Amidst great economic and political pressure to reopen in the fall, American colleges and universities must choose between enormous risk and liability if they do open and bankruptcy if they do not.
Colleges and universities are among the most vulnerable institutions to disease outbreaks and would serve as efficient grounds the spread of coronavirus as students on campus share close spaces. Students are in close contact in classes, dining halls, clubs, sports, dorms, parties, events, games, assemblies, and meetings. Students could bring the virus to campus upon arrival and bring it home during breaks and holidays. Schools are worried about lawsuits in the case of outbreaks on campus, adding to the risk of reopening in the fall.
If schools choose not to reopen this fall, they could lose half of their revenue and ultimately not recover, either filing for bankruptcy or closing permanently. Historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are being hit the hardest by the financial burden of the pandemic and because African Americans are bearing a disproportionate share of the pandemic, school populations of HBCUs are more likely to be impacted by Covid-19.
In response to political pressure from the GOP to reopen in the fall, schools are working to formulate plans. Some schools are considering shortened or staggered school years while others are considering reducing the number of students in classrooms and campus housing. Some schools have decided to press on with in-person classes in the fall, at least half-filling classrooms, while others have opted to go online or do a blend of both. Stanford, for one, is considering holding classes in tents. Many schools will not announce a decision until summer. Even schools currently planning to reopen, of which there are quite a few, acknowledge that things are subject to change depending on the state of the pandemic.
While schools’ plans for the fall are presently shrouded in uncertainty, if schools do return in the fall it will be a very different, and perhaps undesirable, college experience. Extreme vigilance, testing, temperature checks, and contact tracing could become a normal part of everyday life on campus and will be necessary in order for schools to reopen. Students would have to self-quarantine at both the start and the end of the term, entire dorms would need to be reserved for quarantine and recovery, and parties would be strictly forbidden. Older faculty and staff will have to trust and hope that young students will force themselves to abide by the strange, stringent new rules.
Students might accept the altered college experience and university status quo and return to campus, or they might take a gap year and hope that the schools are still operating when they can eventually go back.
Sources: Politico 05/02/20, Inside Higher Ed 05/04/20, The Chronicle of Higher Education 04/23/20, The Atlantic 04/27/20