Late this spring, colleges and universities issued a wave of announcements: they would be opening -- er, intending to open -- their campuses this fall.
Now, many universities are reversing their plans, announcing both online courses and closed campuses.
In some cases, dominoes have been quick to fall among peer groups. For example, three private, historically Black universities in Atlanta, which has been hard hit by the virus in recent weeks, have said almost all students will be studying from home this fall. Those universities are Spelman College, Clark Atlanta College and Morehouse University. Elsewhere in the state, public universities are still planning to reopen.
In Washington, D.C., three private, selective colleges -- Georgetown, George Washington and American Universities -- went fully online this week, with announcements coming days apart. For GU and GW, that is a reversal from previous plans to bring some students to campus and keep others home. For AU, initial plans called for a reduced number of students living on campus, with the university working to help secure and find alternative housing for other students elsewhere in the District.
"The rising number of COVID-19 cases in the nation and the DC metro area indicates that transmission of the virus remains a constant threat and community spread continues throughout the country," top AU officials wrote in a campus announcement. "We must also consider the potential impact thousands of people on our campus will have on the DC region."
Cases in D.C. have been rising on average since late June, and colleges cited the new travel restrictions for the District, which call for anyone arriving from 27 states to quarantine upon entry.
Other universities that have recently said that nearly all classes will be online and nearly all students will stay home include Washington State University, Lafayette College, the University of Delaware, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Azusa Pacific University, Pepperdine University and Dickinson College. Other universities, such as University of San Diego and the University of California's campuses in Berkeley and Merced, have said they will begin the semester online but leave room for a reopening.
Other colleges have not gone so far as an online semester, but have limited their plans. On Thursday, Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania announced that it would be bringing only first-year students to campus, instead of all students as originally planned.
(Many colleges going online have said they will offer housing to students who have unsafe home situations or who meet other selective criteria.)
College presidents in their announcements have pointed to rising cases, quarantine requirements for their states and restrictions by governors as reasons for their turns to online learning. In some jurisdictions K-12 schools are likely to be remote, creating childcare concerns for staff members with children. Behind the scenes, faculty have been waving red flags about their own participation on campus, with many professors insisting that they should not be forced to teach in person.
Outbreaks have occurred on numerous campuses among staff members or athletes. The New York Times, in a survey of four-year publics and research institutions, has connected more than 6,600 COVID-19 cases, likely an undercount, to roughly 270 American universities.
That is not to say that every university has changed course. Boston University, Colgate University, Tufts University and Radford University are among those still insisting that they can bring nearly all students back safely.
But even the most adamant are showing signs that they are reconsidering. Cornell University, originally one of the most insistent that it would "reactivate" its campus, backtracked from its ambitious plans on Friday. The original decision to bring all students back was informed by a study from university researchers, suggesting that because many students said they would return to the area around the central New York campus anyway, an on-campus semester could result in fewer infections than a remote one.
Cornell planned for a complex move-in process that indicated how complicated bringing students back may be for those that attempt it. The university has told students no relatives or guests would be allowed to help them move onto campus. Students would be tested upon arrival and then placed in a quarantine location, such as a local hotel, with meals delivered until their test results come back. They would then be allowed to move into residence halls, though they may only bring two suitcases and one backpack. The university was also planning on providing quarantine housing for students arriving from several other states, who were legally required to isolate by New York State law.
On Friday, Cornell announced that it would no longer be able to provide quarantine housing for students who were planning to live on-campus and arriving from the 34 states and two territories on the NYS advisory list. Those students would be required to find their own quarantine housing in New York or a state not on the advisory list, or prepare for an online semester.
Why the Change?
Many colleges initially announced their reopening plans around May 1, the traditional date students are meant to commit to an institution.
"If colleges appear hesitant about opening up in person, students may choose to attend another college, even when the statements have no relation to whether the college will actually open or not," Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, told Inside Higher Ed in early May, when such announcements were common. "[Tuition] is part of basically every college's decision."
For some small, private universities that are dependent on room and board fees, enrollment this year has all the makings of an existential crisis.
Christina Paxson, president of Brown University, in April argued this was one reason higher education officials needed to commit to reopening.
"It’s not a question of whether institutions will be forced to permanently close, it’s how many," she wrote in a New York Times op-ed.
The United States is now in some of the worst throes of the virus. Last week, the country averaged over 65,000 new cases daily. In total, more than 150,000 Americans have died due to the pandemic.
(Note: This article has been updated to include new information about Cornell University and clarify initial plans from American University.)