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What Does the Fall Semester Look Like for U.S. Colleges?

Shawna Newman

May 08, 2020

COVID has colleges' fall semester plans in a topsy-turvy state. Here's what some universities are considering, and four scenarios students may see in August.
What Does the Fall Semester Look Like for U.S. Colleges?
As colleges adjusted the standard, May 1st College Decision day due to the Coronavirus Pandemic, University leaders are still working to determine how their college will function beginning fall 2020. Truth be told, colleges have never faced a pandemic like this big. The last pandemic, the 1918 influenza, occurred at time when university enrollment was low—many men were away as soldiers and women were not as active in higher education. While quads are normally filled with students eager to begin the spring semester, this season was off. Campuses across the nation looked apocalyptic as they were abandoned from the bustle of student life, left to the solitude of remote learning. Fall may look similar too. The Wall Street Journal reports the American Council on Education estimates the number of students on campus will decline by 15%. So, what can students expect when (or if they) physically return to campus in August? Looking for more COVID-19 student-impact information? Find it here. Slowly, college life scenarios are beginning to surface from leading, higher education experts. Spoiler alert there is no one standard, return-to-campus plan—decisions vary. Education Dive reports that “of 187 college presidents surveyed by Inside Higher Ed in April, one-third said they weren't certain when the majority of in-person class meetings would resume.” From periodic health testing to no-spectator sporting events, here are some possibilities you could expect come Fall 2020.

1. Fully Remote Learning: Online Classes Only

Remote learning may be the semester norm for colleges in cities that were considered COVID hot spots. University leaders don’t want to find their institutions a case study in social epidemiology. For them this would be a public relations nightmare during a time of financial weakness. The possibility of this outcome is leading many university presidents to begin their fall semesters with online classrooms only. The Wall Street Journal references that Boston University “...may not return to face-to-face instruction until January 2021.” The idea behind the collegiate environment is to interact with large groups of students from a variety of backgrounds. Fall semesters typically begin event heavy with kick-off weeks, town-hall styled meetings prepping incoming freshmen, dormitory ice-breaker events and more; a learning and communal experience that may be put on hold until a vaccine has been created. Fall 2020 wouldn’t be the first time colleges have faced quarantines due to a virus outbreak. A Best Colleges blog post mentions colleges created on-campus areas of isolation for sick students, and later required vaccines prior to coming to campus.

2. Limited, In-Person Classes: Strong Social Distancing Policies

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that, “the University of Alabama system, the University of Vermont, Baylor University, and Nicholls State University are planning to resume in-person teaching.” Students may find themselves in a limited college-life experience with strong social distancing regulations, fewer dorm mates and more options to ensure the safety of your health. As we have seen before, each state has had a variety of stay-at-home orders. There is no typical. The same is true for state reopening. A reporter for The Atlantic suggests a possible reality for universities practicing strong social distancing measures, “Arenas and auditoriums may be converted into lecture halls, which would allow students to avoid cramped classrooms and spread out.” The reporter also suggests college sports teams may play in empty stadiums this fall.

3. Remote Classes: Class Format Changes Released in Phases

This option seems to be the most popular among top college administrators; probably because it’s the most flexible and adaptable. The University System of Georgia, as reported in a Chronicle of Higher Education article, “plans to start a ‘phased, gradual reopening.’” Reported by the Wall Street Journal, Harvard is preparing for remote schooling, but is still keeping the option of autumn, in-person classes open. An education leader and influencer, it’s expected many universities will model their fall semester based on Harvard’s decision. This open approach may push universities to roll out class format changes in phases—as professors and students are ready. For example, one course-format phase mentioned by Inside Higher Education is the HyFlex model. With this class format, your professor would teach in person and online, simultaneously. “Those on campus could be assigned certain class slots when face-to-face is an option, allowing the schools greater control of social distancing in the classroom.”

4. Academic Calendar Adjustments: As Needed

Inside Higher Education adds, it’s possible schools could begin semesters in October or November, after social distancing regulations have been lifted or relaxed. You could also see your fall semester shortened and/or split into two sessions: AKA block scheduling. This would allow learning to continue if there’s a public health order limiting class sizes, come August. It would also allow more of a student experience. A Wall Street Journal article provides a closer look into Beloit College’s fall calendar change; for Beloit students their fall semester will be made up of two terms, each term consisting of seven and-a-half-week classes. Students could begin with online courses and still have the flexibility to enroll in two, in-person classes mid-fall. For some university officials their phase determinations are being government led, whether that be at the county, state or federal level. Purdue University is set to open in August, pending government permissions, according to Education Dive. Other university leaders are strictly following the guidance of virologists and scientists from the Centers of Disease Control.

A Topsy-Turvy Outlook

There is no one standard approach to the fall 2020 semester. Due to economic uncertainties and financial concerns, most universities have not settled on a final answer. At this point, fall decisions for colleges are topsy-turvy as this Wall Street Journal supports: “When and if students do arrive at school this fall, classrooms, quads and cafeterias are likely to look and feel different. States may continue to limit the size of gatherings, which would dictate maximums for how many students can be in a lecture hall or dining room. Students could sit in classrooms separated by three or four seats.” As many parents and students are anxiously waiting for a solid fall plan, the Chronicle is working to track colleges’ plans. Until you hear from your college, find out what the fall semester will look like for these universities.

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