Approaches to January

The spring semester is four months away, and college administrations are making plans. Many are canceling spring break.

September 21, 2020
 
Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

With the fall semester now in full swing, college planning has moved on to the next challenge: the spring.

A number of colleges and universities have made announcements about their plans for the upcoming term. For the most part, those proposals look very similar to the ones they put in place for the fall.

“The best answer is still going to be what we’re doing now. It’s not a separate plan for the spring, it’s a continuation of what we’ve done so far,” said Joe Garcia, vice president of finance and operations at William Jewell College in Missouri, which has invited students back to campus and only reported 13 COVID-19 cases. “I think we’ve got a lot to be proud of.”

So far, that also holds for institutions that have spent the fall mostly online. Last week, the California State University system announced that a majority of spring classes would continue to be online, with limited numbers of students in residence halls. In his announcement, Chancellor Tim White said the coronavirus continues to spread and testing infrastructure is still lacking in California.

“There is no vaccine and there likely will not be one widely available any time soon. The summer increase in infections that was forecast in the spring happened as predicted, and it was larger than expected,” he wrote. “While cases and hospitalizations are starting to stabilize in most of California’s counties, it is plateauing at a number that is approximately 40 percent higher than what we experienced in the spring.”

White cited preparation time and accreditation as reasons to make the announcement sooner rather than later.

“The CSU accrediting body [Western Association of Schools and Colleges] requires each campus to seek authorization for courses offered in the virtual space with online and distance-learning technology,” he wrote. “This authorization requirement was waived by the U.S. Department of Education for fall 2020; however, that waiver expires at the end of December and will not be renewed. To meet this requirement, campuses need to commit to their January academic schedules in September and October 2020.”

For other institutions, many that are planning to have at least some students take classes in person or live on campus have announced changes to the academic calendar. For the fall, it was common to see administrations cancel fall breaks or keep instruction remote after Thanksgiving.

For the upcoming semester, eyes have shifted toward spring break. Many institutions have now canceled or altered the traditional vacation week. Those include Carnegie Mellon University, Ohio State University, the University of Tennessee, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Iowa State University, the University of Northern Iowa, Baylor University, Kansas State University, Wichita State University, Purdue University, the University of Kentucky and Davidson College. Officials have broadly said this measure is to reduce travel by the student body that could result in more COVID-19 cases.

At some of those institutions, such as Wichita State, Baylor and Iowa State, the start of the semester will be delayed, thus extending winter break.

At others, administrators have instead decided to plan for a few scattered days off. Davidson College is giving two short midweek breaks in March and April. Ohio State is giving one day off in February and one in March.

Carnegie Mellon will not be starting the semester until Feb. 1, additionally citing visa concerns for international students. The university will also be giving two days of break, and maintaining a planned three days off for Carnival, an amusement park festival held annually.

Some colleges have been looking to alter their plans slightly. McDaniel College in Maryland has canceled spring break, but it will also be ending the split semester model it has been using for the fall. This term, students were instructed to take two classes in each of the semester’s halves to cut down on density.

“We sought feedback from our faculty as to what they believed would ensure the best learning experience for students in the spring,” said Provost and Executive Vice President Julia Jasken, via email. “The dedensification of our classrooms proved to be very successful in the fall, so we believed it would be safe to have more in-person classes running simultaneously in these spaces.”

Following a Less-Than-Ideal Fall

Spring planning is also going on, albeit a bit more tentatively, at universities that have sent students home this semester.

“Our goal for campus activities is to reduce density over the fall, continue to practice the three Ws (wear masks, wait six feet apart, wash hands frequently), expand surveillance testing, and increase isolation/quarantine capacity on our campus,” said Ron Mitchelson, interim chancellor of East Carolina University, via email. The administration switched to remote instruction Aug. 23.

Mitchelson said plans have not been finalized, but the university intends to offer fewer in-person classes, with lower classroom density in each, using caps of 35 percent capacity or 50 students. Faculty and programs will have greater choice in teaching modality, and residence halls will be single occupancy instead of the double occupancy that was offered in the fall. There will be a limit of 2,000 students living on campus, a later start and no spring break, he said.

The University of North Carolina system, of which ECU is a part, provides some freedom in designing the spring plans, Mitchelson said.

“There is an expectation that we will provide in-person educational opportunities and we intend to do that anyway,” he said via email. “As I often say, we achieve our mission -- student and regional success -- at much higher levels when we can operate in person, with the face-to-face environment providing engagement that we know is critical to our students.”

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which sent students home Aug. 17, has said it is looking at how other institutions are handling the pandemic to guide its spring plans, and it opened the door for the possibility that campus may not open as it did this fall.

“Many institutions are finding similar outcomes to ours, while others are taking different routes and seeing varying results. We are studying those and will identify the best path to take for Carolina,” Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz wrote in a message to campus. “While many of us continue to believe that the best Carolina experience is one that happens in person, it remains to be seen whether public health conditions will enable us to resume full on-campus operations in the spring.”

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