How campuses are deciding between an in-person or online fall

The short answer? It's complicated

Good morning, and TGIF. Today marks seven days of newsletters. And many more to come.

Here, we’ll walk you through the arguments for and against reopening campuses in the fall, and it’s ... well, complicated.

🚨ACTION: We are still collecting student responses on fall semester preferences and Colorado College’s pandemic response this semester. Do us a favor and take the survey by Monday here, and share it with your friends. Be on the lookout for a future newsletter with our findings.

➡️ICYMI: Yesterday, we took you behind the scenes of distance-learning with ITS and explained the yearlong voluntary furlough offered to CC employees.

To open, or not to open? Ethics play into decisions on reopening for the fall

What’s keeping college presidents up at night: the “ethics” of reopening campuses in the fall.  Frank Bruni’s plea to protect colleges and universities, especially the humanities, in today’s edition of The New York Times, hits on some of the arguments. We break down some of the key points from both ends of the spectrum. 

Arguments for reopening:

  1. Accessibility. After students scattered across the country to finish their classes remotely, everyone’s workspaces at home became different. Some students may not have safe learning environments. Some may not have reliable technology or Internet connections. Students might face financial or psychological barriers to distance-learning — barriers that could affect their decision to enroll in the fall, should classes continue online.

  1. Revenue. In an opinion piece for The New York Times, Brown University President Christina Paxson argued the nearly $14 billion higher-ed received from the CARES Act isn’t enough to alleviate the effects of COVID-19. For some small colleges and universities that are dependent on tuition, not opening campus in the fall could lead to doors shutting for good. For CC, outgoing president Jill Tiefenthaler wrote that the budget will be “very tight.” An excerpt from her May 4 comments: “As a result of the pandemic, we estimate unanticipated expenses and revenue losses will total about $6-7 million in the current fiscal year. This includes room and board refunds to students; tuition refunds to students not taking courses in Blocks 7 and 8; emergency food, travel, and other assistance to students; Fine Arts Center revenue losses; the decline in summer conference revenue; and an expected decline in giving to the annual fund.” 

  1. Student feedback. Purdue University President Mitch Daniels said in The Washington Post that Purdue’s re-enrollment rates for upperclassmen are normal right now and tuition deposits by incoming freshmen are higher than ever. If students want to come back and are able to do so, he argues, choosing not to reopen would be “an unacceptable breach of duty.” Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, argued similarly in a piece for The New York Times — that students lose important parts of a college education when classes are online. Think: research and lab opportunities, heated classroom debates, extracurricular clubs, and personal interactions with faculty.

  1. Economic impact. In fall 2018, postsecondary institutions employed nearly 4 million people, and in 2016-17, U.S. degree-granting postsecondary institutions spent around $584 billion. For some already worried about the economy, the foreseen economic impact is something to consider in a school’s decision whether or not to reopen. 

  1. Slow vaccine development. “Isn’t that an argument against reopening?” you may wonder. (Spoiler: it’s an argument for both sides). Though it may sound contradictory at first, Brown University President Christina Paxson argues that because we don’t know when an effective vaccine for COVID-19 will be available, colleges and universities may need to find ways to trek on without it, especially if masks and social distancing become the new normal.

Arguments against reopening:

  1. No vaccine. Irina Mikhalevich, a philosophy professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, and Russell Powell, a philosophy professor at Boston University, argue in Inside Higher Ed that a lack of a COVID-19 vaccine and/or a lack of available and reliable testing capabilities should be enough reasons not to bring students back to campus in the fall. They also write that establishing herd immunity is unlikely and largely impractical. Additionally, the CDC expects things to get worse during flu season, which will start in the fall. “The virus is poised to tear through our student and faculty bodies just as it is now ravaging nursing homes, prisons and meatpacking plants,” they wrote. “But unlike cruise ships, nursing homes, food services and prisons, universities can operate remotely with only minimal disruption to their mission.”

  1. Difficulties with social distancing. Convincing an entire student body to constantly adhere to social distancing measures when they are used to full classrooms and crowded parties on campus is a large ask, even if students know it’s for their own good. A recent study by Cornell University researchers found that when students attend multiple classes or gatherings — for example, a morning class, lunch meeting and afternoon adjunct at CC, combined with every interaction in between — the risk of spreading COVID-19 increases. Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, sums up the argument against bringing students back in an article for The Atlantic: “Because we do not yet have the ability to bring students and staff back to campus while keeping them safe and healthy, we simply cannot return to business as usual. To do so constitutes an abdication of our moral responsibility as leaders.” 

  1. Potential for lawsuits. Colleges are aware of the possibility of litigation and are already seeking federal protections from lawsuits if someone were to get sick. Generally, organizations are protected from suits by liability laws that require them to take “reasonable steps” to protect people. “But as the nation continues to struggle to find a way to stem the spread of coronavirus, there is no definition of what steps would protect colleges from being held legally liable,” an Inside Higher Ed article explains. If college leaders fear damaging lawsuits stemming from even a single COVID-19 case, they may be less willing to invite everyone back to campus in August. There aren’t any defined guidelines or protections for colleges facing COVID-19 related lawsuits, but that hasn’t stopped students from suing already. Students from dozens of schools are already involved in class action lawsuits over tuition reimbursements from the portion of the spring semester that took place online.

  1. Peer pressure. The California State University system, which has nearly 482,000 students, more than 53,000 faculty and staff, and 23 campuses, announced this month that their plan for the fall semester is for it to mostly take place online with “limited exceptions for in-person teaching, learning and research activities that cannot be delivered virtually,” its chancellor said in a statement. Some exceptions could be made for activities such as clinical or lab work, but only if “there are sufficient resources available and protocols in place to assure that rigorous health and safety requirements are in place.” Colorado College does not have 22 other campuses to coordinate with, but the precedent of such a large university system committing to extend distance learning could influence other schools when they make their own decisions. 

So, have you taken a side yet? 

We sure haven’t, and we don’t envy the college and university presidents making these decisions right now. If you have thoughts to add to this debate, shoot us an email

About the CC COVID-19 Reporting Project

The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project is a student-faculty collaboration by Colorado College student journalists Miriam Brown and Arielle Gordon, Journalism Institute Director Steven Hayward, Visiting Assistant Professor of Journalism Corey Hutchins, and Assistant Professor of English Najnin Islam. Work by Phoebe Lostroh, Associate Professor of Molecular Biology at CC and National Science Foundation Program Director in Genetic Mechanisms, Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, will appear from time to time.

The project seeks to provide frequent updates about CC and other higher education institutions during the pandemic by providing original reporting, analysis, interviews with campus leaders, and context about what state and national headlines mean for the CC community. 

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