These universities want more in-person learning this fall

The messaging has been clear from leaders at higher education institutions and university systems: they want to see more face-to-face instruction. But can they pull it off?
By: | February 11, 2021
Hero Images/Adobe

Banking on a combination of COVID-19 vaccines, the continued adherence to health and safety protocols and the experience of more than a year of reimagining campuses, colleges and universities across the U.S. have started to pronounce an expanded return to in-person instruction in the fall.

The latest is the University of Tennessee system, which is pressing to have most of its face-to-face classes back on its campuses, as well the return of student activities, by August.

“Our faculty and staff have done an amazing job to make sure our students are successful,” UT 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.”

That confident messaging may provide soothing hope to the scores of attendees who have been weary from a year of hybrid or remote learning. Its stance and its timing may also serve another purpose – that return to normalcy could be more attractive to high schoolers weighing decisions on their future.

But is a return to the “traditional” experience possible in the fall?

Most of the glass-half-full proclamations by institution leaders still contain a pesky out clause, the potential for plans to adjust if situations change (i.e. COVID cases and transmission potential are high). During this academic year, numerous colleges have had to  pivot to hybrid or remote learning because of unfavorable COVID data. However, many have done well to prevent big outbreaks and testing has been robust across higher education.

In the University of Tennessee system and across the state, recent COVID numbers have been much improved from the start of the academic year. During the first week of September, for example, the university system experienced a surge in positive COVID cases (779 across its campuses at its height) that also put nearly 2,500 students into quarantine. Since then, positive cases have remained much lower. Yesterday’s total across all campuses was 123. There were 30 cases involving employees. Quarantine numbers are just shy of 500 at the moment.

“Our campus has made incredible progress in learning how to best manage the risks of COVID-19, and we have reason for confidence that we can safely return to a traditional, face-to-face format for instruction,” said University of Tennessee-Chattanooga Chancellor Steven Angle. “The availability of multiple vaccines against COVID-19 in the coming months also inspires confidence that we are ready to take steps toward returning to normal university operations in fall.”

Though there are many unknowns, one hope, too, is that students may also start receiving vaccines, boosting their chances for a more traditional fall semester.

How others are seeing the fall

If numbers continue to dip and vaccines do indeed roll out as expected through the summer (Tennessee is 16th in the nation in dispensing those doses), they and others likely will be in position to deliver more courses in person in the fall.

Tennessee isn’t the only system in the U.S. that says it is ready for more face-to-face learning. Several others have been quite vocal and quite forward in their messaging to current and prospective students:

Portland State University in Oregon is boldly going where some universities won’t go yet, unleashing a campaign called Open For Fall, Open for All. It specifically targets high school seniors with this message on its site: “You’re ready for change, and so are we. This fall, we are safely reopening our campus for in-person classes.”  A YouTube video created by the university shows heart-tugging imagery of empty campus classrooms and support systems that can help guide students during their initial year. Beyond strong messages around safety and vaccines that can be given on site, it also is promoting a free application and generous lowering of GPA standards for those interested.

Several other universities in Oregon are planning to boost their face-to-face learning in the fall, too, including the Oregon State, Eastern Oregon and Southern Oregon. The University of Oregon is also on board with more in-person classes and not coincidentally already has garnered a record number of applications for the fall.

For what it’s worth, the state is doing well compared with other states, with only 13 COVID positive cases per 100,000 citizens.

The University of Texas at Dallas says it is “cautiously optimistic” about returning to the same environment in the fall, but in an email to their community, President Dr. Richard Benson and Provost Inga Musselman were much more blunt. The rollout of vaccines they said will “project what the fall 2021 semester could herald: a resumption of extensive in-person teaching and many of our on-campus activities.” Although UT-Dallas says it plans to offer three modalties – in-person, hybrid and fully remote – its face-to-face experiences will have full classrooms. “If a course was taught in the traditional classroom/laboratory in-person mode before COVID-19, it will revert back to that mode for fall 2021,” they said in the statement. “Asynchronous access will not be required for the traditional classroom/laboratory and blended/hybrid instruction modes.”

The state of Texas, at the moment, has one of the highest number of total positive cases per day of any state and also one of the highest per 100,000 individuals.

The University of California system is also very confident it can return to mostly in-person classes this fall, buoyed by the distribution of vaccines. At the moment, the state of California boasts the most cases per day overall and one of the highest per 100,000. However, UC President Michael V. Drake said in a release with 10 UC chancellors that “current forecasts give us hope that in the fall our students can enjoy a more normal on-campus experience.”

The California State University system is also planning to have its 23 campuses reopen in some fashion in the fall. But some, like Chico State won’t be offering more than 20-30% of its classes to start in person. They cite tight classroom spaces as a concern, saying they won’t be able to meet public health standards for proper social distancing in some rooms.

The University of Iowa is looking forward to hosting the majority of its courses and residents on campus in the fall, except for those lectures that contain 150 or more people. Like all other universities across the country, much will depend on local public health guidance and the vaccines. Only 30% of classes have been in person at the university, which boasts more than 30,000 students and 30,000 employees.