How Colleges and Universities are Preparing for Fall Semester Amid the Coronavirus

Mary Dooe
Mar 17, 2021

Brick buildings, crisp fall air, quads filled with students in search of parties. There's an image we all have in our minds of what the college experience looks like. But in 2020 - amid a global pandemic - that vision is a little blurrier.   This summer, colleges and universities around the U.S. are grappling with the idea of what the upcoming school year might look like, and how they can support students in the process. Leaders in higher education are adapting their plans and thinking about the ways the student experience will be different. With over 4,000 degree-granting institutions in the U.S. alone, the decisions these leaders make now will have a lasting impact on the future of the country.  


Now, and throughout the pandemic - as long as it lasts - communication from the leadership at colleges and universities will be paramount to fighting the spread while continuing to educate students.   That includes communication with parents and students ahead of the semester, frequent email and video addresses, clear guidelines posted throughout campus - and even safety training. There is currently a lot of confusion and uncertainty, and university leaders are taking action to be even more communicative than during a typical year.   college female wearing a mask using smartphone on campus Photo by @Elisall via Twenty20


This one is probably obvious to anyone who has had their social or work life shift to the online world - technology matters. When it comes to replacing the real-world experience of attending a college, institutions must work hard and invest in technology to continually improve the experience for students. Some colleges have already decided to remain online-only for the fall semester, meaning they'll need strong tech programs and bandwidth to accurately serve students.   The number of online-only institutions as of now remains small, however, with more places opting for a hybrid model and other adaptations. In part, this is because of the experiments in the spring, where administrators found students struggling with a purely virtual education. Colleges like Michigan State plan to hold about half of their classes online, while other classes will include both online and in-person formats.   No matter the model, colleges are planning now for an increased use of wifi, better ways to comment in class, asynchronous lectures (meaning people can watch when it works for their schedule), and online test-taking.  


For those returning to campus, health precautions will be front and center. Masks will be required in common areas, much as they are in other public spaces in the country. Leaders are also planning reduced occupancy in dorms, use of one way hallways, and systems to measure infections - and enforce self-isolation when needed.  

Class schedules

A number of institutions - including the University of Notre Dame and Miami University of Ohio - have already announced plans for shortened semesters, with plans to end in person classes by Thanksgiving. Others, like Stanford University, are planning to actually make the school year LONGER - increasing the number of terms students typically take classes so as to spread out how many students are on campus at any given time. Students might also be gearing up for classes earlier or later in the day, again in the hopes of thinning out classrooms.  

Social life

The shrinking of dorm numbers - or a full on shift to online-only instruction - means the social life we expect from college is sure to change, at least for the near future. With spikes in the virus coming in the wake of fraternity rush parties, it seems likely that many campuses will cut back on the number of people living - and partying - in on or off-campus housing. Sports are also likely to take a hit this fall - where crowded stadiums could be an easy place for the virus to spread.   Many students are likely to be unhappy with the kind of restrictions put in place on students who fail to follow things like social distancing rules. University administrators will have to think of new and creative ways to facilitate the kinds of bonds and experiences that people expect outside of class.   student washing hands in a bathroom Photo by @wilsvanzyl via Twenty20

Staying positive

Whether you are just embarking on your college journey or are returning for your junior or senior year, it can be easy to be bummed and stressed out by the new reality. Still, it's helpful to reframe this in a different light. Entering online classes - and even an online social life - with a fortified mindset can actually help you learn better and succeed. Maybe it's a way to focus on pre-requisite classes and knock them out early so you can have more time for fun classes once regular campus life resumes.  

Looking ahead

Colleges and universities face a huge number of hurdles when it comes to delivering on their promises to students in this new world we are living in. At the same time, they are also places uniquely suited to tackle the problem.   Higher education institutions are places where scientists can ask questions and study people for the answers. They are places where the whereabouts of students - and thus contact tracing - is easier to follow than in the general population. And they are places where young people can adapt, grow, and take lessons they learn out into the "real world" for the rest of of their lives. As the world faces an uncertain future, it's important to watch the decisions colleges and universities make in the coming months.