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Campuses Might Still Be Closed in the Fall. How Should Universities Prepare?

After varying amounts of struggle, universities across the country moved online for the spring semester in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But now the question is, what’s next?

While some hope campuses will re-open come fall, no one knows for certain. In the meantime, university leaders are girding themselves for the possibility they’ll have to offer another semester online and asking themselves how to best prepare for more long-term remote learning.

Many are thinking outside the box – and outside the (virtual) classroom – about what resources students will need if online classes continue next year.Apple 1034300 640 1

Over spring break, most campuses didn’t have the time to build the highest quality online programs as they scurried to open their virtual doors, but fall may hold new possibilities.

Clare McCann, deputy director for federal higher education policy at the think tank New America, stressed the importance of not only intentional “instructional design” but online student support now that schools have a “small (albeit very small) extra amount of time to prepare,” she wrote in an email.

Dr. Alison Davis-Blake, president of Bentley University, is working to create a “true virtual campus,” not just online courses, she said, to offer as much of the campus experience as possible online.

For example, the school held an online career fair and continues to offer remote career counseling. Groups of 40 students virtually meet with a student affairs representative for weekly check-ins and coaches continue to touch base with their athletes, even though they can’t play. Student government is up and running, alongside fraternities, sororities and other student groups that continue to virtually meet.

The university plans to look at student and faculty surveys this summer to assess its online education this spring, and most importantly, what could be improved in the fall if remote classes continue. The hope is to offer more “experiential learning” opportunities and to make more on-campus services remotely available.

But as Davis-Blake pointed out, an online fall semester would pose a new challenge: on-boarding a first-year class amidst the pandemic.

University leaders are asking themselves, “How do you orient students when you’re not face to face?” she said. “What can you do over the summer to bring students in?”

She’s thinking through a number of options – virtual tours, group chats for new students, or even small regional group gatherings, if they’re safe when the semester starts.

Preparing for the possibility of a fall semester online, “it’s almost as if you’re building a university from the ground up,” Davis-Blake said. For colleges, the key is “thinking about what is an important part of your campus experience? And [then] trying to bring that forward.”

It’s a question Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick, president of Howard University, is contending with as well. The historically Black college (HBCU) is known for its family dynamic, he said, so he’s considering what that means and what that looks like if students remain online in the fall.

The camaraderie students feel at an HBCU is “difficult to create in a distance learning environment,” he said. “We do have to start thinking, ‘What are our values, what are our traditions, and how do we uphold those in the middle of a crisis such as this?’”

For all universities, but particularly schools like Howard, which serve high percentages of low-income students, the possible continuation of online learning comes with another worry – retention rates.

Frederick is concerned that students financially impacted by the coronavirus may not come back to campus next year, so continuing online options in the fall – even if on-campus classes are safe – might help students who need to work and might otherwise struggle to return, he said. In the meantime, part of the school’s preparation for fall is carefully monitoring students and reaching out to those who may need help with their finances.

Frederick finds that the crisis, and the accompanying shift online, is impacting his students in diverse ways, with Black communities disproportionately affected by the coronavirus. Some need mentorship, others need devices to just to get online, and as a student survey found, many need quiet spaces to study at home.

So, as time goes on, he wants to continue “tailoring” services to their individual needs. For example, if places like libraries reopen before campuses next semester, Howard University might create a guide to finding safe, local study spots.

In preparing for the fall, “we need to ask our students what they need rather than be prescriptive,” he said.

Though everyone hopes for more normalcy in the next academic year, Davis-Blake thinks the process of making emergency plans for fall might actually help universities understand and address their students’ needs better. Campuses may find that some supports actually reach more students more effectively online, while others require an in-person touch.

“I really believe this is a period not just to hunker down and say, ‘Well, how do we get through?’” she said. “This is a time for creativity. Even if we come back to campus and we’re all face to face, there are things we’re learning and will keep learning about how to deliver education even better through virtual and in-person activities. In every calamity, there is a possibility and an opportunity for innovation, for growth, for the human spirit to really rise.”

Sara Weissman can be reached at [email protected]

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