When we all went home for spring break last semester, we imagined we’d be back on campus in a week, carrying on with classes for the last weeks of the spring semester. But during that week at home, the world got turned upside down. We found ourselves in quarantine with classes, jobs, athletics, and graduations all put on hold.
Now the summer is upon us and one question looms for college administrators: what do we do for the fall semester?
Right now, many colleges are debating when, if, and how to resume classes or make adjustments to classes in the coming semester. Making sure you create an environment that is both safe and conducive to learning is no easy feat. Read on to learn more about what the fall semester might look like for different universities.
Recap of Last Semester
Last semester, colleges and universities around the country experienced an unprecedented upheaval of their semesters. Semesters started back as usual in January, and everything seemed normal up until spring break. Students went home or on vacation during the break, and that’s when everything went haywire.
As reports of new COVID-19 cases came flooding in, colleges started by extending spring break for two weeks, hoping to give enough time for the virus to be contained. But within days, this became a time to allow professors to move their classes online. By April, most universities had canceled in-person classes all on-campus activities.
Before we dive into what next semester might look like for colleges and universities specifically, let’s take a look at the overall predictions for the pandemic as we move into the fall. Already, many experts are anticipating a second wave that will hit sometime this fall or winter. With 100,000 dead already, this second wave could lead to even more stringent lockdowns than we’ve seen in the last few months.
By August, experts predict that more than 130,000 people will have died. Many also say we may have to keep social distancing until we have a vaccine that has been distributed to a large enough portion of the population. Most reliable estimates say that it may well be 2022 before we reach that point.
So in the meantime, while we’re waiting for a vaccine to be developed, how can we protect ourselves and our students from COVID-19? The CDC’s biggest recommendation is that we continue practicing social distancing. The coronavirus spreads through particles that are expelled through your nose and mouth when you talk, sneeze, or even breathe.
Avoiding close contact with people (less than six feet of distance between you) can help to limit the spread of these respiratory droplets. Everyone should wash their hands frequently and cover any coughs and sneezes. Everyone should also wear a mask every time they go out in public.
Fully Online Semester
In light of the social distancing guidelines the CDC has put out, many universities are preparing to move their fall semesters to a fully online platform. Campuses would stay closed, professors and students would work from home, and all classes would be conducted online. This could happen through video lectures and online tests or through independent study-style models.
While this model is the safest from a health standpoint, it does raise challenges for schools. For one thing, providing access to students who do not have a stable internet connection at home becomes all but impossible. And for another, students who are not strong independent learners or professors who are not adept with the required technology may struggle with this model.
Limited In-Person Classes
Some universities are considering partially reopening their campuses for limited in-person classes. If all students and professors are wearing masks and all class participants stay six feet apart at all times, it is possible to hold an in-person class with relatively low risk of infection. This offers a promising option for students who cannot access online learning options from home.
However, this model places severe limitations on class size and requires universities to prioritize which students may attend class on campus. Professors may find themselves with a double workload if they’re teaching in-person classes to ten or fewer people and managing as many as 100 students online. And in order for these settings to be safe, classrooms would have to be disinfected between each class.
Many universities feel that no matter what reopening model they begin with, it is unlikely to be suitable for the whole semester. What we know about preventing and treating COVID-19 is changing day by day, and predictive models change by the hour. In light of this, some universities are considering a phased reopening approach, starting with traditional in-person classes in the fall and remaining prepared to pivot to an online footing as needed.
On one hand, the flexibility and adaptability of this model make it possible to have a more intentional, organized, and seamless transition at whatever point it becomes necessary. However, there might be harm in reopening the schools at all for the fall semester. Even if campuses only reopen for a few weeks before moving to an online platform, hundreds or thousands of students may be exposed to the virus and then expose their families, in turn, when they return home.
Given how fast the COVID-19 situation is changing, some universities are opting to hold off on reopening at all for the time being, either online or otherwise. Instead, these universities are looking at delaying the semester by a few months. Semesters would start in October or November and continue through until January, combining the school year into one long period of time, rather than two distinct semesters.
This plan is undoubtedly one of the best ways to keep people safe and healthy, and it removes any questions of fair accessibility. However, student and professor performance in the spring semester may suffer because of this long work period with no break. And the question remains of whether it will be safe for universities to go back to normal operations any time in the next two years.
A few colleges are moving full steam ahead with a full reopening for the fall semester. These schools will immediately resume holding in-person classes in the fall with full student presence on campus. Social distancing and personal protection may be required, although many of these schools are stopping at a simple recommendation.
This is without question the most dangerous of the fall semester plans. Not only will full classrooms make it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain appropriate social distancing, a larger student presence will also mean vastly more exposure both on campus and in the community. Many students may also be unable or unwilling to come back to campus at this time due to health concerns and may not have access to the same learning opportunities as if these universities were to open on a partially online footing.
Dorm Living Situations
One of the biggest question marks for colleges considering reopening plans is what to do about dormitories. In the best of times, dorms are hot spots for illness to spread since students spend so much time in close quarters. In a pandemic, they could become incredibly dangerous disease vectors.
Some universities are proposing a “pod” system where small groups of students would spend all of their time on campus in designated dorm areas, taking classes through virtual means. This would mimic the family unit at home and would ideally help limit the spread of the disease while maintaining the campus experience, especially for freshmen. But even this model brings together people from different areas and households together, increasing their risk of exposure.
Campus Life Activities
Athletics have been the other major question mark for colleges and universities. Football in particular is a huge source of revenue for many schools, but there is no safe way to have tens of thousands of people gathered in a stadium. Nonetheless, the NCAA says it plans to move forward with college football games and tournaments as usual.
Some universities are putting restrictions in place requiring players to pass temperature screenings before they come on campus for training and workouts. Others are discussing limiting stadium attendance numbers at games this fall. All of these plans violate the CDC recommended guidelines for avoiding large crowds and maintaining social distancing.
Plan a Successful Fall Semester
The outbreak of COVID-19 has turned every aspect of our society upside down, and with the fall semester fast approaching, colleges and universities are trying to figure out how to manage higher education in a pandemic-riddled world. Online learning is the safest option from a health perspective, but it does raise questions of accessibility and school culture. The strongest plans at the moment seem to be the ones prepared to adapt as the situation changes, leaving multiple options open, and keeping the safety of students and faculty as the highest priority.
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