Should colleges bring students back to campus in the fall?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

In March, millions of college students saw their worlds upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Fears of spreading the virus forced America’s universities to hastily shut down in-person instruction and transition to an ad hoc system of distance learning. With the spring semester ending for many, all eyes have shifted to whether colleges will welcome students back to their campuses in the fall.

There are more than 4,000 higher-education institutions in the U.S. Each is developing its own plans for the fall semester. It’s impossible to know what the state of the pandemic will be in August and September, when the school year typically starts. With students, parents and faculty members eager to know what the coming semester will look like, schools don’t have the luxury of waiting a couple of months to make their decisions.

About two-thirds of colleges are planning for in-person instruction in the fall, according to a database kept by the Chronicle of Higher Education. That doesn’t mean things will be back to normal. A return to school could mean staggered class schedules, no large lectures, and a variety of public health measures interwoven into campus life. Several schools, including the University of South Carolina and Notre Dame, have adjusted the academic calendar so the fall semester will end before Thanksgiving, possibly ahead of an expected winter resurgence on the virus.

Other universities have decided to keep campuses closed in the fall. The California State University system, the nation’s largest collection of colleges, will conduct its semester entirely online. Many of the country’s most prestigious private universities are considering a range of scenarios that may include a hybrid of online and in-person instruction.

Why there’s debate

The idea of bringing thousands of students and faculty together on college campuses in the fall has raised significant concern among some epidemiologists. Universities are particularly problematic when it comes to transmission of viruses because of the number of people who filter in and out on a daily basis and the social lives of many college students, some argue. If the virus does prove to be seasonal, low case counts over the summer could provide a false sense of security that may lead to a devastating outbreak if another wave hits near the end of the year.

Distance learning will likely be much more worthwhile in the fall, others say, after schools have had several months to build their programs to replace the hastily thrown together plans they rolled out in March.

Though they acknowledge the potential risks, advocates for bringing students back say a variety of steps can be taken to limit virus transmission. Even a significantly modified version of campus life may be preferable to distance learning, which many students and faculty members have expressed dissatisfaction with. The shift to online education has led many students to consider taking a year off — and educators fear some may never come back.

For some colleges, the decision may be largely financial. Some schools could permanently close if forced to go without income from tuition, events, housing and other on-campus revenue streams for another semester.

Others say there is not a one-size-fits-all policy that could be applied to the country’s incredibly diverse collection of colleges. The decision to open campus may depend on location, nature of the student body, university resources, local laws and a long list of other factors.

What’s next

Most schools that are planning to hold in-person classes in the fall are simultaneously developing backup plans in case coronavirus cases don’t drop over the next few months. The nation's ability to contain the pandemic and monitor future outbreaks will likely play a major role in whether those contingencies prove necessary.


The benefits of in-person education outweigh the risks if the right protocols are in place

“Colleges and universities have a lot of work to do if they want to welcome students back on campus this fall. But in-person instruction, and the benefits that accompany student life in institutions across the United States, are essential parts of the higher-learning experience. It’s an effort well worth making.” — Lanhee J. Chen and Vanila M. Singh, Washington Post

Bringing students back means inviting a major on-campus outbreak

“If anything, the desire of the virus to propagate and the desire of the university to educate are in dangerous harmony. A properly functioning university is a never-ending festival of superspreader events, and to open campuses in the fall will be a challenge.” — Graeme Wood, Atlantic

Schools should open, but have a high-quality backup plan

“At this point, probably the smartest strategy for most institutions is to take an optimistic stance that campus will reopen in the fall, but be prepared with a long list of contingency plans that would quickly revise the approach should conditions dictate.” — Michael T. Nietzel, Forbes

Money shouldn’t be the main motivator for reopening

“College presidents have a right to be terrified. But opening campuses in the fall is the wrong move if the primary motivation is to avoid bankruptcy. Public health comes first.” — William G. Tierney, Inside Higher Ed

Campuses can only open if they enact major changes to keep students safe

“I don't think there's any scenario under which it's business as usual on American college campuses in the fall. This idea — that we can somehow just get back to normal and go back to school in the fall, because we always have, it's not reasonable, actually. I think we're going to have to figure out other ways of doing this.” — Sociologist Nicholas Christakis to NPR

Some schools may not survive without bringing students back

“Social distancing could still be in place and medical experts say a second wave of coronavirus cases is possible in the fall, but for many universities, the revenue blows that would come with an online semester are too severe to weather. They've got no option but to figure out how to reopen.” — Erica Pandey, Axios

The decision should depend on the local situation

“With stay-at-home orders in various stages across the country, a school in Texas may feel emboldened to open up sooner than a school in New York. Each institution is following its own playbook and timeline.” — Meredith Deliso, ABC News

Another semester of distance learning would hurt students’ futures

“As amazing as videoconferencing technology has become, students face financial, practical and psychological barriers as they try to learn remotely. ... If they can’t come back to campus, some students may choose — or be forced by circumstances — to forgo starting college or delay completing their degrees.” — Brown University president Christina Paxson, New York Times

Online education can still be worthwhile

“While it’s appropriate to mourn the campus experience lost, it’s also time to think about online college along a different binary: Not online vs. in-person, but a good use of your pandemic time vs. a bad use of it.” — Rebecca Shuman, Slate

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images