Could Fall Bring Some Return to Normalcy? These Colleges Say Yes

No Zoom class can replicate the experience of studying forestry management or salmon habitats on 1,000 acres of woodland along the Puget Sound.

That’s at least partly why Evergreen State College, a campus in Olympia, Wash., known for environmental studies, has joined the growing number of institutions declaring their intent to resume in-person classes this fall.

“A large portion of our students are first-generation, low-income students, and in person is the way we connect best with them,” said Evergreen’s president, George S. Bridges.

Announcements like Evergreen’s are trickling out despite admitted uncertainty and with plenty of caveats. While Covid-19 rates are generally declining across the country, cases of the disease are still spiking in some regions. The rollout of vaccines has been slower than expected, and the emergence of Covid-19 variants continues to worry some experts.

Still, for tuition-dependent colleges that were already suffering from declining enrollment, the pressure has been intense to give students and their parents a glimmer of hope for a more normal semester.

Evergreen has seen its enrollment drop 42 percent since 2017, from 3,907 to 2,281 in 2020. State appropriations haven’t kept up with mounting expenses.

The enrollment decline is due, in part, to the racial crisis the progressive college faced in 2017, when conservative state lawmakers and pundits criticized its leaders as failing to stand up to aggressive protesters and protesters complained they weren’t being heard.

Evergreen is banking on encouraging words about the progress of the vaccines and the hope that most students and employees could be vaccinated by fall, with herd immunity not far behind. The early announcement of its intent to open in person, Bridges said, will allow the college to “plan, plan, plan, so we’ll be prepared to open in the fall” with as many classes as possible taught face to face.

Many college officials were encouraged when President Biden said, during a televised town hall in Milwaukee this week, that he expects enough vaccine doses will be available by the end of July to vaccinate every American, including the 18- to 24-year-olds who haven’t yet been prioritized. However, it could take at least a few months more — well into the fall semester — until those vaccines are actually injected into the arms of everyone who wants them, the president’s chief medical adviser, Anthony S. Fauci, has said.

‘A Pre-Pandemic Campus’

Colleges announcing their fall plans are being careful to hedge their bets and not overpromise.

The University of Wyoming announced last week that it expected more in-person experiences and fewer pandemic-related restrictions this fall, assuming Covid-19 cases continue to drop and a substantial number of people are vaccinated.

“Much could change between now and the start of the fall semester, including transmission of new variants of the virus and other unforeseen developments,” Wyoming’s president, Edward Seidel, said. “However, we see great reason for optimism that we’ll have much more of a pre-pandemic campus environment this fall.”

The university’s plans hinge on everyone’s observing public-health guidelines and getting the vaccine as soon as possible. At this point, the university isn’t requiring faculty, staff, and students to be vaccinated, Seidel said, but that could change if a significant number of people don’t volunteer for the shots. To offer in-person classes at pre-pandemic levels, at least 70 percent of the campus community would need to be vaccinated, he said.

Timing is also key. Wyoming’s fall semester is scheduled to start on August 23, and faculty and staff members would have to be vaccinated at least six weeks before then for classes, athletic events, and social activities to roll out fully face to face. The university expects to have enough information by early June to make a final decision about fall plans.

The University of Maryland at College Park also expects to return to something approaching normalcy this fall, assuming a majority of the campus community will be eligible for a Covid-19 vaccine before then. “Classes designed for in-person delivery are expected to be delivered face to face on campus this fall semester, and staff will be expected to resume their on-campus roles,” the president, Darryll J. Pines, wrote in a message to the campus. Some courses might continue to be offered in hybrid formats, he wrote, and “under special circumstances” some employees might continue to telework part time.

“Almost universally, institutions that have made announcements have said they’ll be in person,” said Christopher R. Marsicano, an assistant professor at Davidson College who co-leads the College Crisis Initiative, a project that analyzes higher-ed institutions’ Covid-19 plans. (The College Crisis Initiative provides The Chronicle with data for its spring-plan tracker.) Marsicano said his project isn’t tracking fall plans yet because so much could change in the coming months. Most colleges, he believes, will hold off on making promises for the fall until May 1 — the traditional deadline for students to commit to colleges they plan to attend.

“Last spring we saw a lot of institutions waiting to announce plans until after deposits came in and students were deciding where they were going to go,” Marsicano said. When colleges that had announced plans for an in-person fall semester had to scramble online amid rising Covid-19 cases, students and their parents felt burned by what amounted, he said, to “unintentional bait-and-switches.”

Nearly all of the colleges making the early announcements now, he said, rely heavily on the income they derive from dormitories, cafeterias, and other auxiliary services. “They’re heavily tuition-discounted and need those in-person dollars, to put it bluntly.”

Banking on the Vaccines

In December the sprawling California State University system became one of the first institutions to declare its intent to return to in-person classes in the fall. The application deadline was extended to December 15, and university officials said they wanted students to have some assurance that all-remote learning would be coming to an end.

Last month the system’s new chancellor, Joseph I. Castro, told trustees that plans for an in-person fall semester were still on. “If the course of the virus, the data, vaccine availability, and the medical and public-health experts indicate that our planning approach is no longer feasible, we will adjust,” he told them.

Ten of the system’s 23 campuses have mass-vaccination centers, and the university will aggressively encourage everyone to take advantage of them. Meanwhile, the state will probably release guidelines later in the year that will determine what kind of classroom density is allowed.

In an interview this week, Castro said that making an early announcement for the next semester meant that faculty members had many more months to plan.

“I believe just about everyone wants to be back, if it can be done safely,” Castro said.

The University of California system announced similar plans last month. “Current forecasts give us hope that in the fall our students can enjoy a more normal on-campus experience,” its new president, Michael V. Drake, wrote after consulting with the system’s 10 chancellors.

As with other multicampus systems, individual UC campuses will announce their own plans, including starting dates and safety measures, after consulting with their local public-health agencies.

Officials at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, one of 14 institutions in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, also indicated this week that, while they will follow what the science allows them to do, they’re “hopeful” in-person classes will resume in the fall, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Most of the system’s other campuses weren’t ready to say which way they’ll go.

Some private colleges, including Bradley University, in Peoria, Ill., and DePaul University, in Chicago, have also announced plans for in-person classes this fall. Whittier College, in Southern California, said it planned mostly face-to-face classes, with the flexibility of hybrid instruction.

A spokesman for Bowdoin College, in Brunswick, Me., told The Chronicle that the campus “is planning for a fall semester that will look a lot more normal, while also observing any guidance in place from public-health officials.” Most, if not all, classes will be in person, he said.

Colleges hoping to reopen in person this fall are counting on having students and employees vaccinated early in the semester, and possibly earlier, Marsicano said. Otherwise, they’ll face another semester of expensive coronavirus testing. The most reliable tests cost about $100 per person per week, he said. For a campus with 10,000 students, that adds up to $13 million for a 13-week semester. Cheaper tests are available, but with higher rates of false negatives.

“Colleges are banking,” Marsicano said, “on this vaccine being available to their students as quickly as possible so they’ll no longer have to spend money on inadequate tests with false negatives or expensive tests they can’t afford.”

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