Confident universities ready for in-person learning in fall

The University of Alabama and scores of others say they intend to have full face-to-face instruction, and some expect to have full football stadiums, too.
By: | March 2, 2021
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Which is bigger news at the University of Alabama: the fact that in-person classes will return “without restrictions on classroom capacity” or that the national champion football team says it will play before a completely full 100,000-seat stadium in the fall?

Either way, the entire Alabama System – which includes Tuscaloosa, Birmingham and Huntsville – will open the 2021-22 academic year in a face-to-face modality, banking that the COVID-19 pandemic will be nothing more than a blip on its dashboards.

That sent Crimson Tide students and fans taking to Twitter to express their approval: 2,800 likes apiece in just hours for both the news story from AL.com and the football announcement from Athletic Director Greg Byrne.

Alabama, which had a very rocky start in its reopening last fall, has done well to keep COVID-19 positive cases low on the three campuses since. Last week, the university system reported that 0.065% of employees tested positive, while the rest of the tests done including students was at 0.317%, its lowest number yet.

“Our models give us confidence in the strong likelihood that we’ll have a safe environment for traditional classrooms and on-campus activities by the fall,” said Dr. Selwyn Vickers, Dean of the UAB School of Medicine and Chair of the UA System Health and Safety Task Force. “Of course, we will continue to make every effort to abide by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Alabama Department of Public Health guidance and make data-driven decisions. If safety concerns arise, we can adjust our plan; the safety of the 110,000 students, faculty and staff of the UA System remains our top priority.”

Many other major universities are also planning for a traditional in-person fall, including Ohio State, Penn State, Kansas, Iowa and West Virginia and the University of Indiana system, which is encouraged by COVID trends and the rollout of vaccines.

“Having the vast majority of the IU community vaccinated against COVID-19 will be one of the keys to allowing an increase in in-person courses and activities on campuses this fall,” Aaron Carroll, director of mitigation testing and associate dean at Indiana’s School of Medicine, said in a statement. “Plus, our testing data continues to show very manageable levels of COVID-19 on our campuses. We are optimistic that should the current trends continue, we’ll be back on campus together this fall.”

Like Alabama, Indiana has done very well in limiting spread of coronavirus on campus, with positivity rates falling below 1%. Although university President Michael McRobbie said “we cannot set any of our plans in stone,” he credits strict protocols and a program that administers thousands of tests each week for being able to plan ahead.

“Because of the outstanding efforts of the entire IU community on all campuses across the state in successfully battling the COVID-19 pandemic over the last year, I am very confident that we will see a successful return to mostly normal university operations in the fall,” he said.

Plans at other universities

The bold responses from higher education and campus health leaders are due to a number of factors.

Many institutions have done well in limiting outbreaks on campus and identifying those who have the virus through robust testing and tracing. Dashboards have been a key resource in showing trends, both at the university level and in surrounding communities. Students largely have adhered to protocols, especially mask-wearing and social distancing. And many classes are still remote, limiting capacity in buildings, while universities have made adjustments to housing.

It is unclear how those latter two factors will play out in the fall, although Marquette University in Milwaukee, is not only planning on having a complete slate of face-to-face classes but is also preparing for a full return to housing for students.

Two key components are driving that confidence: COVID is largely not impacting college student populations as it is older populations; and vaccine rollouts are happening across the U.S. By August that should help alleviate concerns about faculty and staff. The one outlier that gives some leaders pause are virus variants … but not enough to prevent some universities from planning ahead on reopening.

One of those is Oklahoma State University, which like Alabama, is proclaiming both a return to fall capacity in the classroom and at its 60,000-seat football stadium this fall. Vice Provost Dr. Jeannette Mendez said the university is happy to move forward with plans for face-to-face instruction as it follows the guidance of public health officials.

“We will adjust protocols as needed when the semester draws closer, but I am pleased to report our faculty are preparing for in-person instruction this fall,” she said.

Likewise, the University of Mississippi said it excited about the possibility.

“We have seen a return this semester of much of the vibrancy and vitality for which our campus is beloved and so well-known,” Chancellor Glenn Boyce said in a letter to the university community. “We will offer the Fall 2021 semester as a full in-person campus experience.”

Mississippi, however, is one of several schools in the Southeastern Conference that has not committed to planning for a full football stadium in the fall. Others have, including two that have 102,000-seat stadiums – Louisiana State University and University of Tennessee. Whether that will be allowed to happen – the conference likely will have some input as will local public health officials – remains to be seen. Last year, only two universities were allowed to have more than 30% in its stadiums: Arkansas State and Marshall. In the SEC, the top number was 25%, which included Alabama and Tennessee.

Time will tell if the University of Tennessee will have Neyland Stadium packed with students in the fall, but it is very likely it will have full classrooms for in-person learning.

“Our faculty and staff have done an amazing job to make sure our students are successful,” University of Tennessee system President Randy Boyd said in a statement.  “The past year has been difficult for many students as they adjusted to online classes, social distancing practices and other safety measures. We want to do all we can to ensure our students are able to have a more traditional college experience this fall.”

Florida State University is one institution that will start bringing more students into in-person learning environments in the summer in anticipation for full in-person instruction in the fall. FSU also just announced it will host spring graduation ceremonies in-person, as will the University of Florida, though UF has not announced yet its plans for the fall semester.

Others that have plans for a majority or full in-person learning include two more in Pennsylvania – Temple University and Slippery Rock – and others across the country, including the University of Central Florida, Purdue University Northwest, the University at Albany, Iowa State University, Charleston Southern and Southern Oregon University.