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In person, online classes or a mix: Colleges' fall 2020 coronavirus reopening plans, detailed

Elinor Aspegren and Samuel Zwickel
USA TODAY Network
Walton Sun

Michigan State University President Samuel Stanley says he knows the coronavirus will spread if students come back to campus in the fall.

While safety is “paramount," managing the risk is a chance worth taking for MSU, he said.

“The one thing that's going to be really important, then, is confidence in our students, faculty and staff and their willingness to abide by a number of the things we're going to be asking them to do on campus,” Stanley said.

Like Stanley, most college administrators are mulling over how to restart their programs with no end in sight for the public health crisis.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking more than 860 institutions’ plans, two-thirds of colleges are planning to welcome back students in person, while only 7% are planning to hold classes only online. Many other colleges have yet to make a decision.

Their approaches are as diverse as the roughly 3,000 four-year colleges and universities that span the United States.

Back to campus – with masks, one-way hallways

Stanley is among a majority of university presidents who aspire to welcome students back to campus in the fall. He said many students had difficulties with remote learning in the spring. Some lacked the resources at home to complete courses online.

But Michigan State still plans to hold about half of its classes entirely online. Others will be taught via a hybrid format, with students doing some course sessions online and some in person, or in larger classrooms on campus. The school plans to accommodate students who cannot return in person by giving them an online curriculum.

Stanley said university affiliates will need to commit to a new way of life on the East Lansing campus: always wearing masks in public spaces, respecting “directional flow” for certain hallways, and committing to self-isolation if exposed to the virus.

To decrease density in residential facilities and minimize unnecessary social contact, college administrators are lowering dormitory occupancy and requiring changes to life in residence halls.

Duke University, for example, is offering extra housing in local hotels and apartments, with most students promised a single room.

At historically Black Florida A&M University, the proposed plan for reopening this fall places a strong focus on health precautions. Black Americans have already been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Class sizes at FAMU will be limited, and students will be required to shower at scheduled times. Students are “strongly encouraged” to get tested for COVID-19 when they arrive on campus, and at least 2% of faculty and staff will be tested every month.

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The University of Colorado-Boulder plans to house first-year students in “social cohort groups” tied to the courses they're registered to take.

“In a regular semester, (students) may have 40 or 50 different students that they would be interacting with rather than just 10. And we believe that by reducing that population density, we’ll certainly help to mitigate some of the problems with the virus," Chancellor Philip DiStefano told CNN.

Boston University’s students are invited back to campus, but they will have a choice between in-person classes or remote classes for their fall semester.

“It protects the health and safety of everyone, students and faculty, and provides the kind of flexibility that students need in these difficult times,” Sue Kennedy, BU’s interim associate provost for undergraduate affairs, wrote in a news release.

Why all the effort to reopen campuses? Many colleges – especially smaller, residential schools – need students on campus to stay afloat. Refunds for room and board when classes went online in March created budget crises at many institutions.

What's more, students said they might not return to college if classes were online again in the fall. In lawsuits and social media posts, they spent much of the spring saying it wasn't fair they had to pay full tuition rates to learn online.

Online classes throughout California

Still, some colleges have decided the risk of a community outbreak is too great.

California State University – the nation's largest public university system – and many universities in the University of California system plan to offer most of their fall semester coursework online.

CSU Chancellor Timothy White said he was skeptical of college administrators who say they can bring their students back, noting forecasts of a second wave of the coronavirus that could severely disrupt campus activities.

“If you started in person and then had to flip back to virtual halfway through – that kind of yo-yo, you know – is that good for students and for the learning experience, or is it better to have a consistent space, the virtual space?” White said.

For academic programs that depend on specialized equipment – such as kilns for pottery workshops and laboratories for chemistry experiments – CSU plans to move forward with a limited number of on-campus offerings, according to White. Each of the system’s 23 campuses might teach anywhere from 2% to 12% of its classes in person.

White said he is confident virtual courses will be more compelling than they were in the spring and hopes students will “stay with it” instead of taking a gap year.

“That's actually sort of field training for the future workforce, because when they graduate, chances are going to be increasing every day that they will be working in a virtual space in the future,” White said.

At the University of California-Los Angeles, administrators have said no more than 20% of classes will be taught in-person.

Low-density housing will be provided based on financial need and for students taking courses or participating in other activities offered in-person, according to a statement from Provost Emily Carter.

Shifting class schedules

Some universities are opening their campuses but reimagining their academic calendars or approaches to minimize transmission of the virus.

Syracuse University plans to move to an alternating in-person schedule for the fall term. Half of all students will attend a class in-person one day, with the other half following along virtually. The students will swap spots on alternate days.

Stanford University plans to start its fall term earlier and allow only half of undergraduates back to campus each quarter.

And, like universities such as Rice, Notre Dame and Purdue, Stanford will end its term before Thanksgiving to avoid the expected reemergence of the coronavirus in late fall. Such universities want to reduce the chances that students become exposed to the virus at home and bring it back to campus.

A few smaller colleges are experimenting with block scheduling. Centre College in Kentucky plans to divide the normal academic term of 13 weeks and four courses into two blocks of two courses, each six weeks plus two days long. That way, the argument goes, fewer classes at a time will be disrupted by a potential outbreak. Centre administrators say they hope to decide by midsummer whether classes will be online or in-person.

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Still considering options

Many colleges, like Centre, are still weighing avenues for return.

While planning to keep classes online, Harvard University is considering three options for undergraduate living for the fall semester: keeping the campus population at its low-density level, with most undergraduates at home; housing about half of its undergrads; and welcoming back all students.

Harvard officials say they expect to make a decision by July.

In states that have lifted public health restrictions, potentially paving the way for universities to resume their operations, some colleges have created their own reopening phases.

At the University of Alabama, officials are implementing four phases of reopening as they assess COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

For now, the college says, students will be tested for COVID-19 before or immediately after returning to campus, and the university is considering limiting in-semester holidays and breaks as well as ending in-person instruction by Thanksgiving.

Contributing: Byron Dobson, Tallahassee Democrat

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: In person, online classes or a mix: Colleges' fall 2020 coronavirus reopening plans, detailed