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Phase 3 of Higher Ed’s Response to COVID Will Extend the Turmoil Through Spring 2021

As the United States enters its third wave of COVID-19, it looks more and more like higher education will extend the tumultuous third phase of Phil Hill’s Higher Education Response to COVID graphic, which we have updated below. For most of us, Spring 2021 will bring neither a vaccine shot nor a new normal. Here in the old now, different Fall 2020 plans continue to play out with mixed results. Before the fall began, a number of campuses delayed in-person start dates. As of the third week in October, 22 states have reported COVID outbreaks on college campuses (e.g., see the two-week stay at home order for University of Michigan students). It’s easy to assume that the students alone are to blame, until you see the president of Notre Dame ignoring safety protocols that his own campus requires.

Multiple phases (4) of Higher Education response to COVID-19

Against this backdrop, higher ed campuses have been announcing their Spring 2021 plans for the past six weeks. Articles by news outlets like Ed Scoop and USA Today gathered some early announcement results, but I wanted to see more details. Specifically, did the first month or two of classes affect decisions about opening or closing campuses, academic schedules, or course delivery formats? To get those details I reviewed at over 30 campus announcements and websites. I tried to find announcements by institutions a) of all types and b) located around the country.

Overall, most campuses have chosen to continue their fall strategies in the spring. It may be too soon to have learned anything substantive enough to change strategies. A number of campuses that are open this fall described early COVID prevention and containment successes as indicators that support opening again in the spring. Several included the caveat emptor disclaimer that the institution would remain ready to shift completely online if necessary. In this post, I’ll outline some of the emerging trends.

Primarily Virtual Learning, Continued

Following the lead of early deciders like the California State University system, campuses like George Washington University, Northern Virginia Community College, Post University (CT), Hampton University (VA) and the California Community Colleges have announced their plan to remain online. Although campuses largely will be closed, in some cases there will be a limited number of hands-on courses available. For example, Community College of Philadelphia will offer a select number of workforce development courses in person. Phil Hill, Jeanette Wiseman and I recently discussed fall enrollment numbers in a COVID Transitions podcast episode, so I’ll be interested to see if the institutions that remain online for a full academic year see a big change in enrollment over time.

Variations on the “Campus Is Open” Theme

University Business reported that a number of campuses like University of Kentucky, Baylor University, University of Iowa and many others plan to be in-person. For campuses that have streamlined their calendars, that will mean one or more of the following: delaying students’ return to campus and/or skipping or spreading out spring break. For campuses seeking to reduce student density, they will be limiting who lives on campus and/or using pedagogical strategies to limit the impact of in-person class meetings. I will go into these options in more detail below.

Delaying students’ return to campus

Whereas many campuses had early start dates in the fall in an effort to finish classes before the predicted COVID peak, campuses will delay when people return to campus in the spring. These delays either push the start date altogether or conduct the first week or two of classes online. The commonly stated goal allows students to self-quarantine for two weeks after the winter holidays.

  • Delayed start: At Baylor University and Penn State, “the delayed start scenario provides the University with the necessary time to complete pre-arrival testing and any needed quarantine before beginning on-campus instruction and other activities.”

  • Remote start:Virginia Tech is “applying [its] existing strategies to next semester.” Even though they will return to campus in spring, all instruction will be online for the first week, to “allow for a gradual move-in process for residential students and allow orderly surveillance of COVID-19 prevalence and targeted mitigation of health safety risks.”

Spreading out spring break to avoid spreading the virus

As articles like this University Business piece have noted, a large number of campuses are cancelling spring break to avoid having students travel and return to campus. Some of those campuses are spreading out spring break by inserting individual break days on weekdays throughout the term. For example, Washington State University will add three weekday breaks throughout the term; Yale University and Virginia Tech will add five. A very small number of campuses have given these break days a name to imply their purpose. Kansas State University has defined its two break days as “well being days.” University of Arizona has declared its five break days to be “reading days.”

Campuses came to these decisions differently. Some have large committees dedicated to returning to in-person instruction safely. Others like Georgia College have cited that they are following the “no spring break” example set by other campuses around the country. Although all of these spring break decisions were made for safety reasons, it does not mean they are popular decisions, nor does it mean all stakeholders felt included in the process. For example, a few University of Arizona students expressed their displeasure on Twitter.

Also, some campuses have recognized the toll that their streamlined calendars may take on students. As it announced its compressed schedule, Emory University added “With this change, please know we have heard requests for additional mental health offerings and have added and will add additional resources and services for all members of our community.”

Limiting who can live on campus

Some campuses like Yale are limiting who can live on campus to reduce the overall density. Sophomores are off-campus this fall, and first-year students will be off-campus in spring. To compensate partially for the students’ sacrifices, Yale offered the following:

Sophomores and first-year students who enroll for both the fall and spring semesters, with at least one term taken remotely, will be eligible to take two courses in Yale Summer Session. Yale will cover the cost of tuition for these two summer courses.

UC Berkeley was less targeted, simply announcing that it will have housing for a limited number of students. For 2020-21, Northeastern University students will take over at least one nearby hotel to reduce the density of the campus environment. Other campuses have taken similar approaches, partnering with nearby hotels and apartment buildings.

Pedagogical mixes to reduce class meeting impact

Classes meetings with reduced frequency, class size: At Virginia Tech, typical students should expect that one-third of their class meetings will be in person. Montana State University encourages faculty

to pursue a variety of blended learning models that mix online and in-person elements to reduce the frequency, size, and density of in-person class meetings. If possible, outdoor instructional spaces should be utilized. Faculty should also be prepared to transition courses to remote and/or online delivery if necessary, with minimal disruption to course learning and schedules.

Class meetings with alternating attendance: Arizona State University offers ASU Sync, a comodal option where students alternate between in-person and virtual attendance. It’s not clear if recordings are available in every case. Back in May, I compared this type of option to Mexico City’s No-Drive Days

All classes go HyFlex: Boston University will continue its Learn from Anywhere model, the goal of which is “to present the same academic content to all students, whether they are in a classroom, in a BU residence, or in another country, and to allow all students to take part in equivalent learning activities.” Based on this description and Boston U’s related resources, Learn from Anywhere seems like a variation of hybrid flexible course design.

All large classes go online: UC Berkeley and others have chosen to facilitate all large classes online. For example. University of Iowa set its in-person registration cap at 49 students. to allow smaller classes to meet in bigger spaces.

Notable outliers

Breaking semesters into shorter sessions is a fall trend that did not repeat: If McDaniel College (MD) is any indicator, the idea of breaking the traditional Fall term into two smaller terms will not be repeated next Spring. They will return to a full-length semester, albeit with a later start and no spring break.

Downsizing number of program offerings: This post is primarily focused on Spring plans, but campuses have made other big announcements over the past six weeks. Although not solely due to COVID-19, Ohio Wesleyan University eliminated 18 majors and consolidated other programs to save $4 million a year. New enrollment for these programs will end in December, and the programs will be phased out.

Wait and see and develop a plan

Schools like American University (DC) will be announcing their plans at the end of October to have more time to study fall 2020 COVID case trendlines and to plan accordingly.

Key Takeaways

I’ll admit that I was surprised when more campuses did not switch to primarily virtual instruction in spring. Perhaps my viewpoint is affected by teaching at a Cal State school which made early announcements to go online for both fall 2020 and spring 2021. Even so, the U.S. has never really gotten a handle on the coronavirus and some campuses have made their announcements amidst the recent and rapidly rising rates of daily new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Reading through over 30 announcements and a couple dozen news reports, here are a couple of takeaways. One, most campuses have chosen to continue implementing their fall strategies with only minor adjustments in the spring. Two, higher education’s response to COVID will remain in Phase 3 – defined back in March as an “extended transition during continued turmoil.” It’s not clear which is the cause or the effect, nor is it clear when we’ll be ready to move to Phase 4. For now, I’ll be studying the trends and aligning decisions with surveys and other data sources.