Plenty of universities will have in-person classes this fall, despite the pandemic

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Photo via Warren LeMay/Flickr (Public Domain)

The majority of American colleges and universities plan for students to return for in-person classes this fall, according to data collected by the Chronicle of Higher Education. Still, some colleges are going online, though.

Of the almost 1,000 colleges surveyed by the Chronicle—that’s about one-quarter of the total number of U.S. degree-granting institutions—65% plan to meet in person. Another 13% are proposing a hybrid model, 8% are considering a range of scenarios, and 5% are waiting to decide. Only 8% of schools that were surveyed plan to have classes online—and the vast majority of those schools are located in California and are community colleges. 

The decisions made by these colleges and universities coincide with growing fears that a second wave of COVID-19 in the U.S. could be lethal, given the fact that the country has not yet flattened the curve from the first surge in cases. New projections show that 200,000 Americans could die by October. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released guidelines for institutes of higher education at the end of May. The release says that virtual-only learning and the closure of residence halls lowers transmission risk the most: 

General Settings

  • Lowest Risk: Faculty and students engage in virtual-only learning options, activities, and events.
  • More Risk: Small in-person classes, activities, and events. Individuals remain spaced at least six feet apart and do not share objects (e.g., hybrid virtual and in-person class structures or staggered/rotated scheduling to accommodate smaller class sizes).
  • Highest Risk: Full-sized in-person classes, activities, and events. Students are not spaced apart, share classroom materials or supplies, and mix between classes and activities.

On-Campus Housing Settings

  • Lowest Risk: Residence halls are closed, where feasible.
  • More Risk: Residence halls are open at a lower capacity and shared spaces are closed (e.g., kitchens, common areas).
  • Highest Risk: Residence halls are open at full capacity including shared spaces (e.g., kitchens, common areas).

The CDC also said that students are safest when wearing masks and maintaining six feet from one another at all times. Notably, the guidelines recommend the closure of dining halls, exercise rooms, and other communal spaces. 

Some colleges going online

Most universities with plans for in-person classes have not yet unveiled a detailed plan for what students can expect for the fall semester. Some universities have announced that they plan to end the semester early after Thanksgiving with few breaks between then and August. In late July, the University of Minnesota, one of the largest public universities in the country, announced it was mostly going online for fall semester in 2020.

Experts argue that higher education institutions could easily become hotbeds for the virus because it will be challenging to enforce social distancing in an environment traditionally manufactured for socializing. 

“Campuses are almost ideal venues for viral transmission, with students packed into dormitories, apartment suites, cafeterias and lecture halls,” Washington Post reporter Nick Anderson wrote. “They live, eat, study, and party together. Keeping a social distance will be challenging for even the most conscientious students, faculty, and staff.” 

On Aug. 17, the University of North Carolina announced it was shutting down in-person learning after more than 130 students tested positive during the first week of classes.

More college coronavirus news:

Sources: Chronicle of Higher Education, NCES, CDCWashington Post    

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