As many college students in the Chicago area finish up the spring semester from home due to the COVID-19 shutdown, a big question looms: What’s going to happen in the fall?
This week, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign told admitted students it is planning for in-person classes but won’t make a final decision until mid-June. Other universities across the country have shared similar timelines.
One thing school officials said they know for sure: This won’t be a typical fall semester. Many local universities are weighing a variety of scenarios as they consider whether they can safely reopen campuses for the 2020-21 academic year.
University of Illinois at Chicago Chancellor Michael Amiridis said it’s unlikely there will be many traditional lecture classes in large auditoriums with hundreds of students. Instead, he envisions limiting those classes to 50 to 75 students.
“We think the probability that our large classrooms are going to take place face-to-face is low,” Amiridis said. He said they are not only looking at ways to hold smaller, in-person classes, but improving online classes if they need to continue for the fall.
Officials aren’t just thinking about seating students six feet apart, but also how to ensure social distancing as students walk in between classes.
Universities are also considering hybrid classes, where half the class attends in person and half online, alternating who comes into the classroom on a given day. Many officials imagine classes will still have an online component for students who can’t return, including international students or immunocompromised students. Faculty members could face those situations, too.
“Potentially, we could have students sitting in a classroom together with a faculty member that needs to be remote,” said Luke Figora, vice president at Northwestern University. “There’s just all kinds of permutations like that as we get into planning that are coming up.”
Universities could also change the academic calendar and split the 16-week semester into two, eight-week sessions. Another option is to create a block schedule, where students take one class for three weeks.
Dorms and public spaces
For some college officials, separating students safely in a classroom is the easiest part. They have greater concerns about dorms, dining halls and other public spaces like athletic stadiums, student unions and public bathrooms.
Dorms often have shared bathrooms, with dozens of students using them.
“Maybe you can have students back, but you’re only willing to have them in single rooms?” Figora said, before rattling off a list of questions that follow: “How many students can we have on campus? Do you need to potentially rent external space elsewhere?”
He said Northwestern also is considering staggered admission into dining halls instead of allowing students to enter at any time.
Athletic events also would be difficult if social distancing guidelines remain, and Figora expects NCAA to weigh in on competitive events. And officials must think through how to safely return athletes over the summer so they can begin to train.
If schools are able to slowly bring back athletes over the summer, it could be a way to test out other social distancing techniques before the fall semester begins.
Dealing with urban density
Universities with large commuter populations have unique issues. They are trying to decide how to keep students safe on campus when students could contract the virus off campus and then bring it to class.
“We rely heavily on public transportation systems, and unless and until we’re confident this doesn’t represent a public health challenge for students and their families, it’s difficult to bring them on campus,” Amiridis said.
It also raises staffing issues for universities. If there is an outbreak on campus, do they have enough staff to track down everyone who may have had contact with the infected person?
Amiridis at UIC also said the university is considering what health precautions they would need to take if they reopen campus in the fall. They’re considering whether to require universal testing for the coronavirus. It’s likely they will ask everyone to wear masks, he said. But they’ll also need enough thermometers to take temperatures across campus and large amounts of hand sanitizer. The university has struggled to find hand sanitizer dispensers.
“All of these are logistical issues, but they are critical,” he said.
They’re also considering requiring a flu vaccine. If there’s a second wave of the coronavirus, it’s critical that hospitals are not filled with flu patients.
Who will come?
As colleges decide the shape of the fall semester, they are still in the dark on a key question: How many students will show up?
National groups estimate that college enrollment could decline nationally by 15% to 20% as families grapple with sudden financial challenges. Some universities have pledged to freeze tuition for the next academic year. The University of Illinois is covering tuition increases for new undergraduates from Illinois. They are also allowing students to decide through mid-August whether to defer enrollment for up to a year.
Meanwhile, students are already pushing universities for tuition reductions. And if college continues to be held remotely in the fall, it could be difficult to convince many families to write large tuition checks when their children are taking classes from their childhood bedrooms. That could make community colleges and smaller public universities more appealing to families who are looking for more affordable options, especially for freshmen and sophomores just starting their college careers.
With so much still uncertain, officials said whatever decisions they make for next semester need to be flexible to work.