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Universities Try to Keep Students Apart but Together

FILE - Students walk through the American University campus in Washington, December 11, 2013.

Frank Strong, chancellor of the University of Kansas, made a simple, but official, statement proclaiming the university closed.

“By authority and direction of the state board of health, there will be no classes in the university beginning at noon today, October 8,” he wrote in the university’s paper. “The university will reopen Tuesday, October 15, unless notice is given to the contrary.”

But it wasn’t just one week of closure; it turned out to be five. Strong was dealing with the influenza outbreak of 1918, first discovered in the United States in Haskell County, Kansas, “an isolated and sparsely populated county in the southwest corner of the state.”

More than 100 years later, colleges and universities are dealing with the same health crisis: a flu pandemic that stopped higher education almost overnight. The difference this time is, instead of hundreds of students attending school together, institutions are grappling with how to accommodate hundreds of thousands. That includes more than 1 million students from outside the U.S.

Carlo Ciotoli, M.D., New York University’s associate vice president for student health and executive director of the Student Health Center, is walking in Strong’s shoes. After notifying the NYU community in January 2020 about COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, people continued to crowd into bars and restaurants, and masks were limited to health care, not streetwear. New York was a hot spot. Students still traveled by plane and mass transit around the planet. States in different parts of the country opened up, then closed when flu rates rose.

FILE - A student carries a box to her dorm at Harvard University, after the school asked its students not to return to campus after Spring Break and said it would move to virtual instruction, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 10, 2020.
FILE - A student carries a box to her dorm at Harvard University, after the school asked its students not to return to campus after Spring Break and said it would move to virtual instruction, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, March 10, 2020.

Meanwhile, colleges and universities scrambled to respond. Some sent students home for a break, then required them to return to clean out their rooms. Study abroad students were unsure whether to stay or go. Educators, students and parents scrambled to adapt, finally shutting down to figure out how to respond for the fall semester.

So far, 61 percent of schools across the country have decided that students will return to campus.

The dilemma remains: How to keep students safe while not going bankrupt.

On-campus classes

Public and private schools including Harvard University and Boston University in Massachusetts, the College of William and Mary in Virginia, Elon University in North Carolina, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Kenyon College and Ohio State University in Ohio, Pepperdine University in California, Tulane University in New Orleans, the University of Arizona, and Washington University in St. Louis, all plan on having students on campus, according to the Chronicle for Higher Education, an education news site.

Some universities are starting late, like the University of Florida, while others, like the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, are beginning early, and completing final exams by Thanksgiving.

Other schools, like American University in Washington, D.C., will hold hybrid classes this fall, meaning that course instruction will be online and in person.

For AU, classes that are held in a lab will be given priority for in-person learning, while “more traditional lectures” will follow the hybrid model including a combination of some in-person classes, online work and live streams.

FILE - Students walk on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, November 12, 2015.
FILE - Students walk on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, November 12, 2015.

Yale University said it plans to reopen its campus this fall without sophomores, and return in the spring without freshmen, according to its website.

Harvard announced that it will “bring up to 40 percent of undergraduates to campus for the fall semester, including all first-year students,” according to the university’s website.

Princeton University stated that first-year students and juniors will be on campus for the fall, while sophomores and seniors will return in the spring. According to the university’s website, “most academic instruction will remain online.”

Some larger institutions are unable to follow these guidelines, but others, like the University of Colorado at Boulder, are finding unique solutions. CU Boulder plans for students to live and take courses as a group.

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

How to house students apart

Students returning to school in the fall will face a reduced collegiate experience: Partying, sharing bathrooms and just sitting in a dining hall with friends are among the luxuries students will not be afforded when the semester begins. This fall, with proper social distancing guidelines put in place, students’ social lives are likely to be very different than ever before.

Many universities are offering campus housing to freshmen and some upperclassmen and asking other students to find housing off campus.

AU’s on-campus housing will only be provided for freshmen and “some” sophomores.

The University of Pennsylvania will provide on-campus housing for first year, second year, and transfer undergraduates, and lease additional space off campus for third- and fourth-year undergraduate students.

Juniors and seniors at Yale may choose to live on campus or not.

The American College Health Association has advised that universities should house “single resident per room and ideally per bathroom (if possible).”

But most colleges traditionally offer on-campus housing to two, three or four to a room with a communal toilet and bathroom used by an entire dorm floor.

Applications and admissions

The application process is changing, too. Colleges and universities are looking at student attributes differently.

More than 300 U.S. colleges and universities have endorsed Harvard’s Graduate School of Education statement that “seeks to clarify what we value in applicants during this time of COVID-19.”

Besides the usual academic work, service and contributions to others, family contributions and extracurricular activities, schools are asking about summer activities and “self-care.”

“We encourage students to communicate any factors specific to their circumstances that impeded their academic performance,” the statement recommended. “We encourage students to describe concretely how any of these circumstances have negatively affected their academic performance or ability to engage in activities that matter to them.”