American colleges should be applauded for their quick and decisive action to protect the health and safety of their communities when COVID-19 first hit. Now that states and institutions are gradually shedding shelter-in-place policies and allowing the opening of businesses and gatherings, there will be scrutiny on higher education leaders to create a logical, workable plan for the fall semester and the foreseeable future.

In an effort to determine effective plans for reopening in the fall, colleges and universities are currently reviewing guidelines and policies from a variety of private and governing bodies. Because there is no single organization policing these plans, it is up to individual institutions and state-wide systems to evaluate guidelines and policies and ultimately determine what will be most effective for them.

Four areas to focus on when returning to campus

To be judicious and thoughtful in their approach, most schools are taking into consideration the advice of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), state and local guidelines, local laws, and the concerns and needs of their own campus communities. University leaders are rapidly reviewing their own policies, in addition to research from the CDC, the American Health College Association, and insights from a variety of college presidents. From this work, we can see that there are four main areas of focus around which colleges and universities are creating their own set of reopening guidelines:

Student and faculty behavioral strategies

Schools want to reduce the spread of viruses by limiting exposure among students. This includes reducing class sizes for on-campus courses, mandating wearing of face masks, and education around things like hand washing, self-care, and limiting gatherings to small groups. Much of these efforts will require education and instilling behaviors. Some schools will choose to simply not return in the fall to seriously limit any form of exposure. Others will pursue a hybrid plan of online and offline courses. Those that will have students on campus in the fall are preparing for the need to increase staffing and resources at campus health facilities.

Effective management of campus facilities

University facilities, student services, and IT teams are working quickly to adapt the physical environment of their schools to be more conducive to social distancing. This includes upgrading and managing ventilation and water systems, adopting continuous disinfection and cleaning practices, limiting usage of common areas like recreational areas, dining halls, and student unions. The impact of these things will dramatically change the student experience, and schools are being cautious to balance safety with student needs.

Balancing remote learning with student needs

The move to online learning that began in March 2020 won’t go completely away. Some schools are opting for 100% online in the fall, while others will adopt a hybrid model. Schools realize also that most students have access to laptops or tablets, which will enable them to be effective at connecting to online, remote classes. For students who don’t have the technology required, colleges will need to provide these to them or offer an effective way to stay engaged when not in actual classrooms and lecture halls. Most schools are currently developing comprehensive strategies for online learning as a long-term option for college students, so what happens in the fall of 2020 could likely form the foundation of the future of learning in higher education. Doing so requires more than just porting coursework and curriculum to an online format, and will demand the efforts of academic experts, IT leaders, and representatives from student, faculty, and university administration.

Protecting the physical and mental health of students and faculty

The CDC recommends that schools develop protocols for isolating, transporting, and caring for students and faculty who develop symptoms or are diagnosed with COVID-19. These include processes that impact health and safety regulations beyond just the campus; local and state health officials will need to be alerted and cases tracked.

The actual implementation of fall plans will undoubtedly integrate various elements of these four factors. Current scenarios that are being considered include the following:

  • Business as usual - some campuses, like Purdue in Indiana, will resume normal campus life and on-campus learning, albeit with precautions and social distancing policies in place. For schools that choose this route, students will be in classes, some recreational activities will resume, and there will be a semblance of normal campus life.
  • 100% online - the California State University system has opted to keep all students at home and go completely online for the fall. There will be economic factors that these schools will need to deal with, as some students will opt not to return to college or may take a gap year. Additionally, faculty and IT teams will be working feverishly to ensure that they can deliver all aspects of academics via the Internet.
  • Hybrid model - the hybrid model of learning will function with classes being conducted both face-to-face and online. For many schools taking this route, they have established a threshold for the number of students allowed in an on-campus class. Many have chosen to limit the number of students in a face-to-face class to fewer than 20. All other classes will be conducted online.
  • Adapted schedules - a common approach is to begin the fall with a mix of online and in-person classes, and to reduce the amount of time the students are on campus. Many will start with their regularly planned beginning of the semester but will close at the start of the Thanksgiving break. That break will last until after the new year, which limits the amount of travel to and from schools, and thus, hopefully reducing exposure to students and faculty.

As colleges figure out their plans, they are factoring in things like feasibility, economic impact, and ensuring they are staying true to their academic missions. Irrespective of the path they take, it will undoubtedly hasten the implementation of certain strategies that some schools had planned for a much later time. But just as universities are leaders in innovation, they may be the best places to see how disruptive changes will impact the face of the new university.

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