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American colleges and universities: Will yours be open for the fall semester?

Written By | May 26, 2020
American colleges and universities, fall semester

Healy Hall, Georgetown University, at sunset. Photo attributed to Patrickneil, via Wikipedia entry on Georgetown U. CC 3.0 Share and share alike. Unported license.

WASHINGTON –  For students already enrolled in college or for incoming freshmen, the burning question as we approach the month of June is this. Namely, will American colleges and universities be open for business in the fall semester of 2020?

And if so, a followup question: What variety of “open” are we talking about?

The answer to both: It depends. As of now, we have no universal answer to these questions. College openings this fall won’t simply unfold as a national decision. Colleges, universities and public and private school systems in nearly all states and locales will have varying ideas as to what a full semester of education might actually look like this fall semester 2020 in the Year of the Coronavirus Plague. And many of these choices will depend on the state in which each college is located.

Lawyers, politics and reality

The realities surrounding each decision are complex. Lawyers representing various schools and systems will likely lean hard on their clients either to stay closed as long as possible or go virtual for the fall semester. And perhaps beyond. They reckon, with some reason, that opening for a full, in-person semester risks a conjectural outbreak of unknown severity. Which means that the institutions these lawyers represent could get dickens sued out of them by students and families that may fall ill as a theoretical result of “jumping the gun” or getting sloppy with “social distancing.”

This is, by the way, one reason why Mitch McConnell and the (barely) GOP-controlled Senate vow to pass blanket liability absolution for businesses facing the same dilemma. Should they call back and (hopefully) protect their employees and climates without America’s legion of greedy Trial Lawyers suing them out of existence if even one employee gets sick? It’s a valid question and an inevitable risk.

The same dilemma could hold true for colleges and universities. Potential liability, justifiable or not, is a real problem. After all, nobody really knows what will happen when life everywhere resumes some semblance of  “normal.” The novel coronavirus causes novel problems.

To open or not to open, open virtually, or both? Or not at all?

College opening plans, including whether a college will open at all in the fall, ultimately become a school-by-school decision. Given the prep time necessary to fire up an official fall schedule of courses and activities many systems have chosen to delay any firm answer regarding opening time until  June. Perhaps even later. So anyone involved in this mess from the consumer side — i.e.,students and parents — should keep an eye on the local news.They should also periodically check the appropriate college, university or public or private school’s websites for plans and updates.

In the end, one decision size doesn’t fit all. This will be a national mess and involve a hodge-podge of solutions, plus plenty of second-guessing, anger and maybe even some impressive demonstrations. And the inevitable lawsuits for fun and profit. (Mostly for the Trial Lawyers.)

(Reluctantly) getting back to normal

Education will creak into action again in some places as early as this summer in some way, shape or form. But predicting how each school’s fall semester unfolds, virtual or otherwise, becomes an impossible task right now for parents, students, administrators, professors and columnists. Again, all propoosed schedules involve very localized political and educational decisions.

Best guess right now is that many urban colleges and universities will either open partially or even go 100% online. Or, in some cases, simply not open again until the spring semester.

One CYA approach

A recent Wall Street Journal article by Douglas Belkin seemed to reinforce the current problem, at least anecdotally. (Note: Link may live behind WSJ’s pay wall.)

“Harvard University announced … that, given the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus pandemic, it is leaving the door open for a fall semester without students on campus.

“‘We cannot be certain that it will be safe to resume all usual activities’ by autumn, university provost Alan Garber wrote in a note to the school Monday. ‘Consequently, we will need to prepare for a scenario in which much or all learning will be conducted remotely.’

That’s college administrator bafflegab for “We can’t make up our minds just yet. Meanwhile, Belkin elaborates further.

“Some universities said they are considering canceling the first semester and reopening in January of 2021. Dr. Garber said Harvard will conduct both classes and research this fall, even if some or all are remote. A range of scenarios, informed by epidemiological data and public health models, are under consideration.

“‘The primary message is that the University is moving forward with the fall semester, rather than delaying it,’ school spokesman Jason Newton said in an e-mail.”

So where can we dig up the latest information?

One excellent source for campus openings, virtual or otherwise, has been the Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle keeps a running, updated list of current college opening plans across the United States. The original article, compiled by Chronicle staffers, first appeared in the journal’s online edition on April 23, 2020. The latest update punched in the timeclock at 5 p.m. Eastern time, May 22, 2020. As you read this, another update might supersede this one.

Here’s the link. We suggest that affected students bookmark it and check it with some frequency in the coming days and weeks. To find your school, you can’t just scroll down. (Too convenient.) Instead, you’ll need to keep clicking on the page link that appears in tiny type just above and to the right of the chart on the first page of the referenced article. The entry currently holds 38 linked pages in alpha order by university name. Good luck to anyone whose university name begins with W-Z! On the other hand, we should all be grateful that the Chronicle provides and actively updates this useful list.

Preliminary opening stats

The current Chronicle update indicates that fully 65% of responding colleges now plan to fully open their campuses for the fall semester. That said, however, it’s a virtual certainty that what to do about sporting events, student activities, large lecture classes and the like remain TBD on these campuses.

Some 10% of listed colleges and universities are still, in typical administrative fashion, “Waiting to decide.” Still others – 11%  –  are currently “Considering a range of scenarios.” How’s that for being helpful and informative?

Smaller percentages (6%) are “Proposing a hybrid model,” whatever that is. And another 6% are “Planning for online.” And finally, less than 2% currently list their option as “Link.” Which provides even less clarity than “Waiting to decide.”

Best of luck to students currently trying to figure out what they’ll do about the upcoming semester. Anecdotally, anywhere from 10%-20% of enrolled or recently accepted college students may decide to take a bye this fall. Perhaps they’ll find a job to accrue a few more tuition $$. Although that might be tough, as companies will probably choose to hire back most workers laid off due to the coronavirus lockdown.

Perhaps, if new and prospective students already have some funds on hand they might spend them on one of those fabled “years abroad.” That assumes, of course, that any country will let them enter for the remainder of this calendar year.

Also Read: Cruising vs Coronavirus: Travel’s virus culprit or scapegoat

Or maybe some students will decide to hang out at the Hotel Mom and Dad and play video games all fall. They can always tell an irate parent that they can’t find any jobs. The real answer here is, it’s anyone’s guess.

College students are among the least likely to have a fatal encounter with the coronavirus

The irony here is this: One of the relatively certain things we’ve learned about the “novel coronavirus” is that the average college student has a statistically 0% chance of dying from the virus even should that student contract the disease. Technically, that could mean that social distancing or even wearing a mask is just a waste of time.

We’ll just need to wait and watch to see how things turn out on America’s college campuses this fall. No doubt, we’ll see a certain amount of left-wing chaos kick up, just because. After all, for these die-hards, getting a college education may still prove a secondary concern. The prime directive is still to make President Trump look bad going into Election 2020.

– Headline image:  Healy Hall, Georgetown University, at sunset. Photo attributed to Patrickneil, via Wikipedia entry on Georgetown U. CC 3.0 Share and share alike. Unported license.


Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17