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What Fall Semester 2020 Will Look Like Across Universities

In March, the COVID-19 pandemic forced college and university campuses to take unprecedented action, shutting down in-person classes, arranging for students to leave dormitories, and transitioning to a remote learning model. Epidemiologists cite college or university campuses as potential vectors for coronavirus, with communal living spaces or dining halls with open buffets, increasing the risk of transmission. 

But COVID-19 related closures create major disruptions in education for students and faculty, and will have potentially devastating long term financial repercussions for higher education institutions amid declining enrollment or lost on-campus revenue. Every college or university will develop a unique plan for Fall 2020, and plans vary from a remote academic year to reopening with social distancing measures. 

The Chronicle of Higher Education is currently tracking a list of colleges or universities’ plans for the fall semester. The majority of higher education institutions are planning for an in-person fall semester. 63% of colleges are planning for in-person courses, 7% of are planning for online only, 7% plan to do a hybrid, 9% are undecided, and 11% are considering a range of scenarios as the situation develops. Approximately 830 higher education institutions have reported plans to the publication. In May, the American Council of Education surveyed college and university presidents on, “their current plans for the fall, including actions they may require to consider reopening campus,” per Campus Security and Life. More than half of college presidents (53%) reported plans to resume in-person classes for at least some of the fall.


It’s clear that there is not a consensus among college or universities on whether or not to reopen. In May, Notre Dame University announced plans to reopen, resuming in-person classes on August 10, as per the New York Times. Classes would begin two weeks earlier than usual to ensure students return home by Thanksgiving, and fall break will not occur to reduce the risk of students bringing the virus home. The University of South Carolina also announced that the campus would reopen for three months of in-person classes with no fall break and then transition to remote classes after Thanksgiving. In contrast, the California State University System plans to cancel nearly all in-person classes through the fall semester to reduce the risk of the coronavirus. 

What Are Colleges And Universities Planning For Fall 2020? 

The CDC compiled a reopening ordinance for higher education institutions, noting that institutions location, size, and structure are all considerations, and that campus leaders should work with state and local public health authorities before making decisions. The CDC breaks the risk factors into three separate categories: 

  • Lowest Risk: Faculty and students engage in virtual-only learning options, activities, and events.
  • More Risk: Small in-person classes, activities, and events. Individuals remain spaced at least 6 feet apart and do not share objects (for example, hybrid virtual and in-person class structures or staggered/rotated scheduling to accommodate smaller class sizes).
  • High Risk: Full-sized in-person classes, activities, and events. Students are not spaced apart, share classroom materials or supplies, and mix between classes and activities.

CDC recommendations offer several strategies for maintaining health operations in the fall. One important strategy is to have protections in place for students, faculty, and staff who are high-risk for severe illness caused by COVID-19. Offer virtual learning or telework options for these individuals, and in compliance with applicable law, protect the privacy of individuals who have underlying medical conditions. The organization also recommends preventing gatherings, encouraging social distancing, and limiting group size wherever possible. If athletic seasons are to continue, pursue options to convince these activities in ways that reduce the risk of COVID-19. 

Related Blog: Navigating A Major Disruption Caused By A Crisis: Advice From  Those Who Have Done It

Designating an administrator to track COVID-19 related concerns at the college or university can help students, faculty, and staff feel more safe on campus. Be sure to communicate contact information for this individual to community members. A robust COVID-19 communication plan must be in place to communicate this information, along with any other relevant updates or protocol changes. Administrators should leverage a mass notification system to communicate COVID-19 information as the situation develops, sharing updates about on the status of your institution and providing customizable content, such as health tips, emergency procedures, and other preparedness instructions. 

For colleges and universities bringing students back in the Fall, one trend has become prominent: forgoing fall break and getting students home before Thanksgiving to avoid a “second wave” of COVID-19 infections expected in late fall, as per the New York Times. University officials are increasingly citing a need to reduce travel to avoid spread or contraction of the virus amid the second-wave that is likely to occur during the flu season. A contingency plan in case of a major outbreak occurs on campus or in the immediate area, and students, faculty, or staff need to be evacuated, or at least in-person learning is no longer possible. 

How To Create A Remote Semester Fallback Plan 

Public health experts have urged colleges and universities to have a backup plan should the coronavirus pandemic worsen. Many institutions have delayed confirming plans until June, in an attempt to better evaluate the developing situation. Tufts University has a plan in place to operate under a “hybrid mode” throughout the semester, combining online and in-person instruction in a way that reduces the number of large lecture courses and accommodates international students who are unlikely unable to return. 

“The faculty are thinking in their departments how they will teach courses, but it will have to have some part of a hybrid model in order to cater to at least the lectures in some classes that are large, which we also may be restricted in delivering on campus—it depends on what the final guidance is” Tufts President Anthony Monaco said. Be prepared to communicate. The “new normal” requires administrators to be nimble in the face of a rapidly changing situation. 

Related Blog: How College Campuses Are Responding To The Coronavirus Outbreak

Manage travel and housing for vulnerable students, faculty, or staff. Traveling to and from campus can put a financial strain on low-income students or workers. Keeping this in mind, allow any student unable to return to campus to access remote learning opportunities, similar to those who are vulnerable to COVID-19 due to illness. Make sure that any student who returns to campus but is unable to travel home has access to emergency housing. Managing communications throughout that time will be essential, and make sure any students remaining on campus understand the steps that will be taken to protect their health. 

Administrators can further boost communications with students about updates to class schedules, school events remote or otherwise, school events, or travel policies using an integrated campus safety app. A simple polling feature allows you to ask simple questions and receive location based-responses until a task is complete. If housing-insecure students must remain on campus, check in and ensure that those individuals have all the resources needed. These students can also be connected with necessary school administration for help arranging a plan to leave campus, getting physical or mental healthcare, or any other necessary resources. Communicate with off-campus students to ensure that they are up-to-date about what is happening on campus, if they are among those unable to return for an in-person semester. 

Coronavirus Response Kit Higher Ed

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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