Return to Normal on Campus

Megan Spataro, Staff Writer

Uncertainty. The world is clouded with uncertainty and confusion during this unprecedented time. When will stores and restaurants open with normal functions? Who knows? When will we be able to meet up with friends and travel again? Who knows? But what I want to focus on is how colleges are going to steer through these uncertain times. Colleges across the country abruptly had to end their in-person classes and move to online classes around the end of March, but what will colleges’ response be for the upcoming fall semester?

Some have said it is impossible for colleges to open this fall based on the never-ending number of people diagnosed with COVID-19. Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist and physician at Yale University said for NPR, “I don’t think there’s any scenario under which it’s business as usual on American college campuses in the fall… This idea — that we can somehow just get back to normal and go back to school in the fall, because we always have, it’s not reasonable, actually. I think we’re going to have to figure out other ways of doing this.” Senior Madi Yeh agreed with Christakis and said, “It’s not very likely that campuses will open because at the rate that the disease is spreading and that people are getting better, it seems like it’s still going to be a while before we can meet in small groups, let alone school. Looking at Washington, we won’t be out of social distancing till late August so most schools will probably take the safe route and not open till spring semester.” The only problem is that some schools might not be able to make it through another semester without regular tuition coming in, resulting in closure forever. There is still hope for colleges to open for fall semester but many roadblocks stand in the way of that happening, including increased ability to test, social distancing precautions on campus, in class, and in the dorms. The uncertainty of whether or not campuses will open will have rippling effects, determining how many students stay enrolled for this school year, how much tuition will be, and also affect college finances for years to come.

COVID-19 has impacted nearly every area of life, and education has been hit especially hard. USA Today reported that, “Before the virus hit, college had never been more expensive, and the nation’s ever-increasing student loan debt was raising questions about the value of college. The economic free fall and uncertainty from the virus have families questioning expensive tuition even more.” Yeh said, “I thought about taking a gap year, because I don’t want to pay full tuition if we go to online classes for college. But everything I would do traditionally during a gap year is also affected by COVID-19, making it hard to decide what to do.” One side effect of this crisis is that if colleges do decide to continue online learning for fall semester, community colleges could in turn benefit, as students resort to staying closer to home to continue their education and can pay less for tuition. The New York Times reported that, “The basic business model for most colleges and universities is simple — tuition comes due twice a year at the beginning of each semester… Remaining closed in the fall means losing as much as half of our revenue. This loss, only a part of which might be recouped through online courses, would be catastrophic, especially for the many institutions that were in precarious financial positions before the pandemic. ” Colleges are definitely struggling to decide whether to lower tuition as students voice that it is not fair to have to pay thousands of dollars for online zoom classes, and yet, without tuition, colleges will crumble. Cullimore said, “I wouldn’t be willing to pay full tuition for online classes because there are things you get in class that are way more valuable than learning at home. Being able to talk to teachers in person, is super valuable and you would miss out on that.” Erin Tieran from the Boston Herald said, “Even if campuses are allowed to reopen, students might choose not to return. A recent survey by higher education research and marketing company Simpson Scarborough found four-year colleges may face a loss of up to 20% in fall enrollment this coming school year.” Satisfying the demands of students and the needs of the school is proving it will be quite the balancing act for colleges.

With all of these different problems and needs, colleges have been scrambling to come up with the best possible solution while also prioritizing the safety of staff and students. Elissa Nadworny from NPR said some colleges are looking into “instead of starting in August or September, school might open in October or even January. Instead of 16-week semesters, colleges could shift to quarter systems or even shorter, four-week courses to allow flexibility. Others have floated a hybrid model, with some smaller classes remaining in-person and larger classes going online.” Christina Paxson, the President of Brown University, has proposed that the solution to open campuses is focused on “aggressive testing, technology-enabled contact tracing and requirements for isolation and quarantine,” which she also acknowledges, “are likely to raise concerns about threats to civil liberty, an ideal that is rightly prized on college campuses. Administrators, faculty and students will have to grapple with whether the benefits of a heavy-handed approach to public health are worth it.” Yeh suggested, “I think schools can keep doing online options, but they could also open up campus, so students who don’t feel comfortable going to campus can do online, but by opening up campus and having a smaller population on campus, then they could maintain social distancing.” Coming up with a solution that satisfies every single person’s demands is impossible, but I think colleges are doing their best to take the situation we are in and making the best possible solution, providing students with as much in-person time as possible while also prioritizing staff and students’ safety.