How colleges are prepping for face-to-face learning in the fall

Leaders are developing alternative class schedules, new dining and housing policies, and plans for coronavirus testing

College and university leaders say their top priority for fall 2020 is to resume face-to-face learning to the greatest extent possible while keeping staff and students safe.

At Montclair University in New Jersey, President Susan Cole’s team is detailing the following possibilities: a normal campus environment, a hybrid of in-person and online classes, and a fully online institution.

“We are trying to plan for three different universities and it’s pretty complicated,” Cole said. “We have to have the highest quality of instructional programs, we have to continue our research endeavors, and we have to be able to support students to the greatest extent possible to succeed.”

Across the country, campus leaders are prepping a range of alternatives, such as suspending large lectures, delaying or dividing the fall semester and housing all students in single dorm rooms. And they acknowledge that higher ed may not return to normal right away.

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“Seeing people walk around in masks is going to be a dramatic change to what we’re used to,” says Lance Tatum, senior vice chancellor of academic affairs and leader of the coronavirus task force at Troy University in Alabama. “We may have to bridge some anxiety by giving students more opportunities to work in online platforms rather than saying they have to be in class every day.”

Face-to-face learning requires flexibility

Beloit College in Wisconsin plans to split the fall 2020 semester into a pair of seven-week “modules” during which students will take two courses each, Provost Eric Boynton says.

“We’re treating this year as an experiment that’s designed not just for COVID but to give students more flexibility during their days,” Boynton says. “Our aspiration is to be in residential mode, but we’re ready to pivot in any way that’s necessary.”

The module model, which will also be in place in spring 2021, creates a “hinge point” in the middle of a semester that allows the school to shift between in-person and online learning as circumstances dictate.

The idea originated several years ago at Beloit but was never put into practice. Administrators envisioned that students only taking two courses would have more time to participate in internships, career-focused programs, and other co-curricular activities, Boynton says.

In addition, Beloit will flip courses of more than 30 students this fall. Lectures will be posted online while students meet in small groups of about 10 for discussions with instructors.

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Troy University will likely adopt a five-semester model that gives the university the flexibility to move from online to in-person instruction during a two-term fall semester.

Administrators are figuring out what space will be needed to hold smaller classes that allow students and instructors to maintain social distancing. That will likely require hiring more faculty at a time when Troy, like colleges and universities across the country, will face financial shortfalls and enrollment declines, Tatum says.

As for campus life, the task force is now figuring if the university can offer single rooms in dorms and if it can even use older residence halls with communal bathrooms at all.

“The areas where people congregate, the rec center, the student activity center, all of that is going to be dramatically different,” Tatum says. “Where we used to see people out on the quad playing frisbee, all of that is going to change. It will look like we have fewer people on campus whether we do or not.”

Two courses at a time

Centre College in Kentucky will shift to a block schedule that divides its traditional 13-week, four-course academic term into two blocks of two courses.

Professors at Centre College in Kentucky will be able to meet with their students more often as they will be teaching fewer students during the school's fall block schedule.
Professors at Centre College in Kentucky will be able to meet with their students more often as they will be teaching fewer students during the school’s fall block schedule.

“While our hope is for in-person instruction for all of fall 2020, the ‘CentreBlocks’ schedules enables us to offer any combination of in-person and remote learning in response to the public health situation,” says Alex McAllister, associate dean of the college.

The 90-minute courses will run five days a week. Professors will be able to meet with their students more often as they will be teaching fewer students in each block, McAllister adds.

“From a student perspective, taking only two courses at a time means less mental shifting among subjects, which should reduce stress and help both first-year and current students more easily transition into a new academic year,” McAllister says.

The block schedule emerged during weekly meetings where deans in the Associated Colleges of the South (of which Centre College is a member) share ideas for adapting to the COVID-crisis, says Ellen Goldey, Centre’s vice president for academic affairs and dean of the college.

Tracking the virus on campus

Coronavirus testing, antibody testing, contact tracing and isolating those who fall ill will also be essential to reopening campuses.

The University of Arizona launched a statewide coronavirus antibody testing initiative with the state of Arizona this week.
The University of Arizona launched a statewide coronavirus antibody testing initiative with the state of Arizona this week.

University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins plans to test all students, faculty and staff for COVID-19 when in-person classes resume on August 24.

“Our plan is to test, trace and treat to present our campus community a flexible and adaptive teaching and learning environment,” Robbins says. “There are many factors that remain beyond our control. However, we are tackling what is within our control to ensure our students have the opportunity for a full on-campus experience.”

But administrators may not have total control over their fall 2020 plans. Campus leaders will likely be making final decisions with the guidance of local and state officials, says Barbara K. Mistick, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

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“I’ve been in touch with hundreds of presidents in the last week, and their No. 1 priority is getting students back on campus,” Mistick says. “But it’s complicated. There are so many different decision points.”

Financially, there will be “pockets of vulnerability” among some small private colleges and regional public institutions trying to survive the crisis.

For example, Mistick recently spoke to a school that generates 15% of its revenue from a study-abroad program that may not return any time soon.

“For institutions that have tried a number of different things but haven’t really hit a stride, that’s going to be really significant when they have an assault on all their revenue sources at once,” she says.

UB’s coronavirus page offers complete coverage of the impacts on higher ed.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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