Colleges are beginning to decide whether they will try to hold classes again in person in the fall or continue the unprecedented shift to all-online teaching when the new academic year starts. And different campuses are making different calls on how to carry on as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
On Tuesday, the California State University system, which boasts nearly 500,000 students at its 23 campuses, announced that most classes will be held online and that campuses expect to remain closed.
The system’s chancellor, Timothy P. White, said in a statement that the approach was necessary because “a course that might begin in a face-to-face modality would likely have to be switched to a virtual format during the term if a serious second wave of the pandemic occurs, as forecast.”
The University of California system has not officially announced a decision for the fall, but a spokesperson told The Wall Street Journal that it is “likely” that none of the campuses will fully reopen in the fall and that officials are planning for a hybrid approach with some teaching online and other sessions in person.
Many campuses, though, are making the opposite call. About 65 percent of campuses that have made decisions for the fall say they are planning for in-person teaching, according to a tracker being updated by The Chronicle of Higher Education.
One of the most vocal proponents of the stay-open approach as been Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University, who explained his decision in a message to the university community in April.
“Closing down our entire society, including our university, was a correct and necessary step,” he wrote. “It has had invaluable results. But like any action so drastic, it has come at extraordinary costs, as much human as economic, and at some point, clearly before next fall, those will begin to vastly outweigh the benefits of its continuance. Interrupting and postponing the education of tomorrow’s leaders for another entire semester or year, is one of many such costs. So is permanently damaging the careers and lives of those who have made teaching and research their life’s work, and those who support them in that endeavor.”
Colleges are under financial pressure to keep as many operations going as possible, since many expect that it may be a tough sell to convince students to pay the price of a residential experience when campuses are closed. Colleges are already announcing layoffs as they face new costs of responding to the pandemic and anticipate enrollment declines. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that more than 19,000 fewer people were employed by colleges in March compared to in February.
But the health risks of reopening loom for colleges as well. CSU’s chancellor said that one reason to keep courses online is that the university doesn’t have the money to afford to track the contacts of infected people and test everyone that would need a COVID-19 test should an outbreak occur on campus.
The Trump administration appears to be supporting a move to reopen campuses sooner rather than later. On Tuesday, Vice President Mike Pence led a call with 14 college presidents to discuss “best practices to get students back to school in the fall,” according to a statement by the White House. The call included U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, as well the presidents of Arizona State University, Purdue University, University of Florida and Stanford University.
Among colleges moving toward resuming in-person teaching for the fall is the University of Washington, which was the first university in the nation to shift to online teaching as the pandemic arrived in the U.S.