Universities begin to map a more normal decline, with caveats – tech2.org

Universities begin to map a more normal decline, with caveats


Colleges and universities across the country are beginning to detail their plans for next fall, anticipating more students on campus, a full roster of face-to-face classes, and even concerts and enthusiastic sports fans.

But, they warn, plans could change.

After months of virtual classes and sparsely populated dorms, schools like Michigan State University and the University of Oregon say they hope to return to mostly face-to-face classes by the 2021-22 academic year. The forecasts are expressed in disclaimers in case the institutions decide to turn online again.

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The announcements come as Covid-19 case counts continue to decline from winter highs and vaccination rates spike, and just as prospective students are weighing their college options.

“Schools are concerned about enrollment,” said Chris Marsicano, assistant professor of higher education at Davidson College in North Carolina. “And they are worried about being the stranger left out. If all of your peer institutions decide to be in person and decide to go online, they may not get the enrollment they want. “

Dr. Marsicano, whose College Crisis Initiative has been tracking school pandemic responses for the past year, said he believes most schools will be entirely or nearly all in person this fall.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill sent students home last August after identifying Covid-19 cases in multiple dormitories.


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Julia Wall / The News & Observer / Associated Press

At Michigan State University, 75% of fall undergraduate classes are expected to be offered in person, although the school said classes will also have hybrid or online options. Much of the rest of the campus could also resemble normalcy, as dormitory occupancy more than doubled along with spectators for sports competitions and theatrical performances.

Administrators noted that many details are subject to adjustment, as required by state and local health guidelines. In mid-August last year, about two weeks before classes began, the state of Michigan urged students who had planned to come to the dorms to stay home.

The University of South Florida intends to increase in-person instruction during its summer term — 58% of spring classes already have some face-to-face component — and return to classrooms for nearly everyone in the fall.

“We feel we have a strong evidence base to make our decisions,” said President Steven C. Currall. He said his team wouldn’t have much more information if he waited another month or two to make the call.

The university has just under 4,000 of its 6,400 beds occupied this quarter and aims to be 80% to 90% full by the fall. Dr. Currall noted that the school has had relatively low Covid-19 case numbers this school year and attributed high adherence to safety guidelines, particularly among undergraduate students.

Will the coronavirus pandemic lead to long-term changes in higher education? To better understand the challenges facing American colleges and universities, WSJ’s Alexander Hotz spoke with administrators, students, and a higher education futurist. Photo: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

The California State University system, which includes 23 campuses and enrolls more than 480,000 students, announced in December that it is planning an in-person start for the upcoming school year.

“It is critical that we provide as much advance notice as possible to students and their families,” said Timothy P. White, the principal at the time. Cal State was also early in saying that it would be primarily online during the 2020-21 year, making that call last May.

Many college leaders hoped well into the summer of last year that they would still be able to fill dorms and teach in person. But as cases increased across the country, they changed, sometimes just weeks before students moved onto campus. Some faced a backlash when their reversals occurred just after families made tuition payments.

“This is an enormously high-risk situation,” said Dr. Marsicano. Now that schools have had two semesters to figure out how to operate during the pandemic, he said: “The willingness of students and families to grace institutions based on uncertainty simply no longer exists.”

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill brought the students back to campus last fall, but reversed the course and sent them home in August after identifying clusters of cases in various dormitories.

Students returned to campus this spring, with a combination of face-to-face and online classes. UNC plans to have residences operating near normal capacity in the fall, compared to the current rate of 30%, and will reserve two facilities for quarantine and isolation space.

Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said the timing of the announcement will allow the school to prepare and provide a clearer perspective to high school seniors now receiving their offers of admission. He said prolonged uncertainty could cause students to opt for gap years rather than sign up to start this fall.

Dr. Guskiewicz was careful to frame the fall plan as a scenario the school points to, but not one that is definitive.

“There could be another curveball thrown at us,” he said, referring to a possible spike in local Covid cases. “And we are prepared for that, and we will plan accordingly.”

Write to Melissa Korn at melissa.korn@wsj.com

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