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Colleges Continue to Change Course for Fall 2020

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When I was in the Navy, I was a crew member aboard an aircraft carrier. We had a full battle group with us: multiple destroyers, destroyer escorts, guided-missile cruisers, frigates, a supply ship and submarines. It was a formidable assemblage. When orders came down instructing our carrier group to change course, we did what we called a "fleet turn." Our carrier and all its accompanying ships carefully turned, in concert, to a new direction in one huge maneuver. It was like a gigantic piece of choreography with all components acting together. Fleet turns are critical to keeping everything together and staying on course.


Colleges are like battle groups. Changing course for them also requires a massive effort. The "battle" analogy seems appropriate these days because there is an ongoing struggle now at many levels in higher education to simultaneously meet students' educational needs and remain financially viable while dealing with the threats and uncertainties of COVID-19.

As I noted in a previous article, many colleges at this point have committed to bringing students back to campus this fall. Others won't and will offer only online courses. There are those proposing hybrid solutions, while still others are waiting to decide. It's a very mixed bag, and quite frustrating for students and parents.

Administrators Under Pressure

In reviewing the specifics of how colleges are addressing the uncertainties of this unprecedented pandemic, I found their proposed solutions and rationales interesting and want to share some of those plans and contingencies here. For large university systems, and especially underfunded small colleges, making a fleet turn can be a perilous venture. Try to imagine the pressures on administrative leadership as schools deal with this decision. Here are some media reports about that process.

The Washington Post's Nick Anderson cautions that College students want answers about fall, but schools may not have them for months:

there are no dates yet for the next academic year. Just scenarios. And that unprecedented uncertainty is ­fueling a second wave of crisis for schools already plunged into financial distress.

Colleges and universities nationwide are gaming out whether, when and how they can reopen campus after the abrupt shutdowns in March. Support from governors is essential but is hardly the only factor. Every prospective and returning student is hanging on the answers.

The possibilities range from a return to normalcy, which few higher education insiders expect at this point, to a fall semester with dorms shuttered and students taking classes from home until at least January

For example, the University of Virginia could start classes on Aug. 25 as scheduled, with students in Charlottesville but under new social distancing restrictions to guard public health. It could delay the semester and plan to open in person some weeks later. Or it could launch the school year without students on campus and teach remotely until circumstances allow a return.

Schools everywhere face variations of these choices. All carry a degree of risk. Opening campuses, whether sooner or later, will require a plan for what to do when someone is found to be a carrier or falls ill with covid-19. "You can't pretend away the virus," [UVA president James] Ryan said

Graeme Wood, in The Atlantic, states that There's No Simple Way to Reopen Universities and asks, "How do you operate institutions designed to mix people and ideas without also mixing viruses?" Great question, one that's on the mind of students and families everywhere. How do you deal with a virus that is so infectious and "sticky" when the very heart of college education requires close contact of large groups of students with faculty?

Wood reports that "... Christina Paxson, the president of Brown University in Rhode Island, proposed a path to reopening universities in the fall, just in time to welcome students and their tuition back from quarantine. Paxson is an economist, and forthright about why those tuition checks matter: "Remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half of our revenue," she writes, and for many colleges, losing half a year's tuition would mean bankruptcy. The solution, she says, is to "test, trace, separate" — in other words, to do in universities what the United States has failed to do as a country, but what Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea have done with some success

Paxon's approach, spurred, no doubt, by her public health expertise, proposes to bring all Brown students back to campus this fall but under strict scrutiny. Speaking of financial consequences, her plan to "test, trace and separate" won't be cheap. She doesn't specify the exact manner of testing, but if an infection is encountered in a student, faculty member, administrator or general campus employee, the labor-intensive tracking process will be expensive and time-consuming, not to mention the costs associated with meeting the needs of those who are quarantined. Also, such vigilance may add an oppressive pall to Brown's academic and social atmosphere. Having it both ways — a full-strength fall semester and meticulous COVID-19 monitoring — could increase student costs and deplete school cash reserves.

Student Input May Help

The Chronicle of Higher Education's John Villasenor proposes 6 Steps to Prepare for an Online Fall Semester. Here are three of them with some of my own comments:

- Survey students now to find out how many would decline to participate in an online-only fall 2020 academic term. Recent surveys have shown that online classes are extremely unpopular among students. This news puts additional pressure on administrators since one prominent option among students facing staying at home again for fall semester is to take a gap year, thus possibly negatively impacting colleges' yields and further reducing critical revenue.

- Rethink large lecture courses if fall instruction is online.If instruction remains online-only in the fall, colleges should rethink the traditional lower-division course model of large, professor-led, twice-weekly, synchronous (i.e., with students participating in real time) lectures accompanied by once-a-week, smaller, TA-led discussion section meetings. When all interactions are online, a better approach would be to ditch the large, synchronous lectures altogether ...

- When it comes to equity, walk the walk. Villasenor asks key questions: Colleges talk a lot about equity. The Covid-19 crisis provides an opportunity to walk the walk. Will colleges be willing to dip into their endowments and boost their financial-aid offerings to help the many students from families with suddenly worsened financial circumstances? Will they avoid mass staff furloughs? Will they provide some sort of financial cushion for contingent faculty, who are the gig workers of higher education and who play such a vital role in educating students? If fall instruction remains online-only, will colleges offer reduced tuition for what is clearly a reduced experience?

Speaking of so-called "hybrid" solutions, University of Maryland, Baltimore County president Freeman Hrabowski discussed his plan in an NPR interview: Colleges Weigh What It Would Take To Reopen Campuses For Fall Semester. Here's an excerpt:

the campus will be open, as it has been this spring. However, we are still to decide how many of the students will be in the residence halls. We are between 40 and 50 percent residential now. And we are thinking it will be some combination of remote learning and some students on campus, but it's all up in the air depending on everything from the CDC guidelines to what our governor says to what the system says as we work across all the campuses.

President Hrabowski speaks for many colleges and universities when he appends the specifics of his plan with, … "but it's all up in the air depending on everything from the CDC guidelines to what our governor says to what the system says as we work across all the campuses …"

It's the uncertainty factor that's causing schools so much dislocation at this point. Yes, things may become simpler and more stable as we enter the summer months, but the lead time for implementing plans is long. It takes time to coordinate a change in the movement of a college's many functions and keep everything on track. It's the fleet-turn principle on dry land.

If you follow higher education matters or — more importantly — have a personal stake in colleges' decisions about the Fall 2020 semester, you'll probably be watching for any signs of commitment, one way or the other. The behavioral unpredictability of COVID-19 will likely keep colleges delicately balanced on the decision-making fence.

Don't be surprised if schools that may have already committed to being closed this fall do a 180 and open up at least part of their campus operations due to positive news mid-summer from the CDC and other oversight authorities and experts. As I noted last time, keeping a flexible mindset is the key because changing course may be less difficult for some colleges than it is for others.

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