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Colleges Spent Months Planning For Fall, But A COVID-19 Surge Is Changing Everything

When Irem Ozturk got the email from Dickinson College in mid-June announcing "we intend to bring all students back to campus," she was elated. She's originally from Turkey, but after two years on campus, she's come to think of Carlisle, Pa., as home. "I was thrilled because I felt like I was returning back home, excited to see friends and faculty," she says. "I felt happy. I felt like I had something to look forward to."

That happiness lasted a little more than a month.

Last week, Dickinsonannounced a new decision: "[W]e have come to the very difficult decision that the fall 2020 semester will be remote."

"It's heartbreaking for me, but I can't necessarily be mad at them," says Ozturk, a junior who's majoring in biology, and spending the summer in Pennsylvania, afraid to leave the U.S. for fear she wouldn't be able to return. She says she understands the reasoning to go remote: The testing capacity isn't there, there's no hospital on campus and the virus is spreading. But she says she's frustrated by the uncertainty. "Four weeks from now, we're supposed to have our first classes. I have only four weeks to come up with a plan."

As the start of classes inches closer, more and more colleges are rolling back their earlier, more optimistic proclamations of an in-person or hybrid fall. Those initial plans are now more likely to include hefty virtual options. Some call for classes that would be mostly remote, while others are calling for the semester to be entirely online.

On Monday, several historically Black colleges in Georgia announced they'll begin the semester online, including Spelman College, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University.

The University of California, Berkeley will do the same, according to comments from the chancellor, Carol Christ, made at a Chronicle of Higher Education event. "After weeks of developing a very elaborate plan for a hybrid model in the fall, we decided, after we had a serious fraternity outbreak, that it was just too risky to teach face-to-face," Christ said.

Another major concern was bringing students back to campus from all over the country and the world. "How do you handle a mass migration event in a way that doesn't provide seeds for outbreaks?" Christ asked.

''An honest appraisal of the facts''

All summer, leaders at Spelman had been crafting a plan to preserve some semblance of their traditional in-person fall. Ultimately, they came up with a plan — announced on July 1 — to bring about 600 freshmen back to campus.

The day students arrive on campus is a big deal for the elite, all-women's college. Mary Schmidt Campbell has savored all five years she's presided over as Spelman's president. "It's really a fun occasion," she says. "We're all wearing Spelman's swag. We have balloons. And we're out there just welcoming the parents, taking photos and soaking in the tradition."

But as infection rates grew in Georgia, and the efforts to stop that spread grew more political, Campbell felt it was "irresponsible" to bring students back. On Monday, Campbell wrote a letter to the Spelman community: "An honest appraisal of the facts compelled us to change course."

"We felt very comfortable about the protocols and practices we were putting into place on our campuses," she says. But the city of Atlanta and the state of Georgia were a different story. "Once our students walked outside of those gates, once they went into the city of Atlanta, they were in an environment that we felt was virtually unregulated."

To account for the transition, Spelman will discount tuition for the fall. And with no students coming back to campus, the school will lose all of its revenue from room and board. "We're experiencing huge financial losses," Campbell says. It will use federal relief money from the CARES Act to plug some holes and rely on financial gifts from supporters and alumni.

But the impending financial hurt wasn't enough to sway the college's decision, "As a community representing the Black community," Campbell explains, "I really think it was a moral issue as well as a health and safety and educational issue."

''Minute by minute, second by second''

As colleges have been announcing their plans, a group of students and recent graduates at Davidson College in North Carolina have been following along. They make up the College Crisis Initiative, an effort of the college to track fall reopening plans for about 3,000 U.S. colleges and universities.

"Things are changing minute by minute, second by second for these schools," says Katie Felten, a recent graduate and project leader on the team. The data show there are nearly 300 schools that have yet to decide what fall looks like.

"That was shocking to me," Felten says. "While I understand these institutions are struggling to stay above water right now financially, and they have so many decisions to make, it's surprising that they don't seem to be communicating with their students about what they're planning on doing."

And although more than 500 schools still say they will either be fully in person, or mostly in person, more and more schools are shifting their classes online, reversing previous decisions. Many of the original announcements "sounded so wonderful back then, but now sound absolutely crazy," Felten says. "A bit of reality is starting to hit us."

She adds that an examination of the early plans shows that in June and early July, schools were more optimistic about their ability to acquire tests, whereas now that start days are weeks away, they're realizing that "there's just no way."

In addition to tracking schools' announcements and plans, researchers with the College Crisis Initiative are also taking note of the percentage of classes listed as online in course catalogs.

That was a clue for Zoe Moskowitz, a student at Emory University in Atlanta. Her school had sent an email saying it hoped to offer both in-person and online classes, and that dorms would be open.

"When I got that email, I was really excited and relieved and I was like, 'OK, we're gonna have some sense of normalcy, whatever that means now,' " Moskowitz says. "For some reason, I thought it would be more like normal college."

But then the school asked students to re-enroll in fall classes. When Moskowitz logged on to select her classes again, nearly all the options were virtual. "I felt like we'd been tricked a little bit," she says, even though the initial email had said the university may need to change its original fall plan. From then on, she was waiting for the inevitable: that classes would be online, and the bulk of dorms would be closed. It came on Saturday.

Since she's locked into a lease she signed last spring, she'll be living near campus with roommates, taking all her classes online. "It's a lot harder to learn," she says, but "it is better for the public health perspective."

Stay enrolled or take time off?

When the summer first started, Garrett Pittman, a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, was hopeful. He checked his email regularly, searching for updates on the fall reopening plan. "That's all I've been thinking and talking about for the last couple of weeks." he says. "I've been kind of like going crazy over the whole thing."

At first it was looking promising, but last week the school announced it, too, was shifting to all-remote. "I just knew, you know, it's either gonna be online classes or no classes for me."

With the end of spring semester online, Pittman had struggled. He didn't feel like he was learning anything sitting behind a laptop and says it was hard to focus.

"Getting work done in the library is a different kind of work than working from my kitchen countertop, while my dad's watching TV down the hall and my mom is on the phone in the other room," he says. "If college was always all online, I probably would have not went to college."

He's working for a roofing company right now, and he's thinking he'll take a break from school for the semester — maybe the year — and keep working to make some money.

For others, postponing school isn't really an option. "I've had 'Class of 2023' in the back of my mind for a while," says Reagan Griffin Jr., a sophomore at the University of Southern California. He's a journalism major at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and he says he's got to stay focused on his academic goals. Griffin expected USC to reverse its decision, based on the news stories he'd read about the virus in Los Angeles, but that doesn't make the announcement any less painful.

"I do feel shortchanged," he says. "You only get four years of college."

As a sophomore, he's now had about the same amount of time in person as online. "It's extremely frustrating because you got a taste of it, right?" He went to football games and did some tailgating; he had access to the school's state-of-the-art media center. He hosted a podcast.

Being in college "was everything that I thought it would be and more," he says. "And then, after one semester, that just gets stripped away. It's just the tease. And it's excruciatingly frustrating."

Despite the fact that all of his classes will be online, Griffin is moving to an LA apartment in a few weeks, so he'll be close to campus. With facilities closed, he says, that half-mile will feel like a world away.

Still, being close will make it feel like there's still some hope for the semester. "If the coronavirus clears up a little bit," he says, "I'll be right there ready to pounce on every opportunity that there will be."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.