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Which Colleges Are Going Fully Remote and Why?

In August, colleges and universities grappled with rising coronavirus cases as students returned to campus, with two major institutions moving courses online after struggling to contain an outbreak. Across the United States, colleges are struggling to address students continuing to congregate in large groups without masks or social distancing. In response to the outbreaks, other higher education institutions are reconsidering plans to hold in-person classes, either sending students back home after only a couple weeks of classes or canceling return-to-campus plans.

Higher Education Institutions Struggle with Back-to-Campus Planning

Higher education institutions had many incentives to bring students back to campus - economic, social, pedagogical, and more - but the recent outbreaks are causing some to rethink learning models for the upcoming semester. Be prepared to see more colleges and universities going remote - and understand the reasons why, from the difficulties mitigating viral spread in dormitories, dining halls, or other campus venues, as well as the ability to invest in virtual learning strategies necessary to weather the next several months. 


In September, nearly all colleges of universities will have begun the fall semester, whether online, in-person, or a combination of the two methods. Since March, the Chronicle of Higher Education has tracked the plans of over 3,000 institutions in the United States, displaying the vastly different plans across the country. 

Only 6% of colleges or universities planned to be online-only, however, 24% of colleges or universities had not yet finalized their plans, suggesting more could opt for a virtual fall. Additionally, the recent outbreaks on multiple campuses - as well as multiple reports of major social-distancing infractions  - could mean that more in-person semesters are cut short or canceled before students even arrive on campus. 

Related Blog: What Fall Semester 2020 Will Look Like Across Universities

Most colleges have pushed for at least some in-person learning in the Fall, but others anticipated the potential complications in mitigating the spread of COVID-19 on-campus and opted for a fully remote fall semester. 

In May, California State University, the largest four-year public college system in the country, announced it would go without in-person instruction for most classes in the fall term, as per the Washington Post. The plan meant a continuation of virtual teaching for all 23 campuses in the Cal State system, with nearly 482,000 students attending classes online for the foreseeable future. The plan is in sharp contrast with messaging from other colleges and universities, who expressed an early intent to bring students back on campus.

Why Are Colleges Going Fully Remote? 

In March, colleges and universities across the country shifted to remote learning, closing down operations on campus and encouraging students to return home. The university system in the United States seemed to have far less consensus on the appropriate path forward for the upcoming fall. 

Many schools have wanted to pursue at least some degree of in-person learning, with students returning to campus with strict social distancing protocols in place, including a moratorium on parties, regular coronavirus testing, student pledges or contracts to adhere to new public health guidelines, and a quarantine or self-isolation period upon arrival on campus to mitigate community spread, as per the New York Times. However, recent outbreaks and cases linked to schools have shown that preventing COVID-19 from spreading might be more difficult than previously expected. 

Related Blog: How Colleges and Universities Can Promote Social Distancing

Cal State is not the only college system to enter the fall semester more warily. In July, Harvard announced that it would only invite 40% of the student population back to campus to reduce density, but maintained that all instruction would take place remotely, regardless of where students are staying, as per WBUR. President Lawrence Bacow wrote that “there is an intrinsic incompatibility” between in-person learning and the need for social distancing. First-year students would be prioritized among those returning to campus, with all sophomore, juniors, and other students being required to remain off-campus. 

Fully Remote Challenges Colleges and Universities Could Face

One of the greatest challenges of a fully remote Fall is perception - many students and teachers don’t consider remote learning to be as effective as face-to-face learning, but studies show that online learning can have equally good, if not better, educational outcomes, according to Inside Higher Ed. 

Embracing online-learning offers educators the opportunity to improve upon the experience that students were offered in the spring. In many cases, negative perceptions of online learning might be shaped by the hasty transition of the spread of the COVID-19 virus necessitated in March. Allowing faculty time to plan and establish a curriculum better suited for virtual learning, students may find themselves taking to the courses. 

Could Technology Tools Help?

The answer is yes. Technology will continue to facilitate learning for students and educators, regardless of what your campus’ plan will be for the future. Increasing access to resources - whether it’s a student counseling center, academic advising, or career services - will be imperative, no matter which model the college or university opts to move forward with. Campus leaders can reach Gen Z students where they will a coronavirus response app, offering access to various resources, regardless of whether or not students are on campus. 

The app centralizes important information into a single directory, providing students with up-to-date resources and contact information for various departments. This period, while unprecedented, does not need to result in additional confusion for students, and is the perfect opportunity to leverage campus safety technology to facilitate a successful and safe semester for all.

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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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