assist the school for the fall semester.

This initiative aimed to test about 65,000 students each month for Covid-19 to find any potential outbreaks.

“Our simulations indicate that if more than 75 per cent of the population were tested per month, we would be able to detect an outbreak before there are 10 detectable infections on campus,” said project lead Natasha Martin, an associate professor of medicine at the UCSD School of Medicine.

The goal for the program, if properly executed, would be to allow for more students and staff to return to campus.

In-person class size would be limited to fewer than 50 students per class, or 50 per cent of classroom capacity, whichever is smaller. A majority of in-person classes would entail fewer than 25 students, and any classes of 50 students or more would offer a virtual format.

Only about 30 per cent of courses would be conducted in-person under the Return to Learn program.

While USCD was willing to undertake this testing initiative, which the school can fund, in part, from a $1m grant for Covid-19 testing gifted from the John and Mary Tu Foundation, other universities don’t have the same financial means.

Terry Hartle, Senior Vice President of the American Council of Education, explained to The Independent the four areas he thought universities would need to push on when developing reopening plans: cleaning, testing, tracing, and distancing.

“Enhanced cleaning of every campus facility is something clearly unambiguously in the hands of campus officials, and every school will do that very vigorously,” Mr Hartle said. “Testing might be in the hands of campus officials if they decide to establish a testing regime on campus. But that raises all sorts of questions about testing protocols and what you do with the results of a positive test, and so on.”

A collaboration between public health officials in the state and universities could help schools plan how they would test students and what they would do with the results. It also could aid schools on paying for the coronavirus tests, which can cost upwards of $140 each depending on the type of test.

Contact tracing, Mr Hartle said, would also be an initiative taken on by state and local governments to assist universities.

“That’s not something college and universities are set up to do or have the expertise to do,” he said, adding contact tracing would “identify who individuals spoke to” as a way to track how the virus might spread within the community.

The final dimension is distancing, which Mr Hartle said largely depends on the students to follow.

Protocols would include avoiding large gatherings, maintaining six feet apart from classmates and professors, and wearing masks.

When asked if he believed his student body at UCSD would follow these social distancing protocols, Mr Williams said categorically “yes”.

If Spring Break is any indicator, which showed students flocking to public beaches and avoiding early social distancing recommendations, enforcing rules could prove to be a challenge for universities.

Quality of classes when put online

Concerns have risen about the quality of education a student might receive in the fall if their university classes were to remain fully online for the entirety of the semester.

Universities, including Fordham University, have maintained that tuition prices will remain the same even if all classes are online because they’re still providing the same academic experience.

“We’ve looked at it like how do we provide all the benefits and advantages of Fordham education under the circumstances,” Dr Jacobs said. “In terms of tuition – which is really the academic experience, the course work taught by our faculty and the provision of offering degrees – that is unchanged.”

On average students pay $21,950 for a public four-year institution in-state, $38,330 for a public four-year institution out-of-state, and $49,879 for a private nonprofit four-year institution in an academic year, according to Education Data. These averages include tuition, fees, and room and board.

Dr Jacobs added that while the school dropped fees relating to activities only offered on-campus, which amounts to at most $1,000, its tuition would not change no matter what classes look like in the fall.

“We’ve made sure we have continuity in the way we provide the services and experiences to our students, because what we want to do is deliver on the promise of a Fordham education,” he said.

Other universities have argued on a similar rhetoric, despite students and parents from universities like George Washington University and Harvard Law School suing over tuition prices amid the pandemic.

In the lawsuits, students and parents said they were not receiving the same quality of education virtually compared to in-person classes, arguing for decreased tuition prices. These lawsuits are unlikely to hold up in court.

Mr Williams explained that from the student’s perspective, based on his personal experience, it was not always the same educational environment through a computer screen compared to what was available in a classroom.

“When we first did remote this semester, I personally thought it would be kind of easier to get classes done, but that ended up not being the case. It has been harder to learn remotely,” he said.

Time management and trouble retaining information in the online setting were two reasons Mr Williams saw a decline in the educational experience.

Parents and students expecting a potential tuition decrease in the fall were set for disappointment, as Mr Hartle said it was unlikely schools would consider lowering their costs because they transferred classes to a virtual format.

“College universities run on money. If you’re a college or university, almost invariably the biggest source of your revenue is tuition and fees,” he said.

“If you don’t have people on campus, tuition and fees, room and board, and your revenue takes a massive hit. If your revenue takes a massive hit, you need to reduce your budget.”

About 60 per cent of most college and university budgets goes towards paying faculty and staff, Mr Hartle said. Changing tuition would significantly impact the staff the universities are capable of paying.

“With a reduced tuition, you reduce revenue. A reduced revenue means you need to reduce expenses. To reduce expenses means furloughs and layoffs. That is something college universities are desperate to avoid,” he said.

“It might become inevitable, but that’s the last thing that they want to do.”

July will be a critical month for higher academics as the fall semester start date looms closer, but the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic leaves many reopening plans open for alterations to prevent any long-term pauses in the academic year.