Universities plan for students' return – but will US campus life ever be the same?

Experts say coronavirus outbreaks are almost inevitable given the close-knit nature of college life, and many social events might not return

When Nicole Spriggs-Moye of Washington DC imagined what her first year in college at Louisiana State University would look like, she imagined meeting new people and exploring new places. She envisioned bonding with her new roommate and joining the Black Student Union and student radio station. She planned to find mentors in her professors, who would teach her mass communication and pre-law.

But for Spriggs-Moye and thousands of other incoming college students, reality has set in that college will be very different in the time of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“A lot of events and things that really make college college might not happen: football games, certain freshman-week events, all that type of stuff,” Spriggs-Moye said. “If there will even be a second semester and we’ll get second-semester events is up in the air.”

Colleges and universities, in which there are over 4,000 across the US, have been undergoing a reckoning of how college can still be “college” – a life of social activities, living with roommates, giant lecture classes, sports games and dorm parties – in the midst of a pandemic where social distancing is key to preventing an outbreak.

Most institutions in the country closed their doors to students and faculty as shutdown orders came in March, moving all classes online to “Zoom University” – the term students have used to refer to their online learning experience.

Now that summer has arrived, college and university administrators are desperately trying to plan how a campus can function during a pandemic.

Public health officials say coronavirus cases on campus are pretty much inevitable, given the close-knit nature of university life.

“We should assume for planning purposes that there will be people on campus with Covid-19 infections, regardless of what precautions are taken,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, during testimony to Congress earlier this month.

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released interim guidelines for colleges and universities to follow as they start to open up. The CDC broadly recommends institutions partner with local health officials to implement contact tracing and testing. If a Covid-19 case pops up, classes may have to be temporarily suspended, and students may need to move to temporary housing.

Despite the risks of new infections and outbreaks, many institutions have announced they will invite students back to campus in the fall – with some major caveats.

Multiple institutions have said they are looking into allowing only a portion of the student population to be on campus at once. Stanford University in California plans to allow two classes of undergraduates on campus per quarter. The freshman class will be on campus in the fall, while the senior class will be on campus in the spring. New York University is planning a “mixed mode” of learning, allowing students to participate in either in-person or online classes.

Other schools are looking to get rid of breaks to ensure students do not leave campus and return with the virus. The University of Notre Dame in Indiana is planning to start its fall semester three weeks earlier than scheduled to allow classes to end before Thanksgiving. LSU said it may transition to online learning after Thanksgiving and into finals.

Although it may be easier for institutions to hold classes solely online, campuses are seen by students, faculty and administrators alike as essential elements of learning, and a key part of the college experience.

Sydney Hayes, who will be a senior at Notre Dame in the fall, wants to spend her senior year on campus to enjoy the friendships and connections she has built over the last three years.

“Part of the reason why people go to Notre Dame especially is to feel like they’re home. That’s what Notre Dame preaches – it’s like your home away from home,” Hayes said. “I feel a lot of us feel misplaced and displaced right now being at home and not having our friends, peers and professors close with us.”

For Rebecca Mena, who will be a senior at California State University Fullerton next year, being on campus also means she can find quiet places to get work done. Doing online classes at home has been difficult with her two younger siblings aged four and 10.

“My focus can be broken pretty easily. That’s why I preferred going on campus and studying anywhere instead of my room. I’d be at the student union, be at Starbucks. No one’s there to bother, you’re just alone with you and your thoughts,” Mena said.

“In contrast to being here at home with everyone yelling, noises happening randomly. I don’t even have a desk to work on,” Mena said. “I’m going into debt to succeed, not work on my bed.”

Experts say the pandemic will encourage many students to reflect on whether a pared-back campus experience is worth the high cost of college, especially when unemployment is at a record high and many families are finding themselves with less money. One survey found that as many as one in six high school seniors who had proposed to attend college in the fall changed their plans because of the pandemic.

The decision of whether to pursue college during a pandemic will probably hit middle-class and low-income students the hardest, a population of students who have lower rates of college degree than wealthier students. In 2017, 78% of students aged 18-24 from the wealthiest families went to college, compared to 48% of students of the same age from the poorest families. In the US, a person with a college degree earns $30,000 more a year than someone without.

“Wealthier students will have more resources during this pandemic. They will have more choices to hold out for that classic college experience that they hope to have. Students who are not from wealthy families will have fewer options,” said Kristen Renn, a professor of higher, adult and lifelong education at Michigan State University.

States will also probably tighten funding in the near future thanks to pandemic spending the worsening economy. Public colleges and universities that rely on state funding are likely to see their own budgets slashed. After the Great Recession, nearly all states cut their budgets for public institutions. With less money, schools increase the cost for students, increasing the likelihood of student debt, already $1.5tn in the US.

Private institutions will also see a decrease in enrollment, especially without international students, who bring in $2.5bn in tuition a year. Some colleges could lose up to $100m in revenue this year with the drop in international and domestic student enrollment. Already dozens of schools have furloughed faculty members and instituted hiring freezes.

In the $2.2tn Cares Act –the relief package Congress passed in March – $14bn was allocated to help colleges and universities. Institutions were instructed to give at least half of the money to students in the form of emergency grants, though the Department of Education has barred millions of undocumented and international students from receiving any of the aid.

Though institutions were told to report how they are spending the money they received from the Cares Act, “we don’t know very much about how colleges are spending that money,” said James Kvaal, president of the Institute for College Access & Success and a former Obama White House official. He said it was clear schools and their students will need more aid in the future.

“Congress needs to offer much more relief to colleges and universities, and unlike the Cares Act, it should come with some expectations.”


Lauren Aratani

The GuardianTramp

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