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College reopening plans already challenged by the coronavirus

Many colleges’ plans to bring students back to campus this fall are almost certain to crash and burn.

Why it matters: Many families may not be willing to pay full tuition for a semester they know will only involve online classes. But there’s no reason to doubt that bringing college kids back to campus will result in thousands of coronavirus cases, infecting both students and staff.


Where it stands: Nearly half of schools plan to bring students back for in-person classes, 13% will offer only online instruction and 35% will offer a mixture of both, according to the most recent analysis by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Reality check: Before the fall semester has even begun at most schools, colleges’ reopening plans are already crumbling. Some schools are seeing cases spike among sports teams and fraternities, while others are scrambling to lure students back to campus safely with last-minute infrastructure and curriculum changes.

  • More than 6,300 cases have already been linked to colleges in the U.S., The New York Times reported yesterday. Many of the largest outbreaks are at colleges located in coronavirus hotspots like Texas, Florida and Los Angeles.
  • And the nation’s coronavirus testing capacity is already deeply strained, with results taking longer than a week to return in many places. Adding precautionary testing of thousands of college students to this demand may only further strain the system.
  • However, many universities have their own labs on campus, lending them “expertise and infrastructure that is not available to the general public,” said Johns Hopkins’ Caitlin Rivers.

State of play: Some institutions are rolling back room and board fees or are foregoing planned tuition hikes, but most universities are not cutting the cost of tuition while making major adjustments to campus life, higher education economist Sandy Baum of the Urban Institute said.

  • Outdoor classes: Rice University in Houston plans to take some fall courses outside, and will build nine structures on campus to help comply with social distancing guidelines.
  • Testing for Black students: Several Historically Black Universities and Colleges are partnering with nonprofit Testing for America to provide resources and tests for students who are disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
  • Off-campus housing: Many Cornell University students intend to return to off-campus housing regardless if their classes were online or in-person, and the university feared it would have little authority to mandate testing or restrict students’ behaviors without in-person education.

What we’re watching: Among those colleges that do attempt to begin the semester with in-person classes, even the best-laid plans could fall apart once the virus starts spreading. But it’s a risk they may decide is worth taking.

  • “Resources are really scarce, so I think everybody’s looking at how can they get their students to come back and [be] willing to enroll,” Baum said.
  • And for universities' bank accounts, at least, the best-case scenario may be that classes switch to online after students’ tuition has been paid in full.

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