What Will the College Landscape Look Like This Fall?
By Chris Urban
As an incoming freshman at St. Lawrence University, whether colleges will open on time in the fall, or not, has been foremost in my thoughts. The pandemic has affected so many people in various ways, and college decision-makers are no different as they are faced with some very difficult decisions. With diverse student bodies coming from many locations, colleges currently have to weigh those issues, along with a host of other factors, especially their local pandemic status. They must ask themselves: How do we ensure social distancing while having interactive and engaging classes? How do we house all students without any threat of spreading the virus? What are the chances of the virus returning in the winter?
There are so many unknowns regarding what the colleges can and will offer this fall — on-campus classes, activities, and housing — that discussion and debate continue.
Among the universities that have announced their plans is Harvard University, which has settled on another remote semester. Rice University in Texas is preparing to reopen campus with social distancing regulations enforced. Also taking a cautiously optimistic approach is University of Washington in Seattle, which saw the earliest documented Covid-19 cases in the country. Students will return to campus; some of their classes will be remote; and to ensure a safe environment, there will be coronavirus testing, contact tracing, and health surveillance in dorms.
Some colleges are hoping to replicate a “normal” first semester by starting classes a month early and ending the semester at Thanksgiving before the arrival of the flu/virus season.
Various on-campus strategies to protect public health will be implemented based on the severity of the virus in a geographic location. With these strategies in mind, it is very likely that: semesters will be shortened with fewer students living on campus, international students may gain start-date flexibility, and students will have to wear masks during class. Study-abroad programs are also up in the air.
Henry Cetina, a rising sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, anticipates that “with increased testing and the implementation of social distancing measures, I expect the university will hold in-person classes this fall.” He adds, “I’m worried about the dorm situation though, since college dorms are notorious for being petri dishes in facilitating the spread of diseases. I’m also concerned about how the university will contain potential outbreaks among faculty/students given that Covid-19 carriers can be asymptomatic.”
These unknown and conflicting issues are making colleges, parents, and students wary and weary of what’s to come. Many institutions have made it clear that they are working hard to formulate plans to operate as normally as possible with updated announcements in the next several weeks.
An increasing number of parents are questioning the value of a modified college experience.
One of the biggest questions before American colleges right now is: How many incoming and returning students will decide to wait until next year to come at all? If students, especially incoming freshmen, decide to take a gap year in wake of the uncertainty, the landscape is going to be even murkier.