Colleges and universities across the country are wrestling with how to reopen in the fall.
It’s a question that’s complicated by falling revenues and concerns about coronavirus infections in densely packed campuses. Some schools have said they will go totally virtual, while many other universities plan to adopt a mixed model of online and in-person classes. Others will ask students to come to campus in shifts.
The University of Texas at Austin plans to open this fall and close at Thanksgiving, says professor Art Markman, who heads up fall planning at the university.
“Open is going to be not open in the way that campuses are traditionally open,” he says. “It's going to be an on-campus experience, but not one that's like what we've seen in the past.”
The largest classes will be taught online, while those that are in person will be held in larger rooms at 40% capacity, Markman says. Students and faculty will also be required to wear face masks during in-person classes.
Brown University is exploring a similar model. President Christina Paxson told NPR the school plans to welcome students back to campus this fall with some provisions.
“I'm imagining something where the large lectures are captured and students watch them online,” Paxson says, “and then they come together in small discussion groups to talk about the issues, to work through problem sets, things like that."
While most students at UT Austin live off campus, Markman says dorms will be available at limited capacity, including smaller rooms that usually house two students housing just one student.
The idea behind closing school at Thanksgiving is “to minimize the number of times” students leave and come back to campus, he says.
“We generally only have about a week of class after Thanksgiving before exams start,” Markman says, so bringing students back after the holiday “felt like an unnecessary risk.” He says the school year will start at the same time as years past.
“We can get most of our instructional time in before Thanksgiving,” he says. “And then faculty will still be able to present some additional material online in the week after Thanksgiving.”
Through UT Austin’s medical school and student health center, Markman says the school plans to conduct between 500 and 1,000 coronavirus tests per day. The school will start by testing more vulnerable populations, such as frontline workers and student athletes, and then it will test people “in a more random fashion just to make sure that we have a sense of where we are in the community.”
“We're gonna be engaging in a process of testing, tracing and isolation,” he says. “So if somebody tests positive, then we would make sure that they connect with health services to engage with them. We would want them to isolate”
Despite this detailed plan to safely bring students back to campus, some UT Austin faculty and staff are saying they don’t feel safe returning to classrooms, even ones that are emptier than usual.
Markman says UT Austin will accommodate high-risk professors and other staff. Students who want to take the fall semester or the entire year remotely will have the option to do so, he says.
“We have a number of faculty who are going to teach courses online, not just because the classes might be too large to fit in our classrooms,” he says, “but because those faculty may be in a vulnerable group where it doesn't make sense for them to be in the classroom with students.”
Some schools aren’t inviting their students back at all this fall due to fears over a second wave of the coronavirus. The California State University system already warned its half a million students they should plan to stay home this fall.
"By the time we get to August, it may very well be the case that we're able to open more than we think we will be now, but we're worried so much about the second wave that's going to come in the fall,” California State University Chancellor Timothy White told CNBC. “So we're preparing for virtual with the hope that we may be able to pull back once we get into August and September a little bit."
Markman says UT Austin wants to see how the fall semester plays out before developing plans for the spring.
“Our expectation is from the beginning that the coronavirus is here with us for the foreseeable future, and we are planning with the assumption that there won't be either a cure or a vaccine widely available until next year, probably about a year from now,” he says. “Our plan is to assume that what we do in the fall will be substantially similar in the spring.”
Markman says UT Austin, which already has a robust online education program, is prepared to welcome students back to campus without sacrificing the quality of their education.
“I think we're providing a really great experience for the students,” he says. “And so we're not really giving them less. We're just changing up the modality.”
This segment aired on June 15, 2020.