As the coronavirus pandemic shows no sign of abating, college campuses are now faced with a tough choice: how to plan for the fall 2020 semester. As of May 25, a majority of the approximately 750 colleges surveyed by The Chronicle of Higher Education indicated that they hoped to reopen their campuses this fall with some social distancing measures in place. So, will colleges reopen in the fall? That will depend on how the pandemic progresses, and the precautions that college campuses take.
"Reopening" could mean anything from opening up labs at research institutions to guaranteeing on-campus housing for students who need it, but the main question facing collegiate authorities is whether or not to open up their campuses for in-person classes and activity in the fall. As of May 19, many schools, including the University of Michigan, Washington University, and Columbia University, are cautiously aiming for a fall 2020 reopening. Other schools, like the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California, are still exploring their options, and have yet to make a decision about whether or not to reopen in the fall.
As many college presidents aim to reopen their campuses in fall 2020, experts tell Elite Daily that there are precautions colleges must take in order for their students and faculty members to safely return to campus. After all, colleges — and especially on-campus dorms — often serve as a "hotbed for infectious disease even when we aren't in a pandemic," according to Rachael Piltch-Loeb, Ph.D, a preparedness fellow at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
"Things like norovirus, mono, or flu are easily caught on college campuses where students share living and eating spaces," Piltch-Loeb tells Elite Daily. She notes that the nature of a diverse campus means that students will likely have to travel from other areas to return, potentially spreading infection. "The reopening of campuses means we can expect an outbreak may be likely," Piltch-Loeb says. Plus, as Piltch-Loeb pointed out to Elite Daily back in March, "college life is social life," in which large groups of people are interacting with one another in confined spaces.
If colleges do attempt to reopen their campuses for in-person instruction, they will need to make several important changes to how they function. According to Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, it may be possible for schools to safely reopen this fall, but only if they "develop operational plans that make it feasible for people to social distance."
"This might involve modifications of certain activities, protection of vulnerable populations, and access to testing," Adalja says. "Congregate settings like colleges can be places where the virus can find a lot of people to infect over a very short period of time. It will be important to have safeguards in place in order to identify those cases, isolate them, and contact trace."
For schools to safely reopen their campuses to students this fall, several things would need to happen. According to Piltch-Loeb, "colleges and universities appear to be assuming the virus will be less bad this summer and resurge in some capacity in the late fall or winter likely coinciding with flu season," but that's not necessarily the case. If schools do want to reopen, Piltch-Loeb says, they need to minimize large groups and take precautions where they're unavoidable.
"Some thoughts would be to convert dorm rooms to singles where possible; retrofit building ventilation if possible to change how air recirculates to limit viral spread; require open windows or doors wherever possible to increase air circulation; or even hold class outside," Piltch-Loeb says. "Dining halls may stay closed and grab and go meals encouraged.
Lastly, in order for any areas or public institutions, like college campuses, to fully reopen, Piltch-Loeb told Elite Daily in April there must be a widely accessible vaccine and a verified treatment for the coronavirus. Fully reopening before such preventative measures are available would not be safe, per Piltch-Loeb.
This bodes poorly for any college campus looking to open in the next few months, as the chances of a vaccine being developed by fall 2020 are slim to none. According to Jody Greene, associate vice provost for teaching and learning at the University of California, Santa Cruz, college campuses must adapt to the possibility that distance learning is here to stay, at least until they can safely reopen. Despite the concerns about how effective it is to teach and study via video chat, Greene says it's not as bad as you may think.
"I think we’re going to get better at figuring out how to do distance learning at scale," Greene tells Elite Daily. "We have to take everything we know from the last 25 years about what works well in an online setting and apply that to remote instruction for as long as we need to do it." This includes designing curricula explicitly for distance learning, instead of streaming lectures and throwing a typical in-person class onto Zoom. Greene also says that breaking up lectures into smaller pieces and developing exercises that "help students engage with what they’ve learned" can be an effective way to "guide students through remote learning."
Greene suggests that the stress of being in a pandemic may be coloring how students and teachers view distance learning — and that it may be more effective if educators acknowledge that the trauma of dealing with a pandemic is affecting students' ability to learn. Greene says that for her, "a really major concern on the educational side is on the psychological effects of trying to learn to teach and to learn during a pandemic."
"I understand that a lot of responsibility has been laid at the feet of remote instruction for people not learning," she says. But, Greene adds, teaching in-person wouldn't necessarily make learning any easier for students dealing with a pandemic, because "people who are going through disasters or traumatic events can’t learn in person either."
As warmer weather sets in, most schools have abandoned the possibility of in-person courses and workshops for the summer, but a fall reopening is not necessarily off the table. If you're a college student wondering if you'll be heading back to campus in the fall, you'll have to wait and see what your school decides to do. Keep track of any safety precautions your college is taking, and how school officials plan to protect students in this time of uncertainty, and following the CDC guidance is always a good bet. But at the end of the day, only you can decide whether you'll feel safe and healthy on campus if and when your school decides to reopen.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Elite Daily's coverage of coronavirus here.
Rachael Piltch-Loeb, Ph.D, preparedness fellow at Harvard University's T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Dr. Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security
Jody Greene, associate vice provost for teaching and learning at the University of California, Santa Cruz