Dr. Sarah Van Orman carefully breaks the normal word when describing what the fall 2021 term will look like at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles and other colleges across the country.
In the covid age, the word brings images of campus life that university administrators know do not exist again for quite some time. As much as they want to move in that direction, Van Orman said, these first steps can be stopped.
We believe that higher education in general will be able to resume some kind of normal activity in the fall of the 21st, and by that I mean students in classrooms and living rooms, others on campus and things usually open up, Van said Orman, USCs Chief Health Officer. But it will not look like the fall of 2019, before the pandemic. This will take a while.
Interviews with campus officials and health administrators across the country reveal the same opinion. Almost every official who spoke to KHN said universities will open their classrooms and dormitories this fall. In many cases, they no longer have the option of not doing so. But controlling those environments and limiting viral spread poses the greatest challenges in the history of many schools and the notion of what constitutes normalcy is again being adjusted in real time.
University officials predicted significant increases in campus activity, but with limits. Most schools expect to have students living on campus but only attend a few classes in person or attend only on selected days, a way to shake your head and limit classroom exposure. And everyone plans to have vaccines and lots of testing available.
We will use face masks, Van Orman said. The density of people in certain areas would be reduced. We would provide on-campus vaccinations and we need tracking mechanisms so that we can track contacts when requested.
With three vaccines administered nationwide so far, the chances that college faculty and staff members can be partially or completely inoculated against covidium by the fall are improving. Students usually fall well on the priority list for getting covidium vaccines, so schools are left to hope that adult vaccination will keep covidium rates too low to cause major campus outbreaks. It may take months to test this assumption, depending on vaccination and the extent of the disease, the duration of vaccine-induced immunity, and factor X variants and their resistance to existing vaccines.
And most colleges are interpreting federal law as it prohibits them from requiring staff or students to be vaccinated because the shootings have only been given emergency use authorization and have not yet been licensed by the Food and Drug Administration.
Regardless, many schools are moving forward. The University of Houston recently announced it would return to full pre-pandemic levels of campus activity, as did the University of Minnesota. Boston University President Robert Brown said students will return this fall to classrooms, studios and labs without the social distance protocols in force since last September. No hybrid hours will be offered, he said, nor will workplace adjustments be made for faculty and staff.
The University of South Carolina plans to return living rooms to normal occupancy, with face-to-face classes and the resumption of other operations on the main campus with 35,000 students, Debbie Beck, the school’s chief health officer, announced last month.
However, in some of the larger state institutions, it is clear that a campus-by-campus decision-making process remains at stake. In December, California State University system, a ghost that registers ready half a million students, announced plans for “Mostly personally” instructions this fall, only to be opposed by officials on one of its 23 campuses.
Chico State Campus with 17,000 students plans to offer about a quarter of fall course sections, either fully in person or mixed, President Gayle Hutchinson wrote in the campus community in February. There is no easy explanation for what this means for students, she said. This could mean a fully online schedule, or one that is both personal and online.
University of California with 285,000 students system in January declared a return to mostly in person guidance for the fall, but said specific plans and protocols will be announced by each of its 10 campuses. Places like UCLA, in Los Angeles County, which had been ravaged by high levels of infection for months, could end up with far fewer person classes than UC campuses in Merced or Santa Cruz.
There is no movement around the financial component of school decisions for the fall. After most of the more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. went into complete or near-physical closure last spring, the overall census ra 2.5% and first-year student enrollments fell by more than 13%. And the real pain was felt in empty dormitories and cafes. For many schools, room and board make up the profit margin for the year.
According to research by College Board, room and board costs have risen faster than tuition and fees in two- and four-year public institutions over the past five years. In 2017, the Urban Institute found that room and board costs had more than doubled since 1980 in dollars regulated by inflation. When those dollars dry up, as happened during the pandemic, budgets can be severely strained.
In mid-March, Mills College, a liberal arts school for 169-year-old women in Oakland, announced would no longer accept first year degrees and would become an institute promoting women leadership. Mills is among a number of schools in financial difficulty that the pandemic pushed across borders.
On an October letter to Congress Seeking expanded financial support, the American Council on Education estimated a $ 120 billion collective loss in connection with the pandemic from nations’ colleges and universities. Chronicle of Higher Education in February revised that estimate to a staggering $ 183 billion, the biggest losses our financial sector has encountered.
There are no easy solutions. The hybrid classroom model, with professors teaching several students in person and others online at the same time, is a major setback for both institutions and faculty, said Sue Lorenson, vice dean for university education at Georgetown University. But although instructors generally hate it, that model will almost certainly exist in most schools this fall to keep enrollments as high as possible.
Clearly, the preference in any school is for those students to return to campus. And university health officials prefer to see them living in dormitories. As long as infection rates are low in communities around campus, schools really have a great ability to keep those kids in very safe living rooms, Van Orman said. Weve have the ability to test them regularly and soften them with masks, distance, disinfection and other things.
One of USC’s biggest viral outbreaks, in fact, occurred off-campus last summer, when more than 40 people were infected in the fraternity line area, a couple of blocks away from the university.
On campuses across the country, officials say, the fall deadline will be marked again by surrounding arrangements. And in terms of getting back to a real normal?
I do not think, reasonably, that this will happen before Sept. 22, and I really believe I will likely see 23, Antonio Calcado, chief operating officer at Rutgers, the state university with 70,000 students in New Jersey, said during an on-campus presentation. It was easy bringing the university into a stalemate. It will be hard to get it back where we need to be.
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