Pandemic requires colleges and universities to develop a new education norm

Daimeon Stevenson, Jr., an electromechanical maintenance technician student at Gateway Technical College

Ready or not

Derrick McCants doesn’t see the wisdom of reopening classrooms this fall. The 21-year-old has been paying close attention to news related to COVID-19 coming from the media and his school but isn’t convinced that resuming in-person classes so soon is best.

Derrick McCants  headshot, African American male youth, short hair wearing orange hoodie

Derrick McCants Junior at Florida State University, Tallahassee

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable being around mass quantities of people,” said McCants, a junior at Florida State University in Tallahassee. “I just don’t believe we have this pandemic figured out.”

McCants, who is working toward a degree in athletic training, takes social distancing seriously and has been limiting himself to interactions with people who also “do the right things.” Having to be around those who don’t could be a recipe for disaster, he said, especially since students come from so many regions within and outside the United States.

“Some people might not have been social distancing, and it’s tough to get people to wear masks,” McCants said. “We would need to decrease class size. Maybe put two empty seats between people in the class environment.”

These are just the sorts of issues that administrators at many of the 5,300 post-secondary schools in the United States are trying to puzzle out for staff, faculty and their more than 14 million students, with guidance from their states and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the same time, the coronavirus is significantly hampering college and university finances, resulting in planned layoffs and budget cuts at many schools.

Preparing to pivot

In a recent survey of 262 colleges and universities, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO) found that nearly 60 percent are considering or have decided to remain completely online this fall.

The California State University system intends to continue with online-only courses for most of its 23 campuses, affecting half a million students. Two other institutions in the state—the University of California, Berkeley and UCLA—may have students returning to some of their 10 campuses.

Michael Wright headshot, white adult, receding hairline, gray at temples of brown hair, wearing dark jacket, blue shirt and tie with Wayne State lapel pin

Michael Wright, vice president of communications and chief of staff, Wayne State University


“The restart is far more complex than the shutdown because there are so many different scenarios,” said Michael Wright, vice president of communications and chief of staff at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan. WSU is trying to plan for a variety of unknowns, Wright said, including having far fewer students returning in the fall or more students than expected showing up.

“We know people will be uncomfortable even if the governor says it’s OK to open, and we’ve heard from students who want to get back in the classroom,” Wright said.

Either way, he said, WSU will be back in business come September. “We’re Wayne State Warriors, and we hope to get back on campus.”

Albeit with caution. The school doesn’t want students or faculty to be in lecture halls with large numbers of people, Wright said. “So, we suspect we’ll phase in the return with online and classroom instruction within social distancing guidelines,” he said.

Two white females wearing face masks and latex gloves flank cart filled with books

Wayne State University School of Social Work student Colleen Elsbernd (left) and Joanne Sobeck, School of Social Work Associate Dean for Research, donate disinfected books to the Detroit Medical Center as a “rolling library” for COVID-19 patients. Photo courtesy of Wayne State University

During a recent Zoom luncheon, WSU President Roy Wilson told students and alumni the school created a restart committee with nine subcommittees that are examining housing, dining services, testing recommendations and more. The university will be designating space in residence halls for students needing quarantine.

Understanding the importance of the college experience, Wayne State’s plans to welcome incoming freshmen include virtual small groups that allow students to connect before school reopens.

“We are going to be guided by what’s safe,” Wilson said. “I want to be sure I can look any parent in the eye and say, ‘Your child will be safe.'”

The school is prepared to pivot back to online or remote-only courses should another wave of coronavirus cases arise, Wright said.

The University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, also plans to bring back students. Its fall semester, however, is scheduled to start in early August, two weeks before the semester typically begins. The semester also will end earlier, in case a second surge of coronavirus cases occurs in the late fall, as health officials predict.

Like Wayne State, Notre Dame will alter its plans and go online-only if necessary.

The University of Pittsburgh thinks online classes are the likeliest scenario for its 34,000 students, at least until a coronavirus vaccine becomes likely. Still, the university is looking at other options.

Thankfully for Gateway Technical College in Racine, Wisconsin, about 30 percent of its programs already had an online component. Gateway primarily provides occupational, skills-based programs that emphasize hands-on learning through labs—such as nursing, automotive, aviation, welding, manufacturing and information technology.

When the pandemic hit, the school and its nearly 23,000 students went completely virtual, with online lectures and other virtual components.

White, blonde female stirs blue liquid in labratory

Civil engineering student Elizabeth conducts a fresh water lab experiment at Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wisconsin, prior to the pandemic. Photo courtesy of Gateway Technical College

Bryan Albrecht headshot

Bryan Albrecht President, Gateway Technical College

“We always taught aviation courses through flight simulators,” said Gateway President Bryan Albrecht. The school, he noted, already offered virtual welding, law enforcement and health care simulations, among others.

Still, the communication skills gained through in-person learning are critical. “For example, law enforcement professionals need to have communication skills and be able to read body language,” Albrecht said. “Nursing is the same.

“You can do a lot with simulation, but nothing is better than the feel of holding someone’s hand.”

For summer and fall semesters, Gateway Technical faculty are developing a hybrid program that allows classes to stay online as much as possible. There will be two engineering programs, Albrecht said, one completely online and another with a face-to-face component.

Overall, the college plans to decrease the number of students in a lab to 10 from 17. In addition, Gateway is adjusting class schedules so fewer students overall will be on campus at any given time.

Leaders at the University of Kentucky recently asked the public to comment on its reopening plans. Administrators, who are considering requiring face masks in cafeterias and classrooms, say they would shorten the semester if it has a “normal” restart. The university also would adhere to social distancing in classrooms and encourage outdoor classes.

Another plan would involve starting in-person classes a few weeks later and lengthening class times. A hybrid plan would include starting with online classes and transitioning into in-person classes.

Donald Tuski headshot

Donald Tuski President, College for Creative Studies

Then, of course, there’s an online-only plan.

Previously, online learning was a challenge at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies because art students were used to working in studios. However, Tuski said, they’ve adapted and become even more creative about how to present their work.

For instance, students tasked with developing clay models to help brand the new Ford Mustang learned to develop videos and animation instead.

“For an art design student, the quality of their portfolio is the most important thing,” Tuski said. “Since they missed out, we’re allowing some students—even graduating seniors—to come back in the last two weeks of July and part of August to use the studios.”

For Fall, CCS plans to start in-person classes and studio courses on Aug. 31—with appropriate social distancing. On-campus instruction would end on Nov. 25. After Thanksgiving break, students would continue with remote-only learning until the end of the fall term.

“We’ve really tried to figure out what students need to be successful,” Tuski said.

(The Chronicle of Higher Education is compiling a searchable list of college plans.)

Seven male and female students working on clay models with instructor advising

Design students developing clay models at the College of Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan, before the pandemic pushed learning online. Photo courtesy of College for Creative Studies

The budget toll

As of this writing, more than 40 million people in the U.S. had filed for unemployment benefits; overall spending continued to fall; and property tax payments, in some states, have been deferred. All of which means impending cuts to state and federal budgets, a drop in donations and decreased enrollment in colleges and universities. Moreover, analysts expect declines in state support as schools look to weather the COVID-19 storm.

In Detroit, CCS provided prorated housing and dining refunds and refunded winter semester resource and graduation fees when the pandemic shut its classrooms. This summer, CCS plans to offer free housing for students living beyond a 50-mile radius as well as workshops.

However, such support—paired with supplying students with the technology they need to learn remotely while enrollment numbers and endowment donations drop—takes its toll.

Among the colleges and universities surveyed, the AACRAO found that fall enrollment for continuing students dropped 44% and fall residence hall renewals fell 32%. Now, colleges and universities, like companies across the country, are announcing layoffs, furloughs and other budget cuts.

CCS announced it would lay off 25 staff members. In Ohio, Bowling Green State University, which is projecting a $29 million budget deficit this year, announced it would lay off 102 members of its staff and 17 faculty members. Ohio University is eliminating 140 unionized positions, terminating 53 faculty jobs and laying off 94 administrators.

While Albrecht and Gateway Technical College appreciate the federal funds received as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, he said school administrators are monitoring Gateway’s current and possible future financial situation.

“We are seeing a current dip in enrollment,” Albrecht said. “Families are uncertain. Their jobs are in jeopardy, and there’s this awkwardness from the state of the pandemic.”

Despite the possible cuts, Albrecht said, Gateway’s role as an occupational-skills educator gives it an advantage. The high rate of unemployment means people will seek employable skills.

“High unemployment means high enrollment. We serve those most in need,” Albrecht said. And because Gateway trains those considered essential workers, the school also is essential.

“It’s a whole supply chain system,” Albrecht said. “If any part breaks down, it affects the next generation of workers.”

The lengthy list of universities suffering from the financial consequences of COVID-19 also includes well-endowed universities. The University of Michigan projects a loss of $400 million to $1 billion this year, and Johns Hopkins University reports that 1,200 employees have been unable to work because of stay-at-home orders.

Harvard University is also taking blows.

“Although we entered this crisis in a position of relative financial strength, our resources are already stretched,” Harvard President Larry Bacow, Provost Alan Garber and Executive Vice President Katie Lapp wrote in a recent letter. “If we are to preserve our core mission of teaching and scholarship, we face difficult, even painful, decisions in the days ahead. “We must look for more cost-efficient ways to deliver our essential services.

Dean for Research, donate books that were collected and disinfected to the Detroit Medical Center as a “rolling library” for COVID-19 patients.

“Because of the recent declines in the markets, the endowment, while still large, is not as large as it was previously. As it shrinks, it has less capacity to support our existing operations, especially as other shortfalls in revenue sources loom.”

The ending of the announcement thanks the Harvard community for its flexibility—something many academic leaders and students agree is a necessity.

While McCants doesn’t feel comfortable returning to the classroom at Florida State, he said he will adapt and do what he must to graduate.

“I would probably do online classes in the fall, just as they have us doing now,” he said. “But if some of my classes, like labs, require me to go in, I’ll go. I just hope they have fewer people.”

(This story was originally published by the Ford Motor Company Fund.)

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