Hundreds of schools are still deciding how to conduct classes this fall

Source: Thom Caroll/PhillyVoice

Philadelphia, PA – Yousuf El-Jayyousi, a junior engineering student at the University of Missouri, wanted guidance and reassurance that it would be safe to go back to school for the fall semester. He tuned into a pair of online town halls organized by the university hoping to find that.

He did not.

What he got instead from those town halls last month was encouragement to return to class at the institution affectionately known as Mizzou. The university, in Columbia, would be testing only people with symptoms, and at that point, the university said people who test positive off campus were under no obligation to inform the school.

“It feels like the university doesn’t really care whether we get sick or not,” said El-Jayyousi, who is scheduled for two in-person classes, and lives at home with his parents and 90-year-old grandmother.

He’s seen the studies from researchers at Yale and Harvard that suggest testing needs to be much more widespread. He asked his instructors if he could join lectures remotely once classes begin Monday. One was considering it; the other rejected it.

“It was kind of very dismissive, like ‘so what?’” El-Jayyousi said.

But it’s an enormous “so what?” packed with fear and unknowns for Jayyousi and some 20 million other students enrolled in some level of postsecondary education in America, if they are not already online only.

As with the uncoordinated and chaotic national response to the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education has no clear guidance or set of standards to adhere to from the federal government or anywhere else. Policies for reentry onto campuses that were abruptly shut in March are all over the map.

Hundreds undecided

According to the College Crisis Initiative, or C2i, a project of Davidson College that monitors how higher ed is responding to the pandemic, there is nothing resembling a common approach. Of 2,958 institutions it follows, 151 were planning to open fully online, 729 were mostly online and 433 were taking a hybrid approach. Just 75 schools were insisting on students attending fully in person, and 614 were aiming to be primarily in-person. Some 800 others were still deciding, just weeks before instruction was to start.

The decisions often have little correlation with the public health advisories in the region. Mizzou, which is in an area with recent COVID spikes, is holding some in-person instruction and has nearly 7,000 students signed up to live in dorms and other university-owned housing. Harvard, in a region with extremely low rates of viral spread, has opted to go all online and allowed students to defer a year.

The specific circumstances colleges and universities face are as much determined by local fiscal and political dictates as by medicine and epidemiology. It is often unclear who is making the call. So it’s every-student-for-herself to chart these unknown waters, even as students (or their families) have written tuition checks for tens of thousands of dollars and signed leases for campus and off-campus housing.

And the risks — health, educational and financial — boomerang back on individual students: Two weeks after University of North Carolina students, as instructed, returned to the flagship campus in Chapel Hill with the promise of at least some in-person learning, all classes went online. Early outbreaks surged from a few students to more than 130 in a matter of days. Most undergrads have about a week to clear out of their dorms.

“It’s really tough,” said neuroscience major Luke Lawless, 20. “Chapel Hill is an amazing place, and as a senior it’s tough to know that my time’s running out — and the virus only adds to that.”

Location, location, location

C2i’s creator, Davidson education Assistant Professor Chris Marsicano, said the extreme diversity of approaches comes from the sheer diversity of schools, the penchant of many to follow the leads of more prestigious peers, and local politics.

“Some states have very strong and stringent mask requirements. Some have stronger stay-at-home orders. Others are sort of leaving it up to localities. So the confluence of politics, institutional isomorphism — that imitation — and different needs that the institutions have are driving the differences,” Marsicano said.

This virus is subject to silent spreading and asymptomatic spreading, and it’s very hard to play catch-up. – Yale professor David Paltiel

Location matters a lot, too, Marsicano said, pointing to schools like George Washington University and Boston University in urban settings where the environment is beyond the control of the school, versus a place like the University of the South in remote, rural Sewanee, Tennessee, where 90% of students will return to campus

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This story is part of a partnership that includes KBIAIllinois Public MediaSide Effects Public MediaNPR and Kaiser Health News.

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