Academic Planning in a Pandemic

By Charlotte West    //    Volume 28,  Number 4   //    July/August 2020
AGB Trusteeship Magazine: July/August 2020 with cover article "Reopening Amid a Pandemic"

During the spring, higher education was in crisis management mode as COVID-19 spread around the world. First, students on study abroad were called home. Then as the number of cases began to rapidly increase in the United States, colleges made decisions to send students on extended spring breaks, eventually shutting down physical campuses and asking students to remain at home if at all possible. Faculty had to quickly pivot to online teaching, and students had to adapt to a virtual learning environment. High school seniors had more questions than answers about what their first semester of college might look like as the virus upended everything from standardized testing to final grades.

As the academic year closes with virtual graduations, leaders of colleges and universities around the country are now turning their attention to fall 2020. A few have yet to announce their plans, but the majority of institutions are anticipating a return to face-to-face classes with increased health and safety protocols. Some are adopting hybrid models, or will hold the majority of their classes online.

As of June 3, 2020, the Chronicle of Higher Education had tracked 860 institutions’ plans for opening in the fall, with 67 percent planning to resume face-to-face instruction, 18 percent waiting to decide or considering a range of scenarios, 8 percent proposing a hybrid model, and 7 percent planning for online.

Fall 2020 will look different across the board, however, there is agreement that higher education will look radically different come August and September, from smaller class sizes to more technology. “The fall of 2020 is not going to be like the fall of 2019,” says Eric Boynton, provost of Beloit College in Wisconsin.

“When COVID was so intense in mid-March, we were just reacting to this thing,” he says. “You’d develop a plan at 9:00 in the morning and by 2:00 in the afternoon, you’d have to scrap it and come up with a whole new plan because it was moving so quickly.”

Boynton says that higher education leaders now have an opportunity to respond proactively, rather than reactively, as colleges and universities look to fall 2020. Higher education leaders can’t predict the future, but they do have the opportunity to think strategically and flexibly. “The plan has to be able to dodge, and weave, and pivot,” he says. “What can we think about in terms of structures that provide confidence and gain trust? From what I see now, what should I be planning six months from now in order to provide the space for the institution to move ahead?”

Based on their experience in the spring, many colleges and universities are providing faculty training on effective online learning, retrofitting classrooms to allow for social distancing, modifying course schedules, and rethinking on-campus housing and dining. Several institutions have announced plans to end in-person classes prior to Thanksgiving to reduce student travel.

Many institutions that are preparing for in-person instruction are making virtual alternatives available for students with health risks or for international students who aren’t able to get visas in time. Others that are planning to offer the majority of classes online are figuring out how to provide limited face-to-face instruction for disciplines that require hands-on training such as nursing, engineering, and many career and technical programs.

According to Syd Kitson, chair of the State University System of Florida Board of Governors, every college and university is contemplating a variety of possible scenarios for the fall, including the possibility of successive waves of COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Every place is different,” he says. “It depends on where your universities are and what the rules and the laws are of your particular state. Each university system needs to think about what their particular situations are, and then come up with contingency plans…and be prepared to be nimble.”

Resuming Face-to-Face—with Some Modifications

Most colleges that have announced plans for the fall are anticipating offering the majority of their courses face-to-face. In May, the State University System of Florida launched a blueprint for reopening its campuses in fall 2020. “We put together a series of guidelines, working with the chancellor, working with our university system, working with the medical experts, not only within our university system but with the surgeon general and the staff at his agency,” Kitson says. “We’ve really done everything possible to address the issues at hand and come to the conclusion that we can open.”

But everything from the academic experience to athletics is going to look different, he acknowledges. “Until you have the therapeutics, until you have a vaccine, until those things are in place, it’s going to be different for all of us around the world,” he says. “And universities are going to be no different. We need to learn to live with it. You need to learn to coexist with it. That’s exactly what we’re going to do.”

Each of Florida’s 12 university campuses were charged with submitting a plan for reopening based on the blueprint by the end of June. Presidents and boards of each campus were also involved in formulating the blueprint. The system has asked campuses to look at issues such as how to conduct COVID-19 testing and contact tracing; accommodations to quarantine sick students; academic alternatives for faculty and students who are unable to participate in available class delivery formats; and class sizes and classroom densities, as well as outdoor and nontraditional spaces. Campuses have also been asked to identify thresholds that would require a return to tighter social distancing and behavioral restrictions.

The University of Tennessee system has also announced that its three campuses, its Health Sciences Center, and research institutes will also physically reopen in the fall. System President Randy Boyd convened a systemwide taskforce, in consultation with state leaders and public health officials, to develop a set of guidelines for reopening. “Across the state, we want to ensure that we provide our students with a great on-campus educational experience while managing risk and keeping them safe and healthy,” Boyd says.

Donde Plowman, chancellor of the University of Tennessee Knoxville (UTK), says that students and parents overwhelmingly want students to be able to come back to campus. “We have the same mission even though we’ve got this virus,” she says. “And so we were really committed as a campus to finding a way to come back, but communicating that campus will look, feel, and be different for the fall.”

Many institutions around the country are expecting not only less revenue due to enrollment declines and state budget cuts for higher education, but also increased costs associated with reopening campuses to allow for social distancing. University of Tennessee Board Chair John Compton says that the system will be able to weather the crisis due to several years of strong financial management. He doesn’t anticipate having to increase tuition in the immediate future.

Plowman says that at UTK they are currently inventorying classrooms, updating technology, and planning to finish in-person classes before Thanksgiving. Classes are also being spread throughout the day until 10 p.m. at night and every day of the week. In addition, every class is being designed so it can be taught face-to-face or delivered remotely.

In addition, UTK has set aside 170 beds that could be used as isolation units in case students need to be quarantined. They are also asking students in the dorms to take their temperature in the morning and plug it into an app to determine whether or not they should go to class.

Plowman says that filling all isolation beds would likely be the trigger for a decision to switch entirely to online learning again. “That would be the condition under which we would send people home again,” she explains.

Baylor University, a private faith-based institution in Waco, Texas, will offer face-to-face instruction when classes resume at the end of August. One of the factors contributing to the decision was the relatively low number of COVID-19 cases in Waco. “We felt like given what we know now that it would be appropriate to open up with a certain realignment of how we’re doing things,” says President Linda Livingstone. “But we also know that whatever we decided to do needed to be flexible enough so that we can adapt if things get better or things get worse.”

Livingstone has worked closely with the board to ensure that the institution will maintain financial stability. “Like every other institution, we have had to prepare for some significant changes and potential enrollment [decline],” says Jerry Clements, chair of the Baylor board of regents. “We hope that doesn’t happen, but [the administration’s budget] that we approved allows us the flexibility for both the best case scenario and the worst case scenario.”

Baylor has not yet had to furlough staff, but they are not planning on merit raises for the next academic year. They have also looked for other ways to reduce operating expenses.

Livingstone says they were able to adjust to the 2019–2020 budget to account for losses from housing and dining after students were sent home in March. In addition to using federal COVID-19 relief funding, they also worked with deans to make additional cuts to ensure a balanced budget at the end of the fiscal year. “That allows us to go into this next year, which has great uncertainty without having to worry about making up losses from last year,” she says.

One of the biggest initiatives they have launched is professional development on virtual teaching. Prior to March, only 8 percent of Baylor faculty had taught online before. This summer, faculty with previous experience teaching online will mentor other professors to create more robust online learning experiences for students.

While Baylor is planning to implement more hybrid courses and preparing to switch to remote learning if necessary, Livingstone and Clements remain committed to giving students a meaningful in-person experience.

“The online experience is just not the same,” Clements says. “For us, doing everything we possibly can, within all considerations of safety and well-being, for our students to have that [face-to-face] experience is really critical for us as a board to do. I think we would be remiss if we just sort of sat back and maybe took the easier way, which is just sort of [saying] ‘We’re going to go online for another six months.'”

Going Virtual

Campus leaders who have decided to stay online say that the number one reason they will continue remote learning is public health. California State University (CSU), the largest university system in the country with 23 campuses, was the first major institution to announce its plans to hold the majority of its courses online in fall 2020. California has been one of the states hardest hit by COVID-19, and also one of the first to issue stay-at-home orders in March.

“When we started this back in late February, we had two north stars—one was academic progress to degree and the other was health and safety,” says CSU Chancellor Timothy White. “And pretty quickly, we realized that of those two north stars—health and safety—needed to be slightly above academic progress. So that became our number one criterion by which we made decisions to move into virtual planning for the fall.”

White stresses his campuses—and others—need to think about COVID-19 beyond fall 2020. “I would just caution people to not underestimate the importance of a longer-term view,” he says. “There will not be a vaccine available this next academic year.”

Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, a historically black college in Dallas, Texas, has been one of the most outspoken critics of campuses physically reopening in the fall. “One of the questions that we asked that no one seems to really want to answer is: What’s different today than existed in March, when we sent all students home?” he asks.

While Paul Quinn has not formally announced whether it will resume in-person classes, Sorrell says that the existence of a vaccine would be one of the factors that would prompt them to reopen the physical campus. Until then, “we do not see a pathway to bring students back,” he says.

“To me, there are a lot of scenarios here,” he adds. “But all of them point to the same place, which is the need to slow down. I’m an advocate of students attending college face-to-face. But I’m also an advocate of students, faculty, and staff being safe.”

Those who have decided to remain online would rather err on the side of caution. “I’m completely open to the possibility that we may be wrong,” Sorrell says. “We may look back and it might not have been a big deal. [But] in matters like these, I just don’t know very many people who at the end of it said, ‘Gee I wish I hadn’t been so cautious.’ I know plenty of people who wish they had.”

Sorrell also questions whether the institutions that are resuming face-to-face operations are truly acknowledging the risks. “What’s the calculation that’s really going on? Why are we okay with people being sick? What Faustian bargain have we made?” he asks. “And I do want to be clear, I do understand the economic implications.”

“And here’s one more thing… I just want to wonder out loud. Are the presidents advocating for opening back up, are they going to go have lunch in the cafeteria with their students? Are they going to go walk by the classroom, [and] sit in classes? Are they going to change their methodology or their operating?”

Both Sorrell and White stress that while their physical campuses may be partially shuttered, education will continue. Sorrell rejects the idea that campuses are “reopening.”

“I don’t refer to it as reopening because the schools have never closed,” he says. “And I think it’s dangerous to frame it that way. Because it seems as if everything short of what folks are doing in that [physical] space is somehow less legitimate.”

As White puts it, “We’re not closed. We’re not canceling classes. We’re moving things from the physical space to the virtual space.”

Both institutions are looking at how to create meaningful online learning experiences for students. “Online learning [doesn’t have to be] what some people imagine, some rote recording with a bunch of PowerPoint slides going up,” White says. “We’re talking about a virtual experience that really engages, interacts, and involves the students in their learning process.”

To make that happen, the CSU system and individual campuses are offering professional development opportunities on virtual learning this summer for more than 1,700 faculty across the system. Paul Quinn will be building on the robust hybrid learning model it already had in place.

According to White, CSU will be offering a limited number of classes in person in fields such as nursing and homeland security with rigorous sanitation protocols and required personal protective equipment. For example, nursing students are required to do in-person lab simulations as part of their clinical training, and students at the CSU Maritime Academy need to physically be on a ship in order to learn to navigate.

At the campus level, Gayle Hutchinson, president of Chico State University, says that her campus is submitting a list of about 10 percent of their course offerings to be offered in person. One of the challenges that Chico State is facing is whether they’d require students to come back to Chico if they are taking a single class in person. “We’re making sure that, as we have these in-person classes, if a student isn’t able to come and be in person, we have a virtual alternative for them,” she says.

Community Colleges Mainly Online with Some Face-to-Face

Like CSU, many community colleges will also likely remain primarily online in the fall with some in-person elements. Dallas County Community College District, in consultation with its board of trustees, was one of the first systems to announce its decision to extend remote online learning for most classes through the fall semester.

“To provide a safe instructional environment in the midst of COVID-19, we would have to individually screen approximately 40,000 students and employees who normally enter our campuses each day,” said DCCCD Chancellor Joe May in a statement. “It is simply not feasible to accommodate the volume of daily temperature taking and health monitoring required for the safety of our community.”

But community colleges also need to continue to offer some in-person offerings due to accreditation and certification requirements for some professions, says Martha Parham, senior vice president of public relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.

“Face-to-face is absolutely necessary for a lot of our career and technical education programs,” Parham said. “You don’t want an electrical lineman going up the 40-foot power pole the first time they actually have to cut the wires.”

California’s 115 community colleges will also be predominantly online in the fall. When Lake Tahoe Community College switched to online learning in the spring, the college surveyed students about their experience with online learning and many reported that an asynchronous format did not work well for them. In response, the college developed synchronous classes that allowed some subjects like chemistry and painting online, according to President Jeff DeFranco.

In the fall, Lake Tahoe will offer both asynchronous and synchronous online classes, as well as limited hybrid classes with some face-to-face elements.

Hybrid Models

Some colleges are considering a middle ground between face-to-face and virtual learning. Boyton says his institution ultimately wants to bring students back to Beloit for face-to-face instruction, but to be able to respond to changing circumstances they adopted a new modular approach that will allow for maximum flexibility.

“The American public is not served well by being either online or face-to-face,” he says. “There’s no way either one of those possibilities is going to happen. It’s going to be some combination of the two.”

Beloit landed on its current plan as it looked at “ways of increasing flexibility and decreasing risk.” The model breaks the semester into two halves and students take two courses during each “mod.”

“Generally taking four online courses at the same time is debilitating, both for faculty and students,” he says. “Splitting it up into two different ‘mods’ …takes some of the heat off of having to juggle four classes simultaneously online.”

The modified schedule also makes it easier to pivot back to online learning should a subsequent COVID-19 outbreak occur. It also reduces the number of times students switch classrooms, which makes cleaning easier. Given all of the uncertainty around COVID-19, the plan allows Beloit flexibility in the things it does have control over: the academic calendar and delivery of curriculum.

Boynton adds that maintaining social distance is much easier at a small college like Beloit, which has a lot of space per student compared to many of the largest public institutions. They also have almost enough capacity in their residence halls to allow every student a single room.

Prior to COVID-19, Beloit had received a $250,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that the college is leveraging to encourage faculty to revamp their courses for online and hybrid delivery. About half of the college’s faculty will receive between $1,000–2,000 for adapting their courses over the summer.

Part of the new model, Boynton says, draws on Beloit’s liberal arts tradition to “show what it’s like to actually give an experience online that is rooted in community…that has to prepare students to be transformed by the content.”

Other colleges are also interested in the “mods” plan. Earlham College and Macalester College have recently announced similar approaches. “I have been in touch with about 30 provosts over the past six weeks to discuss the plan,” Boynton says.

An Opportunity for Innovation

Leaders at colleges and universities across the country are managing an unprecedented upheaval of higher education in the midst of a public health crisis. But many say that COVID-19 has also provided unprecedented opportunities for creativity. “There’s been a level of innovation that’s taken place in the last couple of months that really dwarfs innovation that you typically see over a similar time period in higher education, which is typically known for being slow,” DeFranco says.

Baylor University, for instance, implemented a student support program called Bearcare during the spring semester. According to Livingstone, more than 330 faculty and staff volunteered to check in with 25 to 30 students on a weekly basis throughout the spring and summer, reaching more than 9,000 students in total. “We really tried to have that high-touch support when we couldn’t be with them face-to-face,” Livingstone says. “We’ve learned so much from that we’re going to actually take elements of that and embed it in how we support our freshmen when they come to campus. And we would have never thought to do that if it weren’t for this situation.”

UTK has focused on creating a positive experience for first-year students, who will be organized into small cohorts. Each small group will take at least two face-to-face classes together and will be assigned academic advisors, success coaches, and other support. “Even in the midst of this weird time we’re in, that’s an enhancement I think will add much value and improve our student success rates,” Plowman says.

White says that learning online will also help students prepare for the new world of work, especially as high-tech companies are now allowing employees to work remotely on a permanent basis. “In some respects our students are getting future workplace training, by doing more things in the virtual space than the in-person space and in learning how to be successful, how to be engaged, how to be challenged and supported in that virtual space,” White says.

Innovations now will also help guide the future of colleges and universities around the country. “For every president, you can’t just be completely myopic and focus on the present,” says Hutchison of Chico State. “You’ve got to be thinking about the future and how your university will emerge from this period of time stronger, better, more innovative, more nimble, more flexible, to deal with challenges of the future. But also to enhance academic programming that already exists. Or perhaps it’s time to take on programs that we haven’t implemented yet to better meet the needs of our students.”

Charlotte West is a freelance education reporter. Her work has appeared in the Hechinger Report, USA Today, the Washington Post, and International Educator, among others.

Should We Reopen Campuses in Fall 2020?

Researchers suggest that with considering the coronavirus, there may be creative solutions that stop short of shutting down and moving everything online.

Cornell sociologists Kim Weeden and Benjamin Cornwell just published preliminary findings from a network analysis of transcript data from 13,500 students in almost 4,000 courses in their paper, “The Small World Network of College Classes: Implications for Epidemic Spread on a University Campus.” They looked at data from both Cornell’s larger undergraduate campus and its smaller liberal arts program. They found that almost all students on campus will eventually be exposed to each other through their regular course schedule. On average, a given student will have been in a classroom with more than 500 different classmates. In the smaller liberal arts program, they found that students will have been in contact with 150 other students. Weeden and Cornwell found that “the college campus environment provides conditions that increase the risk of a propagated outbreak of highly infectious diseases. These results suggest caution in reopening colleges and universities for face-to-face instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.” At the same time, Weeden said that colleges and universities might look at solutions such as canceling large lectures, implementing a block schedule, holding smaller classes in larger spaces, and looking at course sequencing before they take the extreme solution of canceling in-person classes altogether.

What is the background for this study and what data did you use?

Virtually every university is really thinking about [what they are] going to do in fall, and we realized that we had some data that could at least give a baseline. If you’re a student in the back of a 250 seat lecture hall, you may not come anywhere near the student who sits in the front row. But at the same time, we also know that there are many, many other ways that students come in contact with each other and faculty and staff.

It’s most obvious on a residential campus like Cornell where students are living together. But even on non-residential campuses, students are going to run into each other in the hallways or in the library. So our data are very much limited because they’re just looking at these course enrollment networks.

One of the extensions that we want to do to this is to think about classes as being connected through sharing of physical space, and in a particular time ordering, so that a class that shares the same classroom, but one is on Monday morning, and the other one is on Thursday afternoon it’s a little bit different context than if they’re kind of back-to-back courses.

In your paper you talk about “small world networks, characterized by high clustering and short average path lengths.” Can you break down what that means?

So the average path length is really just talking about how many steps it takes to get from one student to another. You probably heard of the game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. What we’re really finding is three degrees of separation for college students. It differs a little bit depending on whether you’re talking about the full university network or the liberal arts college network. But in both cases, by three steps, you reach pretty much everybody on campus. So, that’s a characteristic of a small world network. And the clustering simply refers to the fact that the ties are not randomly distributed.

How could this type of study help administrators when they are making decisions about whether or not to keep campuses closed in the fall?

I would simply say to the extent that university administrators can draw on data from their own contexts, that can be very helpful. But I also realize that university administrators are now under enormous pressure. They’re facing huge amounts of uncertainty. It’s new territory for virtually everyone. Figuring what to do when the institution that you’re leading is operating in the middle of a pandemic wasn’t part of my graduate school training. I would simply hope that they kind of carve out space to delegate to somebody to look at [their] transcript data. Before we make a decision about the fall, really figure out what the local context looks like. Is the university a small world network as well? Or is it structured in such a way that that they could kind of think about alternative models of instruction before making that decision?

The paper mentions that nearly all students on campus are interconnected by multiple paths that are independent of each other. You write that there’s no single course, and no single student, that if removed, that would eliminate the potential for mutual indirect exposure between any pair of students. How can campuses deal with this when they consider reopening plans for the fall?

One of the ways that we might think about is if there is a way that we can structure our classes that reduces, even if it doesn’t entirely eliminate, the “small worlds” nature of the network. Just to give a concrete example, Cornell College [unaffiliated with Cornell University], and Colorado College has this model of basically students taking one course for three weeks. And they take that course every day and they take it with the same people every day. And then they move on to a new block after the three weeks are up. Both those are much smaller institutions than Cornell. But you can see how that type of model, instead of being in contact with 500 students over the course of a week, a student might be in contact with 40 students over the course of the week, and it would be the same 40 students every day.

So that might be a model. I know some universities are thinking about [whether they can] increase the physical distance between students in the classroom by putting a medium-sized class in a large lecture hall and allowing kind of exam style seating where you want to have space between students. Anyway, just sort of trying to figure out what we can do to break this potential for transmission without going all online or canceling classes all together, which is a very extreme solution.

There is not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution for all institutions. It’s going to differ a lot by the type of institution. Is it a residential campus as a non-residential campus? How large is the institution? How many students are living on campus in dorms versus how many are kind of commuting from their own homes? One of our hopes is that these decisions will be data driven.

My own view, and I’m biased because I miss having the students around, is that these kind of creative out-of-the-box solutions might be a better solution than kind of a wholesale move to online teaching, or even more extreme canceling the fall semester all together. -Charlotte West


  • The pandemic has radically changed what higher education will look like in the fall. Higher education institutions have to start responding proactively, attempting to prepare for different scenarios and think strategically and flexibly. Some of these proactive changes include faculty training on online learning, changing classroom layouts to allow for social distancing, modifying course schedules, and rethinking on-campus housing and dining.
  • The Florida system has asked its 12 campuses to submit plans for how they will reopen, including how they will conduct COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, where they will quarantine sick students, what alternatives will be offered for students and faculty who cannot participate in available class delivery formats, and how they will change class sizes and densities. The University of Tennessee system is also having in-person classes in the fall, and deciding how to do that while keeping their students safe and healthy.
  • Not all institutions are planning to have on-campus classes in the fall. The ones that have decided to continue with virtual learning say it’s because the health and safety of students, faculty, and staff should come first. The California State University system is an example of a system that decided to stay mostly virtual and they are offering professional development opportunities on virtual learning. Many community colleges are also likely to mainly stay online in the fall.
The owner of this website has made a commitment to accessibility and inclusion, please report any problems that you encounter using the contact form on this website. This site uses the WP ADA Compliance Check plugin to enhance accessibility.