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College During COVID-19: Online Classes and Risky Reopenings

covid, coronavirus, college, online classes, fall semester, 2020

The college experience is in a total state of flux due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many schools are opting for fully-online classes and others restructuring their campuses to bring students back. To students’ dismay, the decisions of our college presidents are proving to be as fickle as the country’s current climate. And, as the days go on, we’re learning that each college has a distinct plan of action, all of which include contingency plans for both emergencies and reopening.

COVID-19 College Quick Facts 

  1. Between June and July 2020, the seven-day average of COVID-19 cases more than doubled, jumping from 31,402 to more than 66,100. By the end of July, 18 states hit daily records in the number of new COVID-19 cases within one week.
  2. In a study of 1,171 high school seniors, Art & Science Group LLC found that 52 percent of prospective four-year college students had at least one parent who lost a job as a result of the pandemic.
  3. In response to the spring 2020 COVID-19 campus closures, Davidson College created The College Crisis Initiative, which is actively tracking the plans of about 3,000 U.S. colleges and universities for reopening campuses this fall. As of today (July 30), more than 800 colleges have yet to decide whether to return online or in person.
    • 121 schools are choosing to go completely online this fall
    • 694 are opting to go “primarily online”
    • 480 are taking the hybrid route
    • 631 plan to operate “primarily in person”
    • 74 are choosing to fully reopen in-person this fall
  4. Out of 1,287 students surveyed, OneClass found 75 percent of college students were unhappy with the quality of online classes they had to transition to in the 2020 spring semester.
  5. Vetern Students/GI Bill Recipients: Do Not Fret! In March, POTUS signed into law S.3503, which gives “VA temporary authority to continue GI Bill payments uninterrupted during an emergency.”
    • This means the VA will continue paying education benefits even if a program has been converted from in-person schooling to online learning. 
    • This stands even if the course/training hasn’t been or can’t be approved.
    • This also means “GI Bill students will continue to receive housing allowance payments at the resident training until December 21, 2020, or until the school resumes normal operations of resident training, for programs converted solely to online training.”
  6. Each week, more collegiate sports organizations are signing off for the semester or until the country bounces back to some sense of normalcy. Luckily, the various conferences are still honoring student-athletes’ scholarships, even if the student chooses to sit out this year.
  7. Want to know what a typical day might look like for an on-campus college student or faculty member this fall? Vanderbilt University Ph.D. Student Cait S. Kirby has creates online simulations to demonstrate some of the hurdles those returning to campuses could face.

Ok, are you ready for an incredibly extensive low-down on college under COVID?

If there were to be a slogan for the Fall 2020 academic semester, it might be: “We’ll see what happens.”

Without a solid defense against the coronavirus, outbreaks continue to pose a threat to all campuses planning to reopen, especially those in higher-populated areas.

For example, Spelman College, a historically black liberal arts college for women, was originally set to reopen for the fall. Not long after announcing those plans, President Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D., reversed that decision. Georgia continues to reach record highs for daily confirmed cases (4,295 on July 24). Dr. Campbell recognized that safely opening a college campus within the City of Atlanta is unrealistic.

Speaking with NPR, Dr. Campbell said, “We felt very comfortable about the protocols and practices we were putting into place on our campuses.” However, she acknowledged that on-campus safety regulations are only a piece of the pandemic puzzle. “Once our students walked outside of those gates,” she continued, “once they went into the city of Atlanta, they were in an environment that we felt was virtually unregulated.”

In exchange for a safer semester, students are losing out on a traditional college experience. For Spelman students, however, this exchange includes a 10 percent discount on tuition and 40 percent off of fees for the academic year. 

Don’t let that sweetened deal fool you, though.

The choice to go fully online for the semester is not a college’s way of copping out or saving money.

“We’re experiencing huge financial losses,” Dr. Campbell said. Until things settle back down, Spelman has to rely on federal relief money from the CARES Act and financial gifts from supporters and alumni.

“Most colleges can’t afford to offer discounts,” said Robert Kelchen, an associate professor at Seton Hall University’s department of education. In this CNBC article, he explained, “Online learning can tend to cost a little more.” Costs like facility upkeep and faculty pay are fixed, regardless of whether students are present on campus. But then there are the added expenses of online classes, like software, faculty training and technological upgrades.

Plus, enrollment is declining and fewer donors are offering financial gifts in this unstable economy. Some students are even opting to take the semester (or year) off in response to their college’s plans for a digital fall. Even more, many schools refunded millions of dollars in room and board fees last spring when they had to shut down mid-semester.

As a result, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports that universities across the country have already furloughed thousands of employees and reported revenue losses in the hundreds of millions.

Still, high tuition costs are a hot topic…

According to the CollegeBoard, tuition and fees have risen every year since the 2009-10 academic year, except 2018-19. These rising costs are occurring at two- and four-year colleges, both public and private. Besides, there is an argument to be made concerning the downgrade from a traditional on-campus learning and social experience to a semester stuck at home in front of a computer.

Like Spelman, a handful of other saintly colleges and universities are taking on losses to ease the financial burden through tuition discounts and/or student fee waivers in exchange for going digital this semester. 

Historically Black Colleges and Universities specifically, are leading the charge in supporting students and their families. Black and Latinx Americans experience higher illness and death rates from COVID-19, as well as more severe economic ramifications.

  • Hampton University is reducing its tuition and fees by more than $2,000 to address “the financial burden that the pandemic has had on students and parents,” according to President William Harvey. 
  • Paul Quinn College in Dallas lowered its tuition for the fall from $8,321 to $5,996
  • Clark Atlanta University is cutting tuition by 10 percent in addition to lowering fees for its students, 97 percent of whom live in America’s “high-risk” states. As an added bonus, every financially enrolled CAU student (undergraduate and graduate) will receive a free, new Dell Latitude 3400 laptop through the university’s Laptop Gifting Initiative.

Other colleges and universities have been taking their own measures to offer financial relief for this fall:

  • Lafayette College is operating via mostly online classes and reducing tuition by 10 percent for students who choose to stay home.
  • In one of the grander gestures we’ve seen, Southern New Hampshire University is offering a one-time full-ride “Innovation Scholarship” to all incoming freshmen, and it plans to cut tuition by 61 percent (down to $10,000 per year) by 2021.
  • Despite inviting some students back to campus, Williams College is cutting its total cost of attendance by 15 percent and eliminating its activity fee for all students.
  • Georgetown University is discounting tuition by 10 percent for those who aren’t returning to campus, and for the 2,000 who are, both housing and dining charges will be discounted by 20 percent to account for the shorter on-campus semester. If the pandemic causes the university to completely close off campus, all undergraduates will receive the 10 percent discount.

Georgetown isn’t taking these funding cuts lightly. In May, President John DeGioia announced to the university community that the school will:

  • Cut spending on new buildings and grounds
  • Hold salary increases
  • Suspend contributions to retirement plans for the upcoming fiscal year
  • Allow 54 administrative employees to reduce their salaries for the upcoming fiscal year (these employees volunteered for the reduction)

But not all tuition heroes wear capes. A larger number of colleges in America are freezing their tuition rates instead of discounting it. The College of William & Mary had a planned tuition increase of 3 percent for this year, but scrapped it to combat the pandemic-induced economic downturn. In a similar move, the University of Colorado Boulder voted in May to proceed into a second consecutive year of frozen tuition costs.

Some professionals are arguing against these tuition cuts because the blanketed discounts aren’t designed to help students demonstrating higher levels of need. In a recent Inside Higher Ed article, multiple players within the higher education industry agreed that increased financial aid should take priority over tuition discounts. David Strauss, a partner at Art & Science, cited the fact that reducing the cost of tuition and fees simultaneously reduces demonstrated need, which would then reduce the student’s individual financial aid reward. 

At the same time, a college degree can cost as much as a house (if not more). So it’s unsurprising that students are demanding tuition discounts for this fall and/or repayments for the spring 2020 campus closure.

… A really hot topic

A number of students have been filing class-action lawsuits against institutions, seeking repayment for things like tuition, room and board, and student activity fees. Some schools involved in these cases include:

  • Boston University
  • Brown University
  • Vanderbilt University
  • George Washington University
  • all of Florida’s in-state public schools

In the case of Brown and BU, the students are accusing their universities of breach of contract and unjust enrollment. In Florida, the students want refunds for on-campus charges, like student activity fees, related to athletic facilities and transportation. The cases are ongoing, but some of the universities have given students a prorated credit on their accounts for the unused portion of room and board from the spring semester.

In OneClass’ survey of more than 17,000 students, 93.2 percent of American students and 88 percent of Canadian students said they think tuition should be lowered if a college goes completely online for the semester. In simple terms, a Cal Poly student explained, “I’m not paying full price for YouTube university.”

Let’s face it: Online college is not the same

In fact, students are so opposed to paying full price for all online classes this semester that a startling percentage have said they would rather take the semester off than spend it behind a computer screen

In a separate study of 1,038 students attending 25 American colleges and universities, OneClass asked what they would do in response to their schools going online for the fall. If they can’t return to campus, 35 percent said they will withdraw for at least the fall semester. In open-ended responses, students most often cited “a poor learning experience” and “poor value” as their reasoning for withdrawal. 

Instead, they would rather:

  • Take classes at a community college
  • Settle for a gap semester
  • Transfer to a school with in-state (or lower) tuition
  • Get an internship or a job

For a lot of college students, the on-campus social experience plays a major role in why they enrolled at these schools in the first place. The social experience can even lead to better persistence and performance in academics. Not to mention, some majors and classes require hands-on work like labs, performance/art and clinical training. And then there are the students who struggle to digest and retain knowledge outside of a classroom setting.

Finally, too many students lack proper internet connection and stability in their family homes, where they are now expected to work toward or complete a college degree.

In this same OneClass study’s free-response section, students commented their specific reasoning behind why they won’t stick around for all online classes this semester:

  • “Just from doing school remotely for a month, my grades have dropped significantly, and I do not learn well when not in a classroom,” said a University of Cincinnati student.
  • “I have not received the same quality of learning since going online, and living at home is not conducive to online school — too many people, babysitting little siblings, bad WiFi,” said a Michigan State student. 
  • “There’s no reason to pay out-of-state tuition if I’m at home,” said a University of Georgia student.
  • “A large part of why I go to college is about the college experience. I do not see why I would pay $15k to go to UMass Amherst when I can just take a semester off and take classes at my local community college online for much cheaper,” said a UMass Amherst student. 

But there’s more

One other downside to fully online college this fall is the damage happening to the economies of college towns, especially those that depend on student presence. SmartAsset recently conducted a study to uncover places in America that will get hit the hardest if their local campuses remain closed. Here are a few of the study’s findings:

  • College towns with city populations of less than 125,000 will get hit the hardest because students and staff make up a majority of the local population and workforce.
  • Within the top 11 most vulnerable towns, four are in the Midwest and five are in the South.
  • In all but one of the top 11 towns (Flagstaff, Arizona), more than one in 10 workers are employed by local four-year colleges and universities.

Regardless of campus closures, these towns will suffer under the reign of COVID-19 since social distancing guidelines severely hinder the typical collegiate spending habits (football games, bookstores, restaurants/bars, music venues, etc.).

Simultaneously, some towns and entities are fighting back against inviting students from around the world to return to their respective campuses.

In Amherst, Massachusetts, local resident Robin Jaffin created a petition titled, “Do NOT Bring College Students Back To School and To Our Community This Fall.” She created it in response to five local colleges announcing plans to bring back thousands of students to the area. At the time of writing this article, the petition had 1,003 of the 2,000-signature goal (bumped up from the original 1,000 goal). 

While students are passionately fighting to return to campus, faculty members across the country are joining ranks in petitioning against returning in-person this semester.

Loyola University Chicago reversed its original plans to allow students to choose on-campus instruction after more than 200 faculty and grad students objected. These members signed a petition calling on administrators to default to online teaching for the fall. In return, the university announced mid-July that it will shift to mostly online classes.

They aren’t wrong for taking a stand

As this summer progresses, evidence that supports these dissenting opinions is cropping up.

Within one week, the University of California-Berkeley reported 47 new cases at fraternities and sororities, blaming Greek life parties. The University of Washington has had a similar experience this summer. At least 145 students contracted the virus in connection to off-campus Greek life housing. At least nine of those infections did not live in the houses, but were in close contact with their residents.

Student interactions off-campus is one of the more concerning elements of bringing them back in-person this fall. No amount of regulation or number of protocols on these campuses can control students once they leave the grounds. Most schools with plans to reopen are updating student handbooks and/or asking students to sign pledges, saying they’ll act safely and responsibly.

So here’s the big question everyone’s asking:

Can we trust college students, specifically undergraduates, to responsibly follow social distancing guidelines and practice good enough hygiene to prevent an outbreak?

So far, things aren’t looking great.

Near Purdue University, which plans to reopen, mostly maskless students lined up in crowds outside of a bar called Harry’s Chocolate Shop on the first day it reopened in May. While the restaurant owners had done a good job prepping the inside for pandemic patronage, they forgot to consider the long lines of people waiting to get in.

In a more severe case, an outbreak of almost 200 coronavirus cases was linked to a Michigan State student favorite, Harper’s Restaurant & Brew Pub, in June. At least 27 people who contracted the virus in this outbreak did so without going to the bar, but by associating with people who had.

For those finding comfort in the on-campus protocols and regulations that university administrators are putting in place to reopen this fall, these recent outbreaks may change your mind:

  • In the second half of July, Harris-Stowe State University had to shut down campus when eight administrative employees tested positive for the virus. The university plans to reopen on August 10.
  • At Bradley University’s summer student orientation, at least 12 students contracted COVID-19. President Stephen Standifird said it happened “as a result of a small off-campus social gathering where the use of masks and physical distancing did not occur.”
  • Also at the end of July, Agnes Scott College’s President Leocadia Zak was admitted to the hospital with COVID-19, despite being “extremely cautious and careful regarding health protocols and avoiding exposure.”
  • All in-person football team activities at Rutgers University stopped when a June outbreak put the entire football program in quarantine. As of the writing of this article, 15 players have tested positive. The source is said to be an on-campus party. 

As we approach this semester, situations like those above are pushing more schools to stay at home. Other reasons behind going online, according to school officials, include:

  • Uncertainty of possible closures if numbers were to continue on the rise
  • Bringing in students from all over provides “seeds for outbreaks,” according to University of California, Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ
  • Lack of residence space to properly follow social distancing guidelines
  • No on-campus hospital
  • Not enough resources to properly test students and faculty or keep up with sanitizing guidelines
  • Not enough classroom space to provide the same education while limiting class size
  • Too few faculty members willing to teach in-person

Plus, plenty of students are willing and ready to begin this fall semester with fully-online classes.

Aside from wanting to stay safe during a global crisis, student responses in the above-mentioned OneClass study offer a few more reasons for attending their colleges online:

  • A UCLA student cited her goals, saying “This is my dream school; I’m not giving up on it.”
  • A student at the University of Illinois lamented that his full-ride scholarship does not extend beyond the traditional four years.
  • Others, like a student at Virginia Tech, have already signed a lease in the college’s surrounding area. The same student is equally concerned about not being able to transfer back in after taking a semester off.
  • A nursing major at the University of Michigan recognized that withdrawing for a semester would mean having to take the whole year off since certain courses are available only during specific semesters.
  • Whether or not the online semester comes with discounted tuition, a University of Florida student recognized that they are still getting out of having to afford housing, a meal plan, etc.
  • A University of Wisconsin student put it plainly: “Whether I’m in-person or online, I’m still paying to get the same degree.”

Are you still with me? Because now we’re getting to some good stuff.

As mentioned at the top of this article, a large number of colleges are currently planning to implement at least some kind of in-person learning. Some of these plans come with caps on the number/type of students allowed to return to campus, and others do not.

Possibly the only thing that has remained consistent across campus reopening plans is the simple fact that changes must be made. These changes, for most, are not simple, however. Some even seem a bit wacky. 

First, let’s look at some of the common updates and guidelines we’ve seen across the majority of campuses planning to welcome students back:

online classes, covid, college, coronavirus
  • Increased sanitation protocols, required mask wearing (campuses are issuing free face coverings to students/faculty/staff/visitors)
  • Social distancing guidelines and physical updates, like more spaced-out classrooms, single-person dorms and specific entrances and exits to control traffic flow
  • Updates to student handbooks and/or pledges for students, staff and faculty to sign, promising to uphold the health and safety guidelines set in place
  • A shortened semester, ending in-person classes at the Thanksgiving break
  • Health/safety training of some capacity for students, faculty and staff
  • Daily/regular symptom check-ins
  • Free “safety kits,” which include masks, hand sanitizer and pamphlets about the semester ahead
  • Special accommodations for any students, staff and faculty who are more vulnerable or high-risk
  • Reconstruction of indoor spaces, like updating the HVAC systems, putting up protective clear barriers, etc.
  • Extended or appointment-only move-in processes
  • A mix of on-campus, hybrid and online classes
  • Allowing students and faculty to remain home for the semester if they wish
  • Testing, contact tracing, quarantine protocols and reserved quarantine spaces in place
  • Grab-and-go dining services
  • Additional time to walk between classes

Yet, those common on-campus changes to combat the coronavirus are only half of it. Every college and university opting to reopen has its own, very unique game plan.

Below is a snapshot of some interesting tactics being deployed around the country

  • At Harvard University, freshmen and seniors of its Arts & Sciences division can return to campus, but all of the college’s instruction will be delivered online through the 2020-21 academic year. Harvard students receiving financial aid and studying remotely will enjoy an additional benefit in this year’s packages of $5,000 in “remote room and board.”
  • Upon entry of any building on Tougaloo College’s campus, every person is required to find the nearest bathroom or handwashing station before heading elsewhere in the building. Before exiting the building, they must wash their hands again. Anyone ignoring these protocols can be asked to vacate the facility.
  • Faculty, staff and students will be required to use the University of Mississippi’s COVID-19 Daily Symptom Checker to assist in self-monitoring for virus symptoms.
  • Washington State University recently announced its fall semester for undergraduates will happen via online classes across all five campuses. However, those demonstrating financial need and students who don’t have safe, at-home learning environments will be allowed to live on-campus.
  • Students at Jackson State University will have assigned seating for better tracing purposes. Additionally, health screenings are required before they can enter classrooms. Check-in stations will be placed around campus for checking temperatures.
  • Every 24 hours, students at Mississippi State University must complete a temperature check. Plus, “all employees will be required to conduct a self-screening daily prior to coming to work.”
  • In Maine, Bowdoin College is planning to bring back 40 percent of its students. More impressively, the college will give out iPad Pro tablets to every student; they come with a keyboard, track pad and Apple Pencil. Taking it a step further, the college will cover cellular data connectivity costs for those studying from home without reliable internet. The school expects students to turn in the tablets when they graduate, but those who express need can keep them for $1.
  • Cornell University conducted a study, suggesting that students will be safer on-campus than at home. The study cites Cornell’s ability to test all returning students as the reason to bring them back to campus. This, Cornell says, will result in fewer infections and hospitalizations. If the students stay home to learn through online classes, Cornell believes it would be leaving them in a non-regulated environment. 
    • On its campus, Cornell is limiting the number of items undergraduates can bring to move into its residence halls. Returning students are to bring no more than the equivalent of two large suitcases and a backpack. Also, no parents or guests are allowed to help their students with the move-in process. When students first get to campus, they’ll be tested for the virus before moving into a quarantine location (like a local hotel) with boxed meals. Most students who test negative will be able to move into their dorms after getting their results.
    • Those coming from certain states, however, may be required by New York State law to quarantine for the full 14 days. Finally, the university is still going ahead with a planned 3.6 percent tuition increase, which it approved back in January.
  • At Florida A&M University, class sizes will be limited. Students living in residence halls must schedule their shower times to enable social distancing in the community showers. FAMU “strongly encourages” its students to get tested for COVID-19 upon arriving on campus. Monthly, FAMU will test at least 2 percent of faculty and staff.
  • Clemson University, among others, plans to start the fall semester completely online. After reassessing a few weeks later, the university will invite students back to campus by the end of September
  • Students at Syracuse University will experience an alternating in-person schedule during the fall semester. All students will learn in step with one another, but only half of the population will show up to class one day. The other half will follow along via online classes; and then they swap the next day.
  • Despite its state’s already-lifted health restrictions, The University of Alabama is creating its own reopening phase (as are other institutions in the “non-restrictive” states). UA will implement four phases of reopening. It will also test its students for COVID-19 before or when they arrive at campus. Finally, it’s considering limiting holidays and breaks, but closing the semester by Thanksgiving.
  • Where most campuses are working to limit the number of students living on-campus, UNC Chapel Hill is planning to go through with filling its residence halls this fall. Along with more frequent cleaning in the dorms and restrooms, the university will enforce physical distancing and occupancy limits for all common areas. Additionally, it will recommend “ideal furniture organization for each room to allow for maximum physical distancing.” The dining halls will be fully open to those living on-campus, but UNC said it might restrict or prohibit guests from visiting dorms.
  • Any students, staff or faculty at the University of South Carolina, who don’t follow the guidance set by the school’s pledge system, will face disciplinary action.
  • While undergraduate instruction at the University of Vermont will go online by Thanksgiving, graduate courses will carry on in person.
  • Some smaller colleges, like Centre College in Kentucky, are planning to try out block scheduling. Centre will divide its normal academic term of 13 weeks and four courses into two six-week blocks of two courses. Their reasoning behind this is that, in the case of a severe outbreak, fewer classes will be disrupted.
  • To allow its students an on-campus experience, Princeton will operate on its own staggered schedule. In this schedule, first-years and juniors will return on-campus for just the fall semester while sophomores and seniors will take the spring. Online classes will otherwise supplement the rest of the year’s instruction. With this plan comes a 10 percent tuition discount for all undergraduates during the 2020-21 academic year.
  • Despite its state’s practices during the pandemic, the University System of Georgia announced its plan to require all of those on campus to wear “an appropriate face covering” when inside facilities/social distancing isn’t maintainable.
  • The University of Southern California, like other colleges in California, initially announced plans to reopen campus. However, the recent spike in coronavirus case numbers changed their minds. Now, only 10 to 20 percent of classes will be in-person/on-campus, with hands-on courses taking priority.
    • Despite making the switch, USC will proceed with implementing a 3.5 percent tuition hike. To “help ensure academic progress,” the university is offering a one-time scholarship, which would grant two free classes to recipients. They will take these free courses during the summer 2021 term. Additionally, the university will offer extra financial and technical support for students with connectivity issues.
    • Students at USC are allowed to cancel their on-campus housing contracts, and those still coming to campus will have their own rooms. Students who live near campus are able to utilize dining and library facilities by appointment.
  • Purdue University is calling for its students to return to campus and expects a potentially record number of freshmen this fall, with more than 40,000 total students. In July, the school announced a partnership with Rutgers University and Vault Health to test all returning students for COVID-19. This partnership will make the testing process easier on students and their families by offering free medically-supervised, in-home saliva screenings.
    • The first FDA EUA-authorized solution of its kind, this is the same test that the National Hockey League, the PGA Tour and other national companies use. Students will receive their tests in the mail, and they will take them during a telehealth visit no sooner than 14 days before heading to campus. They’ll get their results via email within 48-72 hours after Vault Health receives it for processing.
    • Anyone testing positive cannot return to campus until they’re able to isolate for 14 days and retake the test. Capable of processing 100,000 tests a day, Rutgers’ RUCDR Infinite Biologics lab will be running the samples. Faculty and staff are only required to take the test if they’re experiencing symptoms or if they’ve been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19.
    • In the case of an outbreak, Purdue has about 400 beds set aside for isolation and quarantine, with “contingency plans in place should more space be needed.” The University also plans to “order, acquire and maintain at least a 90-day supply of critical equipment and supplies.”
    • Purdue gets another “shoutout” for already reopening its rec center. As part of its social distancing guidelines, students exercising at a moderate intensity must be at least 12ft apart. The rec center’s max capacity is 250 people.

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