What the Coronavirus Means for the College Experience This Spring

Lessons from the fall will help guide the spring semester.

COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, hit college campuses last spring, forcing schools into pandemic intervention mode. The pandemic prompted many colleges to empty dorms, send students home and shift to online classes. As the spring 2021 semester nears, colleges have more clarity about how to balance student expectations and COVID-19 precautions. Research by the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College in North Carolina, which is tracking institutional COVID-19 responses, finds that nearly 1,400 schools have transitioned to online instruction for the spring. Others will forge on with in-person classes. While responses vary by school, here’s what students can expect from the college experience in the forthcoming spring semester.

The semester may start in quarantine.

When students arrive at Connecticut College, they’ll spend the start of the semester in quarantine, says Dean of Students Victor Arcelus. They’ll also be expected to self-isolate for two weeks before the start of the semester in order to test negative when they first arrive on campus, meaning students should bunker down before heading off to college. Once the semester starts, COVID-19 testing will continue throughout the spring. “All of that is to help to minimize the amount of COVID-19 that’s going to come onto campus,” Arcelus adds. He notes that he’s heard about similar plans at other colleges, though quarantine time may vary by school. Students should check with individual colleges to determine if quarantining on campus will be required upon arrival.

Colleges will try to limit who is on campus.

If a student can safely study from home, a college may encourage him or her to do just that. That’s the case at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, according to Chief Health Officer Dr. Preeti Malani. While Malani says the university aims to accommodate students who need to be on campus, those who can learn comfortably from home are encouraged to do so. By decreasing population density, the college hopes to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Some colleges are limiting who is allowed on campus by class, prioritizing bringing only freshmen or seniors back to campus for the spring semester.

COVID-19 precautions will be written into the student code of conduct.

Colleges wrote COVID-19 precautions into codes of conduct in the fall, which students should expect to continue for the spring semester. “Our Student Code of Conduct and Honor Code was expanded to include expectations relating to COVID-19,” Arcelus says. Code of conduct requirements may vary by college, but will likely ask students to adhere to behaviors such as wearing face masks, social distancing, complying with coronavirus testing and abstaining from attending or hosting large gatherings. Students who break these rules may face disciplinary action including suspension or removal from campus housing, depending on their college. Some schools have established tip lines to report behavior that flouts COVID-19 prevention protocols.

Spring break is likely canceled.

Many colleges adjusted their traditional academic calendar in the fall so students could end the semester and go home before Thanksgiving due to concerns about holiday travel and bringing COVID-19 back to campus. Similar travel concerns have prompted some colleges to cancel spring break, instead sprinkling in a few days off throughout the semester. “We all learned in March that sending students around the country and around the world in the middle of the pandemic and then asking them to come back is not a good idea,” says Elizabeth Meade, president of Cedar Crest College in Pennsylvania, a school that has scrapped spring break. Sheldon H. Jacobson, a computer science professor specializing in public health data at the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign, adds that “traveling outside of a university town is the riskiest thing that people can do” this spring semester.

An online component is likely, even on campus.

Many colleges are committed to an online semester, according to research from the College Crisis Initiative. But even those planning an in-person semester will likely offer, or even require, online classes for students on campus. At Cedar Crest College, which is bringing students back, less than half of classes will be fully in person. Others will take place in a hybrid model, which allows students to participate online some days and attend classes in person on others, Meade says. A mandatory quarantine for the first two weeks means the spring semester will start with students learning remotely from their dorm rooms. Plans at the University of Colorado Boulder go further, with spring classes online for at least the first month and students being asked to stay in their hometowns until in-person classes resume, according to a recent university announcement.

Financial aid may be up for negotiation.

The coronavirus has disrupted multiple industries in the U.S. and abroad, prompting job losses that have left some families reeling. A silver lining is that students may be able to get more financial aid from their college due to their shifting economic circumstances as the financial fallout from COVID-19 continues. With families hurting, colleges may be able to step in and help. “We’re definitely still seeing impacts,” says Meade at Cedar Crest. “We have had to find additional resources to expand financial aid to students who have found their financial situation is dramatically impacted by the virus. That work is ongoing.”

Face masks will likely be mandatory.

Most states have mask mandates in place. But expect to mask up on campus even in states without a mandate. For example, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln requires everyone on campus to use face coverings indoors with a few exceptions — despite the lack of a mask mandate in the state — as coronavirus numbers there continue to climb. In the absence of statewide mask mandates, local officials in some states have issued their own orders, guidance that would extend to colleges there. President-elect Joe Biden has indicated that he may implement a national mask mandate upon taking office in January. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on reopening colleges urges that “students, faculty, and staff follow all steps to protect themselves and others at all times, including proper use of face masks, social distancing, and hand hygiene.”

Testing may be required for students living on or accessing campus.

Many colleges lack the resources to test every student — but some will, especially smaller schools. Connecticut College, for example, plans to test students living on campus twice a week, with similar testing for faculty and staff depending on how often they work on campus. Other campuses, such as the University of California–San Diego, saw success in the fall by offering students self-administered COVID-19 tests and monitoring wastewater from campus facilities to identify COVID-19 outbreaks. “Testing is absolutely critical,” Jacobson from the University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign says. “If you want to do it right, everybody gets tested periodically, because the problem is asymptomatic transmission.” He adds that many young people experience no COVID-19 symptoms yet are still contagious.

Most students will have a long wait for a vaccine.

Despite the approval of a coronavirus vaccine in the U.S., college students shouldn’t get their hopes up for a fast shot. Barring preexisting health conditions, most college students will be at the back of a long national line to get vaccinated. According to the CDC website, health care personnel, essential workers, those at high risk of COVID-19 due to underlying health conditions, and those 65 and older will be prioritized for early vaccinations. “Students are really low on the list there; they’re going to be near the end of the line,” says Jacobson, who anticipates college students being vaccinated in late 2021 or early 2022.

Residence halls will have restrictions.

Living on campus may look a little different this spring and may come without the standard college roommate. Some colleges are offering only single dorm rooms, and others are restricting students from visiting other residence halls. “One of the big changes we made was going to all singles for residence halls for the students coming back,” says Malani at the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor. She notes that the move was largely made to decrease transmission risks, but also because it may be difficult for two students to balance attending online classes in the same dorm room. “The hope is with fewer numbers in the residence halls we will be able to have some common spaces open,” Malani adds. “Not just for studying, but also for meeting in a socially distant, safe manner.”

Expect restrictions in dining halls.

Restaurants and bars have been identified as risky areas for coronavirus transmission. “Indoor dining is really difficult to make safe, particularly on scale,” Malani says. As such, expect colleges to clamp down on dining halls, restricting certain offerings and limiting available spaces if eating indoors is even allowed. “I’m not seeing buffets coming back very quickly,” Jacobson says. “It’s going to be grab-and-go kind of meals and box meals.” For colleges that do offer indoor dining, experts say to expect some type of reservation system. Outdoor dining spaces may also increase as the weather warms up during the spring.

Physical barriers will remain on campus.

Purdue University–West Lafayette in Indiana deployed a total of a mile of Plexiglas across its campus in the fall to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Other colleges weren’t quite so ambitious, but did put up protective barriers and social distancing signs. Regardless of how much a college spent on risk mitigation strategies, those are dollars already invested, meaning experts don’t see physical barriers being removed until the threat of COVID-19 has diminished. College officials note that capacity limits will also remain in place in order to properly enforce social distancing and prevent students from overcrowding common areas on campus.

Outdoor options and events will be limited at first.

Colleges set up tents and moved classes outdoors in the fall, a move that allowed students to spread out and social distance. But the weather in many states will not permit such a move. Instead, this trend will play out in reverse in the spring semester. According to experts, colleges are more likely to offer outdoor classes and events as the semester progresses and the weather warms up, which is a safer option than being inside. “That creates more opportunities to move people outdoors as the semester proceeds, as opposed to moving indoors as the semester proceeded, as we saw in the fall semester,” Jacobson says.

Students will need to find safe ways to socialize.

Large college parties are a coronavirus risk that prompted multiple campus officials to chastise students last semester. But socializing is generally healthy behavior and vital to the college experience. “I think it’s important for the well-being of the students to not just be in their room all the time,” Malani says. She encourages students to find ways to socialize safely, ideally outdoors and socially distanced. “If you can get together and avoid eating and drinking inside, that helps a lot,” Malani says.

Some campus jobs will shift online.

As campuses closed at the onset of the coronavirus, many students lost jobs they relied on for much-needed income. But in the fall many jobs transitioned online, a trend that will continue into the spring, Arcelus says. “There were more remote jobs than we’ve ever had before,” he says. “Employment is still an important part of the student experience.” Jobs that can’t be done remotely, such as working in the library or campus cafeteria, will take place in environments modified to include protective barriers. Expect to see the same plastic shields at the campus library that are found in local restaurants and gas stations.

College sports will likely not go on as planned.

“There’s going to be a scramble in the winter sports season for colleges and universities to try to complete a full men’s and women’s basketball schedule,” says Richard M. Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina. “Unfortunately, I think it’s going to be a very big challenge.” Southall anticipates a barrage of postponements and cancellations due to positive COVID-19 cases. He expects college basketball to be prioritized due to the money tied up in TV deals, particularly March Madness, the popular NCAA tournament that decides the national champions in basketball. The landscape for non-revenue-generating sports is less clear.

Some athletics programs won’t play at all.

Some conferences have already shut athletics programs down. The Ivy League, for example, canceled men’s and women’s basketball along with wrestling, indoor track and field, and other sports that stretch into the spring. Likewise, sports that traditionally start in the spring are delayed until the start of March. But the calls to cancel entire sports seasons are coming from individual conferences rather than the NCAA itself. “We haven’t heard the NCAA really come out with any national guidelines,” Southall says. “By and large it’s being left up to the conferences and to individual colleges and universities.”

Find the school — or experience — for you.

College students looking ahead to the spring should consider how attending classes remotely may affect financial aid. Prospective students can get more information about how to choose a college, and check out the complete rankings of the Best Colleges to find the right school. And connect with U.S. News Education on Twitter and Facebook for more advice and information on selecting a college.

Changes to expect at colleges this spring

— The semester may start in quarantine.

— Colleges will try to limit who is on campus.

— COVID-19 precautions will be written into the student code of conduct.

— Spring break is likely canceled.

— An online component is likely, even on campus.

— Financial aid may be up for negotiation.

— Face masks will likely be mandatory.

— Testing may be required for students living on or accessing campus.

— Most students will have a long wait for a vaccine.

— Residence halls will have restrictions.

— Expect restrictions in dining halls.

— Physical barriers will remain on campus.

— Outdoor options and events will be limited at first.

— Students will need to find safe ways to socialize.

— Some campus jobs will shift online.

— College sports will likely not go on as planned.

— Some athletics programs won’t play at all.

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How the Coronavirus Is Affecting Greek Life

What Work-Study Looks Like During the Coronavirus Pandemic

What the Coronavirus Means for the College Experience This Spring originally appeared on usnews.com

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