What Colleges Can Learn From Campuses That Opened Early

Aug 28, 2020

It’s been a rocky start of the fall semester for several colleges that have already resumed in-person instruction.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill lasted only one week before shifting to online instruction, due to a spike in COVID-19 cases on campus. Since then, several other colleges have made similar pivots, and others are seeing rising infection rates that have officials concerned.

One expert tracking how colleges are responding to the pandemic is Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. We invited him to share his perspective and answer audience questions during our latest EdSurge Live online discussion forum this week.

Listen to the conversation, or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: Is there any specific advice or tips that colleges can learn from the experiences of others that started classes early?

Kelchen: Mostly attention has been on trying to get students not to go to large parties—especially indoor parties. And some colleges have been threatening students with expulsion or suspension. I believe Syracuse suspended a number of students, and I’ve seen at least 10 or 15 colleges that have suspended and kicked students off campus for partying. And some colleges are thinking about trying to fine students for bad behavior. I read in my own campus newspaper that my university’s going to fine people who are violating the state requirements—up to $1,000.

Some colleges had some students come back early and quarantine in dorms for two weeks. One of those was Syracuse University. Has that approach been working for colleges?

That works the best when you’re in an area with relatively low transmission of the virus and you have most of your students living either on campus or close by. Syracuse has to do quarantining because they’re in a state that requires that—New York. And then there are a few other states—Connecticut, New Jersey, and I believe Massachusetts—that are recommending a quarantine, but I don’t think they’re all requiring it. And some colleges in New York have provided housing, while others aren’t providing housing and they’re making students pay for it themselves on or near campus. Or they can go somewhere within one of the so-called “safe states” for two weeks and then go to Syracuse.

Some colleges are offering discounted intuition—of about 10 percent—when teaching has moved online. Is that what you are seeing?

It’s still a small percentage of colleges that can do that— mainly wealthier colleges. There’ve been a few public universities that have done it in a few historically black colleges, but generally it’s colleges with large endowments that can afford the losses.

Basically, there are plenty of places trying to convince folks that [the online education] it's worth full tuition, or that they just have to do it that way. And yet the experience is going to be—well, not what anybody ... dreams of when you [think about campus life].

[Audience question] Is there a version of events where a college that [has several cases] has just powers through? That they just need to ride out the first part of this?

Yeah, I think some colleges will definitely do that. There’s an argument to be made that it’s absolutely the wrong thing to close campus and send people back to wherever they came from during the middle of an epidemic—that then you’re just spreading it everywhere else. And you can also make the case that as long as the local hospitals and the healthcare system can handle cases, then you can make a health-based argument that it’s okay.

You’ll also have colleges that either can’t afford to send people home or are too stubborn about wanting campuses open for various reasons. Athletics may be a reason why some of these colleges try to push through, as well as just the politics of it. In some of these red-state public universities, or even private colleges where the board wants them to stay open, would they be able to close? And if they close their campuses, would they also put the presidents and provosts and other leaders at risk of being fired?

[Audience question] How are hearing impaired students able to understand lectures when professors wear masks?

That’s a real concern. I know there are some people who have developed clear face masks or are using face shields. But in general, I’m very much concerned about where students can understand the lectures if they’re in person, masked or behind plexiglass or whatever there is. And then the students attending online—if it's a [hybrid] class—is the technology there for those students to understand and fully participate?


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