Balancing Factors for Reopening Colleges

A lot is riding on colleges reopening this Fall, from continuing student success to – in at least one opinion – the future of the higher education sector itself. However, the decision to reopen, and in what format, will be based on the balancing of several distinguishing factors, many of which are out of the control of decision-makers. As is everything else COVID-related, many of them are also taking a ‘wait and see’ position.


What Happens if College Campuses Don’t Open in Fall 2020?

At this moment (early June), reopening college campuses any time soon seems like a bad idea (see below). However, NOT opening them also poses critical concerns to all college and university constituents, not the least of which are the economic factors.

Schools rely on tuition and other revenues to cover their salaries, maintenance, etc. and would have to make severe cuts to those budgets if revenues fell. Several colleges have already noted the potential losses they would suffer if the 20-21 school year doesn’t launch as usual in late summer:

The University of Michigan system faces potential losses of $400M to $1B by the end of 2020 if its campuses don’t open.

Georgia’s university system is facing losses up to $350M through summer 2020 and will lose considerably more if its 300,000 students aren’t able to attend its 17 schools and colleges in the next school year.

The City University of New York is anticipating cuts of up to $95M from its education system and has already set in motion a 25% reduction in available courses for the Fall.

Schools aren’t the only entities facing losses. The higher-education sector employs three million workers across the country and contributes more than $600M into the nation’s annual GDP. Pasadena City College alone accounts for $4B of the region’s economy each year. The towns and cities that host universities and colleges rely on those revenues as well, to provide foundational community infrastructure systems.

And the losses to students are also notable. For the June 2020 graduating class, depression and sadness mark the moment instead of the joyous celebrations they’d looked forward to years. A full 80% of graduating student respondents to a national survey reported a decline in their mental health status as the pandemic crashed their senior year and threatened their future job prospects. Juniors, sophomores, and freshmen are also suffering while adhering to ‘stay at home’ mandates. The isolation, loss of independence, and financial concerns generate fears and grief as the pandemic colors their college years. Students at smaller schools that don’t have the resources to maintain some semblance of school are also at risk of losing out altogether on their college opportunity.

Each of these factors weighs heavily on higher-ed decision-makers, who are appropriately reluctant to force worst-case scenarios on their students, schools, and communities.


What Might Happen if Colleges DO Open in Fall 2020?

By law, colleges and universities are required to make their campuses safe for use by anyone who enters their grounds. That mandate is extremely difficult to follow, however, when the threat is invisible, and its carriers don’t know they are putting others at risk.

In a worst-case scenario, a school would open as usual and commence its conventional operations. Shortly after that, symptoms would pop up and, on the densely populated college campus, the virus would spread quickly. Any number of students, staff, and faculty will get sick, and a few might die. Some sufferers might also carry the sickness back to their homes and communities and inadvertently spread the infection there, too.

The situation would compel campus leadership to determine how to address the rising challenge. Would it mean they should establish a ‘tolerable level of infection?’ A specified number of sick people? A certain number of deaths? In some cases, a surging virus outbreak on campus would almost certainly compel yet another closure and another disruption of the school year.

The situation would also almost certainly result in legal liability for damages suffered on campus and even potentially wrongful death lawsuits for exposing decedents to the virus on school grounds.


Open or Closed? Factors to Consider

Experts agree that caution is required when determining how and when to reopen America’s closed college campuses, and there will be no single template that can guide them all. Each school exists in its unique community, and decisions to open or remain closed will take into account the threat that the virus poses in those vicinities.

Science should take the leading role in decision-making, too, as global research reveals the mechanics that explain the varying levels of spread and illness in different countries. And, while it appears that politics are also playing a part in the decision-making process (schools in more conservative communities are announcing openings while those in more liberal neighborhoods plan to remain closed), those dynamics may not be the appropriate foundation for making what may be, for some, a life-or-death election.

Regardless of the final determination, the science does demonstrate that every school should contemplate that COVID-19 isn’t just a problem in Fall 2020, but will pose a continuing threat for perhaps years to come. Ergo, their choices should include contingencies for outbreaks not if but when they occur, and those plans should include strategies that address three fundamental infection elements:

Sanitizing, disinfecting, and social distancing practices that incorporate all aspects of the campus, including administrative offices, classrooms, lecture and study halls, libraries, and (especially) dorms and dining rooms, if those are also going to be opened.

Testing strategies that occur both as a new ‘business as usual’ standard and that escalate when an outbreak is suspected.

Tracking activities to connect with, inform, and isolate potentially exposed people.

Other strategies that address the ‘teaching’ aspect of college are worthy of consideration, as they offer the opportunity to retain (as much as possible) revenues while keeping students safe and learning:

Delay the start of the school year till Winter or even Spring term, to let the science catch up with the crisis.

Restrict campus attendance to limited groups, such as just first years or graduates (depending on the school). Offer other group’s online options.

Restrict program availability to those programs that represent core subjects or that can be adapted to accommodate digital learning opportunities.

Shift to block schedules that provide one course at a time over a limited time – three hours, three days a week for four weeks, as an example. This strategy also offers flexibility in the event the virus causes another shut-down or recedes as a threat.

Some schools are considering ‘HiFlex’ models that have teachers leading classes with both live and online learners simultaneously. Students rotate into and out of the physical classroom.

Other schools are considering a ‘Modified Tutorial’ option with a professor offering the online lecture and Tutors or TAs meeting is small groups with students.

And, of course, there’s always the fully remote option, which satisfies economic demands and keeps students learning, but loses the camaraderie and social connections that are so vital to a fully engaged college experience.

No matter which decisions are made, the Fall 2020 school year will be different from any that has gone before, forever changing the future expectations and customs of students, schools, and communities. It remains to be seen how each school manages the challenges it faces and how students adapt to what is almost certainly a new school normal.


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