As Pandemic Persists, Colleges Consider Options for the Fall

Apr 15, 2020

As President Trump spars this week with state governors, members of Congress and health officials about when the COVID-19 pandemic will subside sufficiently to “reopen” the U.S. economy, college leaders are asking similar questions about their campuses.

Higher ed administrators are thinking ahead to autumn and developing plans for how to proceed if the health crisis fades by summer’s end—or if it persists.

To prepare for a possible reopening, the University of Central Oklahoma is constructing plexiglass walls in the building where students register for classes and laying down tape to mark how much space students should maintain from each other, reports Mildred García, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Nearby, the University of Oklahoma is considering three possible scenarios, its interim president told faculty on Monday: return to regular classes in the fall, delay them until the spring, or offer courses online both semesters.

Meanwhile, Boston University’s president hopes to invite people involved with research labs back to campus first and test safety procedures on this relatively small group before reopening more broadly, reports the Boston Globe. The institution has set itself a tentative deadline of July 1 for making decisions about the fall semester.

Yet with the spring semester still in session (remotely) and the trajectory of the pandemic still uncertain, few colleges have committed yet to concrete plans for the fall.

Some may not have the capacity to think that far ahead. So far, community colleges have largely planned for summer courses to take place online, but haven’t necessarily made decisions beyond the next few months, says Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations for the American Association of Community Colleges.

“Everyone is focused on right now,” she says.

Other colleges may be wary of pinning themselves to a plan during this especially delicate phase of their lifecycle: At this point, they’ve sent admission offers to students but students have not committed to attend. Any announcements regarding changes to the fall semester, such as moving classes online or delaying courses until the spring, may influence where admitted students decide to enroll.

“What does the offer—not the financial offer, the educational delivery offer—look like now?” says Pete Boyle, vice president for public affairs at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “It’s a huge question.”

Higher ed associations say it will be another four to six weeks before many colleges announce publicly whether their fall classes will be offered online or in-person.

“They’re planning for both,” García says. “To make a decision too early may not be the right choice a week from now.”

Seeking Government Guidance

In the chaos of the pandemic’s early days, many college leaders lacked clear guidance about whether to shutter their campuses. The big institutions that did so early on helped to lead the way for widespread closures, Boyle says.

But when it comes to making decisions about whether, when and how to reopen campuses, most institutions will seek direction from state and regional officials and government health agencies, according to association leaders.

“I think the colleges would obviously pay heed to whatever their governor has declared,” Parham says. “I don’t think anyone is going to open in lieu of what their governor is saying.”

There are signs that states are preparing for action. On the West Coast, the governors of California, Oregon and Washington have announced plans to coordinate their pandemic policies and responses. A similar plan is in the works among officials in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Delaware.

Yet it may still be a long time before state officials issue instructions about timing. On Tuesday, the governor of California laid out the criteria his administration plans to use to determine when it’s safe to permit more socialization, but he also said he won’t discuss a timeline for possibly loosening restrictions for at least two more weeks.

In the meantime, higher ed administrators are in frequent communication with state legislators and system leaders, says García, who has been talking to two or three college presidents every day. Leaders of public and private four-year colleges and community colleges are also in conversation.

“There’s a real desire and need for presidents to talk to each other about how they’re going to move forward as a region,” García says.

Figuring Out Finances

Beyond health and safety recommendations that apply across institutions, the paths colleges take in the coming months could depend largely on their unique circumstances.

Community colleges are designed to respond to local needs, and so they may take cues from conditions in their communities, says Parham, pointing as an example to Big Sandy Community & Technical College, in Kentucky.

“They are one of the only places in the area, for miles and miles, that does nursing and allied health training,” she explains. “For them, it’s probably much more important for the entire community that they somehow can reestablish those classes.”

Colleges that serve large numbers of the students whom García says belong to “the new majority”—people who are first-generation, or low-income, or students of color—face extra urgency to return to face-to-face instruction, since “our most vulnerable students need much more high-touch,” she says.

One consideration many institutions will have in common is precarious fiscal health. As college leaders consider options for the fall semester, they have also started announcing budget cuts to accommodate financial hits they’ve already taken, or are anticipating, from endowment losses, refunds given to students and enrollment uncertainties.

Institutions such as the University of Virginia, Stanford and Harvard have already announced hiring and salary freezes and pay cuts for top leaders, while the University of Cincinnati has cut its men’s soccer program.

These first announcements likely won’t be the last. A recent survey of about 140 college presidents conducted by the Association of American Colleges & Universities revealed that 70 percent expect revenue decreases of 10 percent or more at their institutions. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said they foresee staff layoffs. Other anticipated spending cuts fall in the area of research and development (40 percent) and IT (13 percent).

The relief funds earmarked for higher education in the CARES Act will help when they arrive, Boyle says. But if campuses stay closed in the fall, colleges may need to find more money to spend on improving their virtual classes to match students’ expectations for quality.

“The online aspect of this has been thought of as being temporary,” Boyle says. “If it’s prolonged, I suspect there will need to be a different level of investment by colleges and universities to ensure they can deliver the education in the online environment for a longer period of time.”


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