What Will Universities Look Like in the Fall?

Families across the United States are watching and waiting to see whether universities will open for the Fall 2020 Semester.   The truth is that we will not return to normal in the near future.  At the same time, universities are preparing for students to return to campus.  The Chronicle of Higher Education is curating a searchable list of colleges’ plans

The planning process means balancing student health and safety with the things that make a university a university:  rich, active learning that helps you see the world in new ways while preparing you for a career; the opportunity to meet lifelong friends; and the chance to connect to a community. Is this possible in the age of COVID-19?

            The answer is yes and no.  The world is temporarily different.  We will not be able to gather in large groups until we know it’s safe.  Some universities will open their residence halls, but everyone in the common rooms will need to be at least six feet apart. On campus, take-out might be the norm when social distancing cannot be maintained in the dining halls.  Classes won’t be the same, but they might be better in some ways and more challenging in others.

It’s important to acknowledge that the future is uncertain, and all universities put the well-being of students, faculty, and staff before any other consideration.  Universities will follow all guidelines developed by public health departments, the Centers for Disease Control, and the American Collegiate Health Association (ACHA).   There is a way to be safe and on campus, if we follow these guidelines, which is why many universities are deciding to do the following:

  • Put more courses than usual fully online. Even before COVID-19, on-campus students were increasingly combining online and in-person classes so that they could better manage their course schedules and their other responsibilities, like jobs and caregiving.  Universities are going to take this a step further in the fall by putting a larger number and greater variety of classes online.  This will give students more choices. Students who want to take one or two courses fully online will have the options they need.  Those students and faculty in high-risk groups will be able to keep learning and teaching if they do not feel comfortable going to campus.
  • Almost all other courses will be delivered in a hybrid format.  This means that classes will balance online and in-person meetings.  The goal is to flip the classroom.  Lectures and readings will be online.  In-person classes will probably be no more than once per week, but you won’t be there to listen and take notes.  Class will be dynamic and interactive because you will use that precious, in-person time to process and apply what you are learning.  Every class will have a strong foundation of online content, in case the pandemic worsens and instruction needs to move fully online temporarily.
  • Experiential courses will probably be face-to-face.  Labs, music, performance and visual art, flight, and other hands-on learning experiences will be reserved for fully in-person instruction.  There will be social distancing and new scheduling, but you will get the experience you need to prepare for your career.
  • Classrooms will be redefined.  Think beyond the usual classrooms. 
    Bigger indoor spaces like theaters, gyms, and dining halls will be used for class meetings, in addition to larger lecture halls. 
  • There will be no escape from distancing, hand hygiene, and cleaning. These are the new normal.  It will feel weird.  There will be wipes and hand sanitizer everywhere.  We will wash our hands a lot.  We will have to be six feet apart, wear masks, and possibly have assigned seating.  We may also have to only use certain doors or have one-way hallways.

Even with all of these changes and preparations for the ways we will teach and learn, students and families may still be concerned.  In order for us to go back to class safely, there will need to be accessible testing, contact tracing, and space for isolating “at home” on campus. 

Students might also hesitate to attend college next academic year because they do not want to risk having to take all their classes online if the pandemic worsens in the middle of the term.

Universities cannot control the future of this pandemic.  But we should not let the pandemic limit our futures.  If the worst thing that happens is that we have to go fully online, at least we will continue making progress toward educational and professional goals. 

There will be a vaccine and this difficult period will end.  In the meantime, universities are going to keep offering students the opportunity to earn a degree.  And, we are preparing in the belief that students will be able to learn in-person, even if we might be six feet apart, wearing masks, and rubbing sanitizer into our hands.

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