Eric Davis: Colleges should go online this fall
Should colleges and universities resume in-person, on-campus instruction this fall? Leaders of most higher education institutions say they plan to do so, while adding that their decisions will be largely driven by public health considerations.
A few institutions are taking a different approach. The California State University system, with more than 400,000 students on 23 campuses, has announced that almost all instruction will be offered remotely in the fall. Four other universities — Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley — have advised their faculty and students they are leaning toward mostly online undergraduate courses in the fall.
This group of four institutions is taking a prudent approach to planning for the fall semester. Serious challenges face colleges and universities that want to resume on-campus, in-person instruction in September. First is the need for substantially ramped-up coronavirus testing and contact tracing.
Next, the density of the student population would need to be substantially reduced, in order to lessen the chances of coronavirus spreading on campus. Residence hall occupancy limits would need to be established, with no more than one student living in a room. States allowing hotels to reopen are imposing capacity limits of 25 percent of normal occupancy, and similar limits could apply in residence halls. Substantial increases in custodial staff would be needed to clean and disinfect bathrooms used by multiple students several times each day.
Class sizes would need to be considerably reduced in many cases. A lecture hall that normally accommodates 100 students could hold perhaps one-third that number if 6-foot social distancing measures were in effect. The capacity of a seminar room might be reduced from 20 students to somewhere between 5 and 10. Indeed, in many states, gatherings of more than 50 people may still be prohibited in September, thus limiting class sizes.
Undergraduates are inherently social in their behavior, and many aspects of college life would need to be substantially altered to go ahead with on-campus learning in the fall. Would dining halls need to operate under the same restrictions as restaurants, with students seated in small groups more than 6 feet apart and overall capacity of the dining hall limited to 25 percent of normal? If parties and other large gatherings are not allowed, that could result in surreptitious gatherings in residence halls, a situation potentially associated with high alcohol consumption and its consequences, as well as virus spread.
Institutions that draw students from wide geographical areas face additional challenges. If states have self-quarantine requirements for persons arriving from out-of-state, how will colleges and universities implement and enforce those requirements? Institutions with large enrollments of international students may find that many of those students will be either unable or unwilling to return to campus for in-person fall classes.
I realize that many college and university leaders are worried about the financial and reputational consequences of not being able to operate as usual this fall. These consequences will be particularly severe for those institutions that are primarily tuition-dependent, with small endowments. Additionally, colleges and universities are often important drivers of the economy in their communities.
At the same time, many Americans continue to be wary of large-scale resumption of prior patterns of activity before the widespread availability of a coronavirus vaccine. Some students and their parents would prefer to take off a semester or a year rather than go back to campus in September.
I believe the best course of action for fall 2020 would be to limit on-campus instruction to graduate students, and to seniors, in fields such as the sciences and engineering where students need access to specialized laboratories and equipment to complete research projects. For the great majority of students, courses should be offered online. Colleges and universities should use the summer to provide extensive technical and staffing assistance to faculty members to adapt their fall courses into formats that will be well-suited for remote instruction.
Eric L. Davis is professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College.
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