Colleges plan to reopen campuses, but for just some students at a time

By Anemona Hartocollis

With the coronavirus still raging and the fall semester approaching, colleges and universities are telling large segments of their student populations to stay home. Those who are allowed on campus, they say, will be living in a world where parties are banned, where everyone is frequently tested for the coronavirus and — perhaps most draconian of all — where students attend many if not all their courses remotely, from their dorm rooms.

In order to achieve social distancing, many colleges are saying they will allow only 40-60% of their students to return to campus and live in the college residence halls at any one time, often divided by class year.

Stanford has said freshmen and sophomores will be on campus when classes start in the fall, while juniors and seniors study remotely from home. Harvard announced on Monday that it will mainly be first-year students and some students in special circumstances who will be there in the fall; in the spring, freshmen will leave and it will be seniors’ turn.

At the same time, very few colleges are offering tuition discounts, even for those students being forced to take classes from home.

Professors, students and parents all seem to be conflicted over how these plans will work out.

Pascale Bradley, a senior studying English and French literature at Yale, is just looking forward to seeing some classmates again. Yale is allowing first-year students, juniors and seniors on campus in the fall, but nearly all classes will be taught remotely.

“It won’t be the same social life,” she said. “Not that students are upset there might not be big parties. People are just looking forward to daily small interactions, being able to sit and study with someone and have a meal with someone.”

Her father, Kirby Bradley, is less forgiving. “This just seems to be the worst of all worlds,” said Bradley, who owns a video production company. “They are exposing the kids to increased virus risk, something that is arguably justifiable in exchange for in-person learning, which everyone agrees is better than online. But no, the kids will do remote learning, from campus! At full tuition!”

College administrators say they are in a bind and doing the best they can to bring students back to campus to get at least some of the social and academic benefits of being surrounded by their peers.

“This pandemic is among the worst crises ever to hit Princeton, or college education more broadly,” Christopher L. Eisgruber, president of Princeton, said in his reopening announcement. “Princeton’s preferred model of education emphasizes in-person engagement, but in-person engagement is what spreads this terrible virus.”

Many universities are requiring behavioral contracts in which students agree to wear face masks in public, to be tested regularly for the coronavirus, and to limit travel and socializing. If they break the rules, they can be disciplined.

Universities say they are keeping a tight rein on students because the trajectory of the virus is still uncertain. Several universities cited the recent surge in virus cases in some states as justification for keeping classes virtual, even for students living on campus.

Faculty members are also worried. More than 850 members of the Georgia Tech faculty have signed a letter opposing the school’s reopening plans for the fall, which say that wearing face masks on campus would not be mandatory, just “strongly encouraged.”

The Montana University System is also facing pushback from the faculty over its mask policy.

International students may have the hardest time of all. Many have returned to their home countries and will not be able to reenter the United States because of travel and visa restrictions.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement said in a statement on Monday that student visas would not be issued to people enrolled in schools or programs that are fully online for the fall semester. Students in such programs will not be permitted to enter the country, and those already in the United States “must depart the country or take other measures, such as transferring to a school with in-person instruction, to remain in lawful status.”

Many universities are bracing for the possibility that upperclassmen will request leaves of absence until things return to normal. The schools are warning students that if they do, there may not be dormitory housing for them in a year or two when they come back.

Cornell University is bucking the trend and allowing all its students back to campus, with a mixture of in-person and online instruction. Cornell said it based its decision on an analysis that found that conducting a semester entirely remotely could result in far more students becoming infected — up to 10 times as many — compared with reopening the campus. That is because of the likelihood that even if classes were conducted remotely, many Cornell students would return to off-campus housing in Ithaca, New York, and the university would not be able to enforce virus testing requirements or restrictions on their behavior.