Spring 2020 was an unprecedented semester for colleges and college students, as the coronavirus sent students home from campus very suddenly at the beginning of March. Schools were forced to quickly prepare a distance learning plan to continue their semester, while many students stressed over a lack of resources necessary for remote classes. It was not an easy time for college communities, for sure, but they were able to get through it with the comforting thought in mind that this was just one semester. Many were certain that by the fall semester, this would all be back to normal. However, as the beginning of the fall semester approaches, schools and students are realizing that their dream of a return to normalcy was just that: a dream. The coronavirus pandemic is far from over, and the United States’ infection numbers have continued to rise throughout this summer. As a result, bringing students to campus may not be the best idea, and many experts believe that colleges are “deluding themselves” if they think that they can have a normal semester without experiencing a virus outbreak. Despite the great risk, many schools still plan to welcome students back to campus, although most are doing so with many restrictions in place. Administrators and faculty have put forth the argument that in-person learning is invaluable, and giving students the collaborative, independent, on-campus experience is worth the community health risk. However, while the various benefits of on-campus learning cannot be denied, the coronavirus spreads incredibly quickly and dangerously, making the health risk posed by reopening campuses for the fall semester too great to ignore. Consequently, many schools’ ambitious reopening plans are a recipe for disaster and, most likely, a health crisis waiting to happen. 

Bold Reopening Plans

Unfortunately, many schools have chosen to turn a blind eye to the great risks of attempting a fairly normal semester during this global pandemic. The majority of American colleges are releasing plans to welcome all students back to campus this fall, no matter how large their student body is. For example, Middlebury College in Vermont has recently announced plans to reopen. When asked for reasons for their decision, a Middlebury administrator cited students’ desire to return to campus as a major one. Now, what’s the problem with doing what’s best for their students? The problem is that most students aren’t considering the health risks when they say they want to go back. They’re not experts on this virus; they just want to be back on campus with their friends. What’s worse, Middlebury, like many American colleges and universities, does not have sufficient housing to house each student separately, so students will still be sharing living spaces. 

On the other hand, Middlebury is at least being considerate to their faculty, allowing each professor to choose whether they want to teach remotely or in person. Not all college professors are this lucky. For example, Georgia Tech is requiring faculty to teach on campus. Moreover, they’re not even requiring masks on campus, putting older and more-at risk faculty and their families in significant danger. Many will have to choose between their jobs and the safety of their families, a decision no person should be forced to make. Florida State University is forcing a similar decision on their faculty, as well, prohibiting them from working remotely while simultaneously caring for their children and families.

The Benefits Of On-Campus Learning

Now, the fact that schools wish to return in the fall isn’t very surprising, as being on a college campus does have a lot of positive impacts on the development and learning of young adults; missing out on another semester of this is far from ideal. Living in the same environment in which one learns is a unique privilege afforded to college students. They have constant contact with professors and educators, access to research labs and resources next door or just down the block, and the ability to study and collaborate with like-minded peers. All of these advantages can lead to deeper learning. Additionally, by living on campuses with peers from all around the world, they are constantly provided with unique perspectives, which can shape their global lens’ moving forward. This ability to socialize with peers from different backgrounds further accentuates the social benefits already provided by the on-campus college experiences. In living amongst peers, young adults learn critical social skills, including how to respect the space of others, how to care for peers who are struggling, and conflict resolution. Living with one or more roommates is especially conducive to the learning of these and more important social skills. 

Another critical component to college life is the ability for students to practice independence. College campuses provide an environment in which students can transition from living at home with their parents and/or guardians to living on their own in the real world. On campus, students learn to manage their own time, make and/or get food for themselves, keep up with their chores (e.g. laundry, room-cleaning), and more. Learning remotely does not provide students with the opportunity to practice any of these important skills, and if today’s college students experience too much of their four years at home, there is a strong chance they will struggle to adjust to life on their own after graduation. Consequently, a strong argument can be made for schools reopening completely to return students to the enriching on-campus college experience, despite the pandemic. However, the current health crisis, and America’s struggle to manage it, is sure to hinder this “normal” experience and cannot be ignored.

Risks Of Reopening

While lots of schools will routinely test students and/or require masks, these actions are hardly enough to prevent the rapid spread of the virus on college campuses, especially if students are living in doubles and triples, and using only public bathrooms. Testing students to the extent that many schools wish to do will also be extremely expensive, and many schools are already financially struggling somewhat as a result of this pandemic. As a result, many testing goals are probably unachievable. What’s more, many of these schools with ambitious plans for the fall are counting on students to follow their safety guidelines, social distance, and pay attention to symptoms. However, if this summer is any indication as to how serious young people are taking this pandemic, these schools should be scared. Young adults are taking vacations and attending parties, large gatherings, and barbecues, and often without a mask. And after having to spend almost six months away from their college friends, it is quite likely that students will find their way around the rules in order to regain their normal social lives. And, although many young adults seem to think they’re not at risk for severe illness from the coronavirus, evidence has shown that in people of any age, the virus can cause lasting heart, kidney, and neurological damage. In addition, students are not the only people on campus. Many faculty members are older and more at risk for serious infection. Encouraging these community members to be on campus amongst possibly irresponsible students may put a lot of pressure on them, and putting them at risk could have serious consequences for them and their families. Considering all these risks to community members, schools must consider choosing much more cautious plans for the fall, despite their desires to return to normal.

Cautious Plans For The Fall

One school that has decided to attempt a balance between a fall reopening and a remote fall is Bowdoin College in Maine. Instead of welcoming all students this fall, Bowdoin plans to invite only new students for this semester, which includes first-years and transfer students. Their thought is that these students will struggle to acclimate to the Bowdoin community unless they are on campus, so it is important to let them have an in-person first semester. Additionally, the risk will be significantly less with only one class of students on the entire campus, and with all of the housing space, students will not need to share living spaces, further eliminating risk. Other schools have taken after Bowdoin, with similar plans to only invite certain classes of students. Another common plan is to invite first-years, as well as seniors who need to be on campus for dissertation or thesis research.

Even these plans, however, while definite steps in the right direction, pose a health risk to the students on campus and the faculty that must be there to teach them and advise them. In such uncertain times as these, the safest way to continue to flatten the curve and keep community members safe is to have a remote semester this fall. This is quite obviously against the desires of most school administrations and student bodies, who’ve grown to call campus their home. Additionally, as mentioned before, there are a plethora of benefits to being on campus and learning in-person. However, what schools must consider as far as these benefits go is that the global pandemic will limit them. For example, going over a paper or problem set with a professor six feet apart and with masks might actually be less effective than learning remotely. And Zoom class discussions may prove to be more meaningful than trying to have a peer conversation with someone sitting halfway across the room. What’s more, the social benefits of college are sure to suffer extensively, as many schools will be forced to close dining halls, limit gatherings of students, and ban approved parties. For example, Haverford College in Pennsylvania has committed to limited seating in the dining hall, including only tables that seat one person. The damages to these normal in-person benefits, coupled with the dangerous health risks of putting students and faculty in close contact with one another, make a remote fall semester the safest and overall best decision for colleges. However, most schools have not decided to go this route, so it appears that many campuses will be headed for disaster; at this point, only time will tell.