Colleges Hoped for an In-Person Fall. Now the Dream is Crumbling.


Several prominent campuses on Monday announced reversals of prior fall reopening plans as Covid-19 case counts surge across the country. Coming after months of expressed optimism about the possibility of in-person operations, the announcements signal a retreat from those projections that may grow to a wave.

The University of California at Berkeley’s chancellor, Carol T. Christ, announced at a Chronicle event on Monday that Berkeley — which had planned to have some students on campus and to hold some classes in-person — will begin its fall semester online. The news came alongside Monday actions by Morehouse, Grinnell, and Spelman Colleges, in addition to Clark Atlanta University.

Also on Monday, the president of Miami Dade College, one of the largest institutions of higher education in the country, announced it would begin the fall in a remote format on September 1, and maintain that model at least until September 28. Last week, Occidental College, Emory University, and Dickinson College, among other institutions, announced more virtual operations than previously planned.

Such announcements have been widely predicted, even as some presidents declared that they planned to bring students back for fall classes. In planning to reopen, colleges have cited the benefits to in-person learning, the disparities in technology access off campus, and detailed safety plans. There is also a clear financial incentive to bring students back; fees for housing and dining are significant portions of operating budgets.

But in the face of rising cases nationally, and as faculty and students raise safety concerns, colleges have said they can’t pull it off.

The Bay Area, Christ said, is not “at a phase at which higher education is permitted to open under public-health orders.” And earlier this month, Berkeley announced 47 new student cases in one week, with most connected to Greek parties.

Berkeley typically has 6,000 classes in the fall, but the university was planning to offer only about 300 face-to-face classes in a hybrid model, Christ said. In-person instruction, Christ said, would have been reserved for courses that would be difficult to replicate online, including complex labs, performing arts, and field work. But the prospect of students, faculty, and staff members returning in the fall constituted what Christ and her team began to describe as a “mass migration event.”

“How do you handle a mass migration event in a way that doesn’t provide seeds for outbreaks?” Christ said.

The answer, Berkeley officials concluded, is: You don’t.

“The fraternity outbreak gave us a glimpse of how congregate living could really seed infections,” Christ said.

An outbreak that stems from a fraternity party is just the sort of thing that many professors say they worry about when assessing the safety of returning to in-person instruction. Regardless of behavior pledges, which colleges have considered as a way of promoting safety amid the pandemic, some people find it difficult to believe that young college students will party together in masks and maintain six feet of physical distance once the alcohol starts flowing.

“Of course it’s a reasonable concern,” Christ said. “It’s what college presidents and chancellors talk about all the time.”

“We’re social animals,” she continued, “and one of the big motivations of going to college is to be with your peers and have this life-transforming experience. The experience we were imagining in the fall isn’t what anyone would imagine a college-going experience to be like.”

The announcements by Morehouse, Spelman, Clark Atlanta, and Emory came as Georgia’s case numbers have steadily climbed.

At Spelman, the plan initially was to bring first-year students back to campus, with a smaller number of other students. “An honest appraisal of the facts compelled us to change course,” wrote Mary Schmidt Campbell, the president. Now, all instruction will be virtual, and all residence halls will be closed.

Morehouse had initially planned for a hybrid course-delivery model, with some in-person instruction and students living in single rooms. Now, the college announced, it will keep campus housing closed and move all in-person classes online. David A. Thomas, the president, told The Chronicle that the high infection rates and case numbers in Atlanta and Georgia, coupled with the politicization of the virus, contributed to his decision.

Gov. Brian P. Kemp, a Republican, sued Keisha Lance Bottoms, Atlanta’s Democratic mayor, last week over a mask mandate. The decision undermined Thomas’s confidence in the local policy environment. It also raised ambiguity about enforcing Morehouse’s mask mandate. Some segment of the student body, he said, may have argued that Kemp’s stance meant that Morehouse’s rule “was somehow an imposition of their rights to free speech.”

“We can’t count on the public policy environment to reinforce or guide our decision making,” Thomas said. Never before in his higher-education career has he operated without that trust, he said. “I’ve been on the faculties of major universities and colleges since 1986. I’ve been in academic leadership roles since 1999, including being dean of the Georgetown School of Business, senior associate dean of the Harvard Business School, and now president of Morehouse College. I’ve never seen an environment like this for higher ed. This is uncharted territory.”

Thomas estimated Morehouse would lose up to $20 million this fall in income from housing and dining, and from a 10-percent tuition cut. Faculty who have not been certified in online teaching, he said, will be furloughed, and staff members who have been furloughed may be laid off.

But the decision was the right one, he said. As a historically Black campus, situated in a predominantly Black neighborhood of Atlanta, bringing students back could mean a spread of Covid-19, affecting a community that is already at high risk. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says hospitalization rates for Covid-19 are highest among non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native and non-Hispanic Black people.

Thomas wondered if he would be comfortable sending his three kids to an in-person college. His third graduated mere months ago. The answer was no. “When you make it personal,” he said, “the answer becomes pretty clear.”

To bring students back in the spring, Thomas said, infection and hospitalization rates locally and in high-enrollment states and regions would need to decline. That includes Miami, which Morehouse’s announcement identified as “the new epicenter for the virus.”


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