COVID-19 Roundup: Colleges Shift Strategy in Waves

Institutions in New Jersey and Massachusetts revert to mostly virtual instruction; Purdue's president sees "zero lethal risk" to students; instructional and living alternatives crop up.

August 6, 2020

The number of colleges reversing previously announced plans to bring many of their students back to campus this fall has continued to climb this week, with some going entirely virtual for the semester and others starting the semester online and delaying students' return (at least for now).

Meanwhile, significant numbers of institutions are sticking to their plans to reopen their physical campuses -- and some of their leaders are doing so with gusto, as is the case with Purdue University president Mitch Daniels.

In an interview on MSNBC, Daniels, reiterating statements he made last spring, said COVID-19 posed "essentially zero lethal risk" to Purdue's students, who he said are at "greater danger driving to campus than they will be here."

Under questioning from the anchor Katy Tur, who challenged Daniels on there being "zero" risk to students, he also acknowledged that Purdue faculty and staff members faced a greater risk, as did those in the surrounding community. But he countered that merchants in college towns like West Lafayette, Ind., depend heavily on the campus. "Closing down would inflict great harm on them," Daniels said.

The university owes it to the 88 percent of students who, he said, had expressed a desire to return to the university's campus to "do our very best to make that possible," Daniels said. "We've got to give it what they used to call the 'old college try.' … The costs we would impose on the lives and the futures of our students if we just threw up our hands and said, 'We're not even going to try,' would not be responsible."

Other college leaders this week similarly reinforced their earlier plans. Tuesday night, the Board of Trustees of the University System of New Hampshire voted 18 to 1 to affirm the plans of the system's three residential campuses to physically reopen this fall. The board's statement said that reopening decisions were based on a "careful balancing of our duty to fulfill our public education mission with our responsibility to preserve public health." Such decisions "must not be driven by financial considerations," it added.

Institutions partially or fully reversing previously announced decisions to reopen their campuses said they were putting student and staff safety first -- and as has been the case frequently during the pandemic, the announcements came in geographic waves.

Last week four major universities in Washington, D.C., revised their plans on successive days. This week, the College of New Jersey, a public university, and Drew University, a private institution in the Garden State, said they would move to almost entirely virtual instruction this fall and house only a small number of students without other good options on their residential campuses. Kathryn A. Foster, president of the College of New Jersey, attributed the decision largely to the fact that New Jersey remains at level 2 of its reopening plan and is likely to be stuck there into the fall.

Also Wednesday, two more institutions in Massachusetts, Smith College and Berklee College of Music, said they would operate fully online.

"Given new scientific evidence, as well as recent and troubling trends nationally and in Massachusetts, I have come to the difficult conclusion that we should not bring students back to campus for the fall semester," said Kathleen McCartney, Smith's president. "Instead, to keep our campus and local community as safe as possible during this period of high risk, we will offer all courses in the fall semester, including those for graduate and post-bacc students, remotely."

She added, "To the students who were invited to return to campus this fall, I can only imagine how disruptive this decision is for you; to all students, I want you to know how empty the campus feels without you. I remain optimistic that, with improved treatment and prevention protocols, we will be able to return to life together, in person, in this remarkable community. In the meantime, we will focus on what Smith does best -- teaching and learning, supporting and caring for one another, and continuing to do good work in and for the world."

Santa Clara University, in California's hard-hit Bay Area, said it too would suspend plans to bring students back to campus, as initially announced in May.

Several major universities this week stopped short of fully reversing plans to bring many students back to campus. But West Virginia University said on Wednesday that roughly 60 percent of courses at its flagship campus would be delivered online, especially upper-division undergraduate courses, and Michigan State University's president, Samuel L. Stanley, said in an email to students that "if you can live safely and study successfully at home, we encourage you to consider that option for the fall semester," since the "vast majority of first-year students this fall will have course schedules that are completely online."

An apartment complex near Albany, N.Y., has kicked out a group of students from a local community college to make room for students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which is reducing the number of students it houses on campus to reduce the spread of COVID-19, The Times-Union reported.

According to the newspaper, students from Hudson Valley Community College were given a week to move out of their apartments, far less than the month's notice required by New York State law. The College Suites at Hudson Valley is owned by United Group of Companies, which bought dozens of acres of land from the community college several years ago so the company could build apartments there. Hundreds of Hudson Valley students have rented apartments there, but they appear to have been booted to make room for students from RPI, which a spokesman confirmed has signed a one-year lease to house displaced students there.

The Times-Union said the state's attorney general is looking into the matter.

We've been scouring campus COVID-19 plans for unusual elements or approaches -- and sometimes we miss them. An eagle-eyed Washington policy analyst we know posted one on Twitter that caught our eye:

It's a mistake to pay too much attention to the prospect that COVID-19 will accelerate the "gap year" phenomenon, given that relatively small numbers of students and families are in a position financially and otherwise to take a year or semester off from pursuing their educational goals. That's especially true when finding jobs as an alternative may be difficult.

But in recent days, we've learned of two initiatives designed to give students a chance to continue their educations if their original path for the year is unavailable or unattractive.

One is A Place Beyond, which operates three mountain locations in California and Arizona where students who are enrolled in online programs can "replace the traditional room and board and extracurriculars that colleges provide with something more connected and intentional in a beautiful natural setting" -- where they can "learn more than on campus or in your parents’ basement," its website promotes.

Its slick website compares the program's fees to the room and board rates at a set of colleges (Berkeley, Penn, Chicago and the University of Washington, to name a few -- the fees are roughly comparable, in the $11,000-a-semester range) and touts the services A Place Beyond participants would receive that they wouldn't get on campus -- most notably "guided outdoor recreation."

The other initiative, announced today, is a partnership between Verto Education, which lets students earn transferable academic credit (to dozens of college partners) for a "gap year" in which they mix study and travel, and the Minerva Project, the experimental education provider that puts high-performing students in cohorts in which they undertake an intensive arts and sciences curriculum.

Their joint effort, which they call Global Impact Year, would enable students to spend the fall studying Minerva's curriculum in its Forum platform, and then (assuming COVID-19 cooperates) spend the spring with their cohorts in various international locations. The 16 credits per semester they would earn would transfer to one of Verto's 45 institutional partners, the companies said.

They refer to their project as providing a "pandemic-proof freshman year."

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Doug Lederman

Doug Lederman is editor and co-founder of Inside Higher Ed. He helps lead the news organization's editorial operations, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Doug speaks widely about higher education, including on C-Span and National Public Radio and at meetings and on campuses around the country, and his work has appeared in The New York Times and USA Today, among other publications. Doug was managing editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education from 1999 to 2003. Before that, Doug had worked at The Chronicle since 1986 in a variety of roles, first as an athletics reporter and editor. He has won three National Awards for Education Reporting from the Education Writers Association, including one in 2009 for a series of Inside Higher Ed articles he co-wrote on college rankings. He began his career as a news clerk at The New York Times. He grew up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and graduated in 1984 from Princeton University. Doug lives with his wife, Kate Scharff, in Bethesda, Md.

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