Growing numbers of U.S. colleges are pledging to reopen this fall, with dramatic changes to campus life to keep the coronavirus at bay. Big lectures will be a thing of the past. Dorms will be nowhere near capacity. Students will face mandatory virus testing. And at some smaller schools, students may be barred from leaving campus.
Even as some universities abandon hope of in-person instruction next semester, citing concerns from public health officials, dozens are announcing plans to welcome students back in August. They acknowledge that an outbreak could force classes back online, but many of their leaders say the financial and political pressures to reopen are too large to ignore.
Colleges planning to reopen include Purdue University, Texas A&M University, the University of Notre Dame 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 soon to make a call.
The California State University system, by contrast, has said its 23 campuses will stay mostly online this fall, citing predictions of a virus resurgence later this year. Others including the University of South Carolina, Rice, and Creighton universities plan to bring students back, but end the term early, before Thanksgiving, anticipating a second wave could hit later in the fall.
Many students have planned to work part time and study simultaneously. Anita Orpa, a senior in Edison expressed her future plans this upcoming fall.
“Ideally I will be attending Queens College and I would like to keep volunteering at New York Presbyterian in the Child Life department. I am also considering a part time job as a medical assistant,” Orpa said.
Colleges that plan to reopen have told students to expect strict social distancing measures, including mandatory use of face masks. College leaders say widespread virus testing will be the linchpin to a safe reopening. At many schools, students who test positive would be placed in dorm rooms reserved as quarantine space. Orpa remains concerned how the CUNY system is responding.
“Queen’s College… I don’t know for sure, there has been a lack of communication between students and the facility due to COVID-19,” Orpa said.
There are questions about schools’ ability to provide large numbers of tests. Some research universities say they have the lab equipment to analyze virus tests, but not enough swabs and testing chemicals. Smaller schools will need to hire companies to handle tests, likely at a significant cost.
Mastura Mahjabin, an Edison alumni from the graduating class of 2019, recently finished her Spring semester at Cornell University.
“My college in general has done a great job providing a proper refund and emailing me with updates about all changes. I think our opinions mattered a lot when it came to determine how the university should open this fall and we were properly able to voice our opinions.”
Once students are back on campus, the primary goal will be to keep them spaced out, colleges say. Classroom desks will be arranged 6 feet apart. Class schedules may be staggered. Big lectures will be split up or moved online. Some colleges are discussing teaching certain classes outside or in tents.
Mahjabin said, “I personally feel that some of the departments failed to sympathize for the students going through issues I would only imagine. We have accepted that, but I think some of the professors need to work on sympathizing for their students this semester because stress from home and school was unbearable for some.
“Cornell did an outstanding job making sure all students are able to have access to all the resources and all students are able to have a successful college career.”
A growing number of colleges say they will offer a “hybrid flex” model, in which classes are offered online and in person at the same time, and students can choose either option. Professors at some colleges will also be allowed to continue teaching remotely through video feeds projected in the classroom.
Students’ concerns about equity and diversity raise plausible questions during these times. Jaime Diaz, a senior at Edison, was accepted into Stony Brook this upcoming fall and stated her concern.
“Stony Brook is said to be a diverse campus, I have visited the campus previously and they have had many people of color. I have also been in contact with some of my Stony Brook freshman peers and many I have spoken to are Hispanic, African American, and Asian. On one of Stony Brooks official Instagram pages they had addressed the issues of the murder of George Floyd,” Diaz said.
Student access and success in higher education continue to be impacted by the effects of structural racism and systemic poverty. Achievement gaps among student groups reflect structural inequities that are often the result of historic and systemic social injustices.
Vendela Perry, the valedictorian of the graduating class of 2020, will be attending Cornell University this Fall.
“The primary reason I chose to attend Cornell University over other offers is because of its diversity in cultures, beliefs, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Prior to committing, I questioned both Duke and Cornell students of color about their experiences in order to get a better grasp of which environment would be more suitable for me,” said Perry.
“Although both are great institutions, I found there to be a commonality amongst all Cornell answers- inclusion.”
With COVID-19 still present and the current political unrest, redefining what the American dream is through every individual’s path, seems more relevant than ever.