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How Colleges Are Using Campuses if Students Aren't Returning in 2020

In late August, higher education institutions across the country welcomed students back for the fall semester, either for in-person sessions, remote learning, or a hybrid of the two. While college leaders have devised plenty of strategies for mitigating the spread of COVID-19 on campus, some schools have opted for an entirely remote semester.

If a college or university is not bringing students back to campus or has greatly reduced the number of on-campus residents, there are plenty of ways facilities or services can continue to serve the community. Certain colleges and universities will continue to run limited operations - for example, some institutions that have greatly reduced the number of students attending class or other in-person instruction, but continue to allow athletes to work out or practice with strict social distancing protocol and frequent testing. 

Reopening Plans for Higher Education Institutions

The Chronicle of Higher Education has been tracking college or university reopening plans for more than 1000 schools since the COVID-19 lockdowns began in March, as per NBC. The publication found that nearly 61% of colleges plan to return for an in-person semester, only 8% have committed to all-remote learning, and 22% are offering some mix. 

Related Blog: Which Colleges Are Going Fully Remote and Why?

The range of 9% of other schools were opting to keep the upcoming schedule flexible and had not made a final decision regarding courses. And yet, even schools opting for a hybrid semester may have unused spaces due to social distancing and can think of strategies to reutilize these spaces to service medical workers, the greater community, or college or university needs. 

Use Cases for Empty Campus Buildings

For schools with fewer individuals living in dorms, eating in dining halls, or using other on-campus facilities, such as arenas or labs, there may be valuable ways to repurpose these empty buildings. 

Dormitories for Front Line Workers 

In April, Tufts University announced it would open residence halls to medical workers or other first responders, helping essential workers slow the spread of coronavirus without potentially exposing loved ones or family members at home, as per CBS. 

Local Tufts University President Tony Monaco described the project as helping limit, “exposure or spread back to families especially those with vulnerable members” as well as help create, “an alternative hospital site for recovering coronavirus positive patients who don’t need critical care but it is important to keep them isolated,” amid the peak of the outbreak in Massachusetts. Several healthcare providers from surrounding cities - Cambridge, Somerville, Medford, and Boston, were able to take advantage of the services. 

Overflow Medical Centers 

Several other universities also offered empty dorms or living facilities as overflow medical centers or voluntary quarantine centers for individuals who tested positive of COVID-19. The University of Wisconsin at Madison offered two isolation center locations in Milwaukee and Madison, allowing people infected with coronavirus with nowhere to go to seek shelter, as per WPR. 


The facilities, run out of a conference center and hotel facility, were open to individuals who were unhoused or living in group homes. Department of Health and Human Services Deputy Julie Willems Van Djik thanked the school for the invaluable resource, writing that the state’s “goal in this pandemic is to keep the number of people who need a hospital bed lower than the number of hospital beds available” and that campus infrastructure would be, “a critical component to that.” 

Related Blog: How Colleges and Universities Are Recruiting Students For A  Contact Tracing Workforce

Meanwhile, The University of Nebraska also signed an agreement with the state to provide quarantine facilities, while Middlebury College in Vermont drained it’s Kenyon Arena ice rink so the space could be used as an overflow hospital for the rural area, if necessary, as per Chronicle of Higher Ed. 

COVID-19 Testing Sites 

Colleges and universities have also used their parking lots to get testing capacity up to scale for surrounding communities - the University of Dayton arena parking lot has been a reliable testing center for the surrounding area, conducting over 200 coronavirus tests daily since mid-March, as per Chronicle. As testing continues to be the key to reopening the economy, as well as mitigating the spread of the virus on campus, parking lot testing centers will continue to provide value. 

Other Campus Resources 

There are many other ways underutilized or closed campus resources can continue to give back. Laboratory directors have repurposed chemistry labs to create hand-sanitizer amid shortages, while others are using 3D printers to print PPE or scouring unused medical facilities for unused masks, gowns, or other protective equipment. Others are using empty warehousing for food distribution centers, boosting the capacity of local food banks as the financial pain of the pandemic continues, and food scarcity becomes more severe.

Related Blog: Raising Campus Community Awareness around Mass Notification

One thing has become clear within the pandemic - colleges and universities are part of a community infrastructure, and can continue to play a role in response, especially if students aren’t returning to campus. 

No matter what your institution's plans for the fall, communicating these changes to students will remain essential. A coronavirus response solution can help with internal and external communications, including emergency outreach, providing community members with up-to-date information on COVID-19, any travel updates or bans, and relevant news regarding the virus on campus. If students are on campus and a facility will be used for medical or public health purposes, it’s critical to communicate this information promptly.

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Mary Kate McGrath
Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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