Even as several universities abandon hopes for direct teaching next semester, citing concerns from public health officials, dozens announced plans to welcome students back in August. They recognize that outbreaks can force classes back online, but many of their leaders say the financial and political pressure to reopen is too great to ignore.
At the University of West Virginia, President E. Gordon Gee said students did not want to wait for the vaccine, and the school could not afford it.
“If it’s only based on science, we will close everything until we have a vaccine and until it works. But I don’t feel it’s feasible, either economically or socially, and certainly not educating,” Gee said. “We will open, but it will be different.”
Colleges planning to reopen include Purdue University, Texas A&M University, Notre Dame University and statewide systems in Arizona, Florida, New Hampshire, and elsewhere. Some plan to make decisions this summer, including Princeton University, where officials say it’s too early to call.
The California State University System, in contrast, said its 23 campuses will remain largely online this fall, citing predictions of a virus revival later this year. Others including the University of South Carolina, Rice and Creighton universities plan to bring students back but end the semester early, before Thanksgiving, anticipating a second wave could hit later in the fall.
President Donald Trump has urged schools to reopen despite concerns from the main infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci. Speaking at a Senate hearing last week, Fauci said it would “be a bit of a bridge too far” to expect vaccines before autumn. Trump replied that the comment was “not an acceptable answer.”
In other countries that emerged from lockdowns, universities were slow to reopen. Elementary schools in France were permitted to reopen earlier this month, but universities were expected to remain closed during the summer. Universities in New Zealand have been given permission to reopen, but most say they plan to stay online until July or later.
Cambridge University of England announced on Wednesday that all private lectures will be canceled until the 2020-21 academic year due to a pandemic.
In the U.S., colleges that plan to reopen have told students to expect strict social distance measures, including the use of mandatory face masks. College leaders say extensive virus testing will be the key to safely reopening. In many schools, students who are tested positive will be placed in a dormitory room provided as a quarantine room.
But there are questions about the ability of schools to provide a large number of tests. Some research universities say they have laboratory equipment to analyze virus tests, but not enough smears and chemical testing. Smaller schools need to hire companies to handle the test, possibly at a significant cost.
In a call with 14 university leaders last week, Vice-President Mike Pence promised to help universities improve testing operations. But several calls said details, especially regarding funding, remained blurred.
“This testing will be costly, and many academic institutions will already be challenged fiscally,” said Michael Lovell, president of Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “There is no clear path from an institutional point of view.”
After students return to campus, the main goal is to keep them from leaving, the college said. The class table will be arranged 6 feet apart. Class schedules may be staggered. Large lectures will be shared or transferred online. Some colleges are discussing teaching certain classes outside or in tents.
More and more colleges are saying they will offer a “hybrid flex” model, where classes are offered online and in person, and students can choose one option. Professors at several universities will also be allowed to continue teaching remotely through video feeds projected in class.
However, what is most annoying for universities is the dilemma of dorm life. In some schools, suites intended for a number of students will be limited to one or two. The bathroom shared by the entire floor will be limited to a handful of students. With only so much dormitory space, several colleges have been scrambling to rent nearby apartments as housing is abundant.
At Trinity College, a 2,000 school in Hartford, Connecticut, officials hope to place each student in their own room. Staff members have explored the campus with tape measures in recent weeks to ensure students will have space to stay 6 feet apart.
“I have a big incentive to want to reopen. I want to see our students. I want to see them educated in the best way, “said Trinity President Joanne Berger-Sweeney. “And I also want to remain a significant and good employer in the state of Connecticut at that very important time.”
Boston University is exploring whether housing problems can be solved by placing students into “family groups” who live together but have little social interaction with other groups. Robert Brown, the school president, said putting all students alone “may be too isolating for students and leads to a series of other problems.”
At Claremont McKenna College near Los Angeles, officials wondered how their single dining room would accommodate 900 students who bought meal packages. The school considers measures to limit capacity in the hall, which may require students to take turns eating or take their food outside.
That’s just one way in which campus life “won’t be the same as what we have developed,” said Hiram Chodosh, president of the college.
Hoping to keep the virus away, a number of smaller colleges are considering restrictions or even outright bans on campus trips. In a recent letter to students, Amherst College in Massachusetts said officials “may need to require you to limit your movements to campus locations.”
In West Virginia, Gee said she would rely on students to monitor their own behavior. He argues that peer pressure is more effective “than a 76-year-old university president saying don’t do it.” Gee, who is known for his impromptu performances at student activities on campus and outside, said he would reduce this fall, many were disappointed.
“It will be very different for me, and I will miss that,” Gee said. “But I saw us dancing with Coronavirus. It will be with us forever, even as we find the vaccine. We just need to learn how to manage it in a way that allows life to go on. “
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