How to Reopen: Let Students and Faculty Choose

As college and university administrators consider options for the upcoming academic year, they confront a dizzying array of conflicting needs of faculty members, staff and students. How will those with underlying health risks be able to return to campuses in the fall? How will international students cope with travel restrictions? How will classes in fields that demand physical presence -- like performing arts and laboratory sciences -- transition to online learning? How can first-year students be expected to start college online?

Rather than prioritize one group’s needs over those of another, colleges should let each affected person choose their own path forward. Well-structured flexibility would allow institutions to avoid the terrible conflicts between those who fear returning too soon and those who fear losing another semester of in-person learning.

The key is to move to a three-semester academic year, spread out over 52 weeks, with faculty members and students choosing which two semesters work best for them. Teaching in the fall semester would be completely, or mainly, online, with in-person instruction returning in the spring and summer semesters. This decision would dramatically thin out the population on campuses in the fall and would buy institutions time to prepare for a return to residential learning in the spring: retrofitting buildings, implementing new public health technologies, stockpiling testing kits and other supplies, developing policies for social distancing, and training faculty and staff members on how to implement them.

Every student and faculty member would select which two semesters work best: fall/spring, fall/summer, or spring/summer. Both spring and summer semesters would also offer an expanded menu of online courses for those who wish to continue teaching and learning in that way or who are still unable to return to the campus safely. And all faculty members who are teaching online would receive training.

Large numbers would almost certainly choose each of the three options. People with serious health concerns would probably choose fall/summer. They would benefit from a full year of increasing knowledge about the coronavirus, and they would have a reasonable shot at returning to campus at a time when effective treatments -- or perhaps even a vaccine -- will be available. International students may also choose this option, as time may ameliorate travel restrictions and other complications by the time they return.

Anyone whose teaching or program of study depends on physical presence, as well as those who are simply averse to online learning, might choose the two in-person semesters: spring/summer. Those who have plans for research in summer 2021 would likely choose fall/spring, as would seniors who want to graduate as quickly as possible. Students whose families suffer serious financial setbacks from the pandemic might choose fall/spring or fall/summer, to allow for a semester’s break from housing and dining costs.

And any student could register for online classes during an “off” semester by paying tuition on a per-class basis. Some students could even get a full semester ahead under this plan.

Faculty members would also get to choose. Some might simply allow the administration to slot them in for the two semesters they’re most needed. If institutional resources permit, faculty members could be hired to teach a course or two during their “off” semester, just as they do now during summer sessions.

A Sense of Agency and Control

This flexible three-semester plan offers considerable advantages. A college or university would be able to offer two semesters of full residential education while eliminating the known hazards of a residential fall semester. Fewer classes would be ungainly hybrids, with some students in the classroom and some online. The campus population density would be reduced during the two residential semesters, allowing for better social distancing practices. A winter resumption of residential learning would buy time for campuses to align their practices with new public health recommendations as the virus becomes better understood, and it would avoid the costs -- financial, health related, psychological and reputational -- to any campus that opens too soon, only to shut down due to an outbreak. And online courses would be taught and taken only by those who choose them over in-person options.

It is true that a second wave of the illness may strike in late fall or early winter, rendering the return to campuses in the spring difficult. In such a scenario, this plan could be flexibly changed: spring semester could be delayed by a few weeks, or in a worst-case scenario, a college could go fully or partially online. But the risk of a second wave occurring just then would be outweighed by the benefits of an extra four months of planning for precisely that scenario. And if the schedule gets knocked back even as far as a month, campuses could always wait to reopen and then adjust the 2021-22 academic calendar to compensate.

But by far the biggest advantage of this plan is that it would grant a sense of agency and control to the people who are affected most by institutional decisions about reopening. No students or faculty members would be on the campus who didn’t feel safe being there, and no one would be forced to teach or learn online who didn’t choose to do so (unless a raging pandemic makes residential learning impossible -- in which case we’ll all have much bigger problems before us). When we emerge from this terrible time, we should have a sense of collective goodwill toward our colleges and universities -- the kind of goodwill that comes from being listened to, cared for and accommodated in a time of crisis.

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