Changes are coming to campuses this fall.
As the novel coronavirus spread, colleges quickly closed campuses, emptied dorms and moved classes online for the rest of the spring semester. With the fall semester here, colleges are welcoming an influx of students while trying to mitigate the pandemic. Research by the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College in North Carolina finds that less than 3.5% of more than 2,100 colleges that have announced fall plans will be fully in-person, with others opting to go totally online or with hybrid instructional models. In-person experiences are coming with some modifications and restrictions. Read on to learn more about how the COVID-19 pandemic may shape the college experience this fall.
Orientation may be spread out.
The option of packing rooms full of hundreds of people is out, so expect orientation to look a little different. Instead of several large sessions, for example, colleges may assemble students into many small groups to comply with social distancing recommendations, says Mayssoun Bydon, founder and managing partner of The Institute for Higher Learning, a test prep and college admissions company. Others are embracing the virtual format and setting up Q&A video sessions; calls between students and faculty advisers using Zoom, a popular videoconferencing tool; online student organization and resource fairs; or recorded sessions that can be watched later.
Who is allowed on campus varies.
Not everyone will get the in-person experience this fall, even at colleges that are welcoming some students back to campus. Some colleges plan to only allow certain classes to have in-person attendance, such as incoming freshmen or soon-to-graduate seniors. For example, both Princeton University in New Jersey and Harvard University in Massachusetts announced plans to limit who is allowed on campus by class standing. While a number of schools have prioritized bringing freshmen on campus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology plans to prioritize bringing seniors back to campus. According to the MIT website, “only undergraduate students who have been invited or approved to come to campus and live on campus will be able to access MIT facilities.”
Traditional academic calendars may be revised.
As the new school year begins, some colleges are rethinking the academic calendar. With fears of the coronavirus continuing to spread, many colleges are adopting a model that starts classes early and ends in-person instruction before Thanksgiving. Students then finish the semester through remote instruction. The rationale behind that plan is that students are more likely to contract and spread the coronavirus when they return home for Thanksgiving. Keeping travel limited is intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
There will likely be an online component.
Some colleges, such as the entire California State University system, have already decided that the fall semester will be online. Likewise, among colleges tracked by the College Crisis Initiative who have announced plans, about 3.5% plan to be fully online, another 26% favor a hybrid model and about 26% of the total 2,958 colleges identified are still “to be determined.” While students at some colleges may be attending entirely online, others may see a mix of online and in-person instruction. Ana Mari Cauce, president of the University of Washington, said in a May webinar that large classes are likely to be online and smaller classes in person. Even as some classes go remote, Cauce expects colleges to offer lab and performance classes in person.
Face masks may be mandatory.
Colleges will likely follow the lead of state authorities on coronavirus prevention requirements. That means mandatory face masks may vary by state and campus. Even in states without mask mandates, some colleges require students to wear face coverings on campus. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on reopening colleges encourages “use of cloth face coverings among students, faculty, and staff.” Likewise, “face coverings should be worn as feasible and are most essential in times when physical distancing is difficult.” Last spring, some colleges required students to wear masks on campus when outside of residence halls, a coronavirus prevention practice that is likely to continue at some schools this fall.
Some colleges may use tents as classrooms.
Students may associate giant tents with the circus, but don’t expect any clowns or elephants in the big tops that will be set up on some college campuses this fall for use as classrooms. At Rice University in Texas, officials announced plans to build four temporary structures and erect five large tents to use as lecture halls, study areas and student meeting spaces. “Reducing population density will require us to use spaces in non-traditional ways and increase the number of large venues on campus,” Kevin E. Kirby, vice president of administration, wrote in a statement on the Rice website. Likewise, Syracuse University in New York also announced the purchase of 21 teaching tents for each of its Main and South campuses.
Expect physical barriers on campus.
Plastic shields have cropped up in grocery stores and gas stations to protect customers and employees alike. Students should expect to see the same on campus, not only in the dining hall and other service areas but also in classrooms at some schools. Professors at Purdue University–West Lafayette in Indiana, for example, will teach in-person classes behind Plexiglas shields. Speaking in a virtual town hall in late May, Purdue President Mitch Daniels said students shouldn’t come to campus this fall if they aren’t prepared to sacrifice some convenience to protect the health of others, and he urged reluctant students toward online classes.
Residence halls will also have restrictions.
Students living on campus will do so under certain restrictions. The University of Virginia is assigning students specific stalls, sinks and showers in communal bathrooms. Virginia Tech will permit only two students to a room. Meanwhile, down the road, Sweet Briar College has announced that it will make a single room available to any student who wants one. Sweet Briar President Meredith Woo sees the rural Virginia location of the campus as a boon to the college community during the pandemic. “We want to make sure that learning takes place at Sweet Briar in the safest possible environment,” Woo says.
Grab-and-go dining may replace the buffet.
Virginia Tech plans to install Plexiglas dividers and cashless kiosks, reduce seats in the dining hall and remove self-service areas. Meal plans will be available with mobile ordering, pickup and grab-and-go options for students living on campus. Given coronavirus prevention efforts, Bydon says, students should expect fewer options in campus dining halls. CDC guidance encourages colleges to offer grab-and-go options and disposable dishes and utensils. Food delivery robots may be another option at some colleges, which made use of such technology in the spring to provide meals to students who remained on closed campuses.
Colleges may be more generous with financial aid.
Students from families financially affected by the coronavirus may warrant more financial aid. “There are going to be many more appeals for an increase in financial aid, especially in the fall,” Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president of research for Savingforcollege.com, told U.S. News in May. With that in mind, students should document any slide in family finances and share it with their college. Experts suggest that financial aid appeals will continue beyond the fall semester as families grapple with the economic issues inflicted by a pandemic that has driven millions to unemployment.
Finding a job may be more difficult.
With facilities under certain restrictions, there may not be a need for certain jobs. If the campus gym is closed, for example, there’s no need for a student to run the front desk. Ditto for the lifeguard. Work-study will likely continue, but even that may change. “We think that work-study hours or responsibilities may be adjusted because finding a job on campus is not going to be as easy or as convenient for some students,” Bydon says. Those working off campus may also run into obstacles if they are in a state where restaurants and bars are closed, considering that many service industry jobs are filled by college students.
Coronavirus prevention may be written into codes of conduct.
In addition to requiring masks and testing, there may be other demands of students. Daniels at Purdue says students will be issued masks and a thermometer and must sign a code in which they agree to wear face coverings and quarantine should they show coronavirus symptoms. A key variable is student behavior as schools try to curtail partying and other seemingly normal functions of college life. Defying rules may come with serious consequences. “As much as it breaks my heart, I’m going to have to excuse a student or two in the first week of school … so that they understand we mean business. This is life or death,” Roslyn Clark Artis, president of Benedict College in South Carolina, said at a virtual conference in July.
COVID-19 testing will take on many different forms.
The approach to testing for COVID-19 will likely be as varied as the colleges administering the tests. The University of California–San Diego, for example, in May began offering self-administered nasal swab tests to students living on campus with an eye toward extending the test monthly to all students, faculty and staff beginning in September. The university will also test wastewater leaving residence halls and other facilities on campus. But how each college approaches testing will likely be determined by cost. “We’re really seeing a lot of innovation, and great ideas coming out of schools,” Bydon says. “Unfortunately, they’re not going to be uniformly applied just because every school’s endowment is different, and every school’s ability to pay for services is different.”
Some college sports will have limited spectators.
When the star player on a college sports team sinks that shot or scores that winning touchdown, it may not be accompanied by the typical roars of jubilation from fans. That’s because there will likely be a limited audience allowed in stadiums and arenas. The Texas governor, for example, told colleges to not expect more than 50% capacity in football stadiums this fall, though some schools plan on capping crowds at 25%. Since athletic conferences often span multiple states, capacity will be decided by state and local authorities, NCAA Mid-American Conference Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said in a June webinar on challenges for college athletics. That means capacity may vary widely depending on local COVID-19 restrictions.
Some college sports will not go on as scheduled.
Even if sports spectators are allowed in limited numbers, other complications abound. One that looms large is the health of the players. Outside the normal injuries that come with contact sports, those athletes are also at risk of catching the coronavirus. Though some colleges are planning to return to the field, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, told CNN in June that football is unlikely to return this fall unless players are isolated. Since June, multiple conferences have canceled fall sports, including the Big Ten and PAC-12. Others, such as the Big 12, have signaled an intent to go ahead with fall sports and some conferences are still deliberating.
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Changes to expect this fall at colleges
— Orientation may be spread out.
— Who is allowed on campus varies.
— Traditional academic calendars may be revised.
— There will likely be an online component.
— Face masks may be mandatory.
— Some colleges may use tents as classrooms.
— Expect physical barriers on campus.
— Residence halls will also have restrictions.
— Grab-and-go dining may replace the buffet.
— Colleges may be more generous with financial aid.
— Finding a job may be more difficult.
— Coronavirus prevention may be written into codes of conduct.
— COVID-19 testing will take on many different forms.
— Some college sports will have limited spectators.
— Some college sports will not go on as scheduled.
More from U.S. News
Update 08/14/20: This article has been updated with new information.