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Colleges Continue to Adjust Fall Semester Plans

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It's now August. This is going to be a very interesting month for higher education. Circumstances have changed dramatically since mid-May, when I wrote:

With little more than three or four months to go until the Fall 2020 semester begins, a surprising number of colleges have announced their intentions to return to "normal" and resume in-person classes with a full inventory of students on campus. I've reviewed a number of those plans and will give a quick overview of some specifics below.


The Chronicle of Higher Education has an ongoing summary of schools that have come forth with their plans for fall … three quarters … (74 percent) are planning in-person classes this fall … Fifteen percent are waiting to decide, five percent are either considering a range of options or a hybrid model, and only 1.6 percent are planning to stay with online instruction

Looking at The Chronicle's pie chart today reveals a completely different picture for almost 3,000 colleges, thanks to the organization's collaboration with Davidson College's College Crisis Initiative (C2i). Category designations have been added and others changed:

  • Fully in-person: 2.5%
  • Primarily in-person: 21%
  • Hybrid: 16%
  • Fully online (some students on campus): 0.9%
  • Fully online (no students on campus): 2.9%
  • Primarily online: 24%
  • Other: 6%
  • To be determined: 27%

Referring to the original tracking pie chart, The Chronicle notes, "The biggest change is that while The Chronicle tracked only colleges that had either disclosed their plans or set a deadline for deciding, C2i seeks to track all colleges, and thus includes many colleges whose fall plans are 'TBD.'"

Virus Unpredictability Prompts Changes

It doesn't take much effort to see that college plans have rapidly evolved and schools have refined them significantly during the past 80-some days since mid-May, when 74 percent planned to bring students back to campus. Of course, the chief reasons for this include the unpredictability of the COVID-19 virus and broader testing.

In relation to C2i, August is going to bring added evolution and refinement to those numbers, mainly for the TBDs (evolution) and all the rest (refinement). How sports will influence the decision-making for Division I schools remains to be seen, but some major conferences have forged ahead with their plans to play this fall. Those plans may evolve, too, in light of what's happening with professional sports teams that have already started their schedules.

One of the most perplexing situations for colleges has to be reversing or significantly changing a Fall 2020 plan that has already been deployed. That's not to mention the impact on students and families trying to make some sense out of the coming school year.

Inside Higher Education offers some informative depth about colleges negotiating the changing pandemic landscape in Lilah Burke's July 31 article, Tide Turns on Fall Reopenings:

In Washington, D.C., three private, selective colleges — Georgetown, George Washington and American Universities — went fully online this week, with announcements coming days apart. For GU and GW, that is a reversal from previous plans to bring some students to campus and keep others home. For AU, initial plans called for a reduced number of students living on campus, with the university working to help secure and find alternative housing for other students elsewhere in the District

Other universities that have recently said that nearly all classes will be online and nearly all students will stay home include Washington State University, Lafayette College, the University of Delaware, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Azusa Pacific University, Pepperdine University, the University of San Diego and Dickinson College. Other universities, such as the University of California's campuses in Berkeley and Merced, have said they will begin the semester online but leave room for a reopening ...

Colleges are doing the best they can, and I can't help imagining being a college president under these unprecedented circumstances. The first thing I would do when meeting with my top staff is tell them that we can't be sitting on the fence, waiting for the unpredictable virus winds to blow us one way or the other. "We have to make a plan and stick to it!" would be my battle cry. The changes made by Ivy League school Cornell University demonstrate the challenges of having to adapt as the situation unfolds:

Cornell University, originally one of the most insistent that it would "reactivate" its campus, backtracked from its ambitious plans on Friday … [originally planning] … for a complex move-in process that indicated how complicated bringing students back may be for those that attempt it … no relatives or guests would be allowed to help them move onto campus. Students would be tested upon arrival and then placed in a quarantine location, such as a local hotel, with meals delivered until their test results come back. They would then be allowed to move into residence halls, though they may only bring two suitcases and one backpack

On Friday, Cornell announced that it would no longer be able to provide quarantine housing for students who were planning to live on-campus and arriving from the 34 states and two territories on the NYS advisory list. Those students would be required to find their own quarantine housing in New York or a state not on the advisory list, or prepare for an online semester ...

Having been a college parent, I can identify with mothers and fathers trying to get their minds wrapped around the Fall semester, especially the part about limiting move-in materials to what will fit into only two suitcases and a backpack. If I were a parent seeing that requirement, my reaction would be, "Hmm. Looks like they're anticipating sending kids home before the semester's over."

Colleges Continue to Adapt

As a result of these changing variables, many colleges have 180'd on their formerly optimistic plans to bring students back to campus. The sheer unpredictability of the pandemic is a main factor, but are there more specific reasons for the changes in plans? In a July 28 Forbes article, former university president Michael T. Nietzel digs deeper and cites three potential causes for plan reversals:

  • The incidence of COVID-19 cases among young people has increased, presumably because many are ignoring or slighting public health measures like wearing masks or maintaining social distance.
  • Several states, especially in the south and west, have become pandemic hot spots, with a record number of new cases being reported in the past two weeks.
  • Campuses have seen outbreaks of the virus among students, as a result of everything from campus parties, bar visits, athletic team workouts and summer orientation sessions.

This past June, I coined the phrase "the human nature of college students." It's my firm opinion that this will be the single biggest threat to any college's plan for Fall semester. The full "college experience" doesn't typically include isolated, quarantined students having meals delivered to them as they sit inside.

Need more proof? Take Rutgers University, for example. Back in mid-April, when COVID-19 was raging and lockdowns ruled, Rutgers banned all on-campus fraternity parties. Smart move. But just several days ago, the entire Rutgers football team was forced to quarantine for two weeks after 15 players tested positive for the novel coronavirus, linked to an on-campus party that several players attended. So it appears that on-campus party bans may not be the solution for some students.

Question: What's a college to do, then? Answer: Whatever it takes. Those C2i numbers cited above will certainly continue to change. The trickle-down consequences for college students and their families will be many — enough to fill a third suitcase!

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