A student wearing full-body PPE due to the COVID-19 pandemic, walks towards the Coventry University Library at the beginning of…
FILE - A student wearing full-body PPE due to the COVID-19 pandemic walks toward the Coventry University Library at the beginning of the new academic year, at Coventry University, in Coventry, central England, Sept. 23, 2020.

Higher education did not escape the reaches of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. U.S. colleges and universities struggled with decisions in the spring to send students home, and then whether to open campuses in the fall, all with an eye to trying to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Students still feel adrift, and the financial impact on the industry has been significant.  

The issues:  

COVID-19 begins  

In December 2019, international students celebrated the end of a semester’s hard work, with many flying home for the winter holidays. A month later, they traveled back to their U.S. schools for the beginning of a new semester.  

Simultaneously, a new coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan, China, home to several universities. Institutions were locked down in China and thousands of international students ordered to stay indoors. But COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, spread throughout Asia, and the world.

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As the virus spread quickly, students, their families and the general population were unsure how to respond because of a lack of information, direction and strategy across the world.

In the U.S., the first COVID-19 cases were detected in January 2020, but most schools were unsure how to respond until March, when the first spike in cases occurred. With no national or unified plan in place, university officials reacted in varying measures.  

Some schools sent students home. Thousands of university students celebrated the extension of spring break, many in throngs at traditional beach and party venues. Many young people mingled with others and were dubbed super spreaders because they showed no symptoms even when infectious.  

U.S. universities canceled study abroad programs, affecting thousands of U.S. students. The state of New York sent a plane to fetch its students from around the world and quarantined them in dorms and hotels together upon arrival.

Students walk on the Northeastern University campus in Boston, Massachusetts, Jan. 31, 2020.
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By mid-March, hundreds of thousands of international students returned to their home countries while others remained in the U.S. to shelter in place.

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COVID-19 chaos  

With little experience or preparation for a pandemic, universities quickly shifted to mostly online learning for the spring semester.  

Thousands of international students who flew back to their home countries juggled differing time zones.

Many institutions instituted a pass/fail grading option to relieve pressure on students, some of whom found online learning overwhelming.  

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With the switch to online learning, students and parents pushed back on paying full price for fewer services. Some universities, such as Williams College in Massachusetts and Princeton University in New Jersey, announced tuition discounts, while others negotiated adjustments with students. Some continued to charge full price.

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Over the summer, most colleges and universities announced they would conduct some on-campus learning, but after reopening in the fall, COVID-19 cases spiked.  

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill saw 135 positive COVID-19 cases emerge after the first week of classes, which prompted them, and many other schools, to quickly revert to full remote learning.

Protesters march opposing in-person classes at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Aug. 17, 2020. More of the state public universities are opening for the fall term.
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As the end of the fall semester approached, most universities closed their campuses after the Thanksgiving break, and switched to online courses. COVID-19 cases spiked after Thanksgiving, the most traveled time of year in the U.S., as U.S. health experts had warned.  

"People who do not currently live in your housing unit, such as college students who are returning home from school for the holidays, should be considered part of different households," the Centers for Disease Control said, advising Americans to adhere to coronavirus protocols to limit the risk of spreading the disease.  

Among colleges and universities that were successful at keeping COVID-19 rates lower, frequent testing, vigilant monitoring and keeping students together were cited as factors. 

Other issues, such as a college admissions scandal and immigration visa changes, also roiled student life at U.S. colleges and universities.