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How Are Other Universities Planning To Conduct The Fall 2020 Semester?

Now that classes are over and summer is finally here, Penn State students are anxiously counting down the days until June 15, when the university plans to announce the fate of the fall semester by.

With the way things are going amid the coronavirus pandemic, it’s pretty unlikely Penn State will provide students with a completely normal fall semester. However, as universities across the country begin announcing their plans to return in the fall, there’s increasing optimism Penn Staters will return to State College in one way or another.

As we twiddle our thumbs waiting for Penn State’s big reveal, let’s take a look at how other colleges are planning for the fall and what factors and risks they’re taking into account as they strategize procedures for an in-person semester.

Modified Semester Calendars

One aspect of planning for the fall most universities agree upon is altering academic calendars to reduce risks stemming from travel and potentially combat second waves of coronavirus cases.

Earlier this month, Syracuse and Notre Dame both announced their students would return to in-person, on-campus instruction this fall on a modified, “accelerated” schedule. The former will begin classes a week earlier than scheduled, while the latter will kick off the semester two weeks earlier. Both plan on wrapping up the semester before Thanksgiving break to prevent further potential spread of the virus.

“Bringing our students back is in effect assembling a small city of people from many parts of the nation and the world, who may bring with them pathogens to which they have been exposed,” Notre Dame President John Jenkins said in a statement. “We recognize the challenge, but we believe it is one we can meet.”

Syracuse, along with many other universities, plans to administer final exams online following Thanksgiving break.

The University of South Carolina will follow a similar schedule to Syracuse and Notre Dame. It’ll begin classes a week early but move to remote learning after Thanksgiving break.

While many schools have opted to give students a head start in August and wrap up a few weeks earlier than usual, Ithaca College took a different approach. Instead, it’ll wait to bring students on campus until October 5 to give administrators enough time to prepare and keep students safe.

“I know that October 5 might seem like a long way away but, in fact, this intentional date will allow us to fully prepare our campus, our people, our structures, our business in terms of carrying out a full academic year and, I should underscore, it will be a full academic year,” Ithaca President Shirley Collado said. “We’re just starting at a different time to get this right and be ready.”

Although few schools are on the same wavelength when it comes to unorthodox start dates, most agree modifying semester calendars could help combat the virus’ spread and keep students safe.

‘Hybrid’ Learning

Although few colleges have committed to a “hybrid” learning plan, an unorthodox return to in-person teaching could potentially help lower the risks associated with the coronavirus’ spread.

Hybrid learning can be defined in a myriad of ways. Most commons (and perhaps most appropriately for colleges), it would constitute alternating between in-person and online classes day to day and perhaps week to week. Instructors could offer large-roster lectures online and later opt to bring students into the classroom for small-group activities, exams, or presentations.

By moving classes in large lecture halls, such as Forum or Thomas 100, in Penn State’s case, universities could cut down on potential high-spread events and protect both students and faculty in one fell swoop. Hybrid models would still allow small-scale activities, such as lab work, to go on unaffected.

School Size & Demographics

Another important factor universities have considered when planning for the fall is the size of their student bodies. After all, it doesn’t take a mathematician to know the fewer people are in one place, the smaller the risk of exposure to the virus.

The California State University system, for example, already announced its plans to move classes online this fall for its 23 universities, citing concerns of coronavirus spread throughout the state. Cal State primarily serves commuter students who don’t live on campus, which makes it easier to move online than most other institutions.

Penn State, on the other hand, is in a different boat. The university serves nearly 100,000 students throughout its campuses across the state, a vast number of which live in small, cramped dorms rampant with close contact. It’ll be a lot tougher for Penn State and other, similarly large state schools to flip that switch and return to in-person instruction without making major adjustments, unlike some smaller universities.

Dorm life, including eating at large dining halls and shared living spaces, would present an enormous challenge for students amid the coronavirus pandemic, especially at Penn State and other “big” schools. Although some institutions have drawn up unique plans to adjust, there doesn’t seem to be one agreed-upon answer.

Trinity College, a small, 2,000-student school in Connecticut, plans to place every student in their own, individual dorm room — a plan that wouldn’t be economically feasible or even possible at Penn State. Boston University, on the other hand, hopes to group students in to similar “families” that share common characteristics and have little social interaction with other groups.

Increased Testing & Precautions

Colleges that have announced plans to return in the fall have consistently stated widespread testing and effective health precautions will be implemented to keep students safe on campus.

In a letter to students in late April, Purdue President Mitchell Daniels stressed the importance of coronavirus testing and said the university “will employ every measure” it can to meet the challenge.

“We intend to know as much as possible about the viral health status of our community,” Daniels wrote. “This could include pre-testing of students and staff before arrival in August, for both infection and post-infection immunity through antibodies. It will include a robust testing system during the school year, using Purdue’s own BSL-2 level laboratory for fast results.”

Universities are also expected to utilize contact tracing as much as possible and isolate those living on campus who’ve tested positive for the virus as well.

Although Penn State has yet to announce any formal plans regarding the fall semester, President Eric Barron did offer some insight into measures the university may put into place in the coming months. During a town hall Q&A session, Barron said Penn State has purchased more than 500,000 face masks for students and employees and will place approximately 2,500 sanitizer stations at entrances to campus buildings.

Athletics

As with academics, universities are taking many different approaches to revamping athletics as restrictions are gradually lifted across the country. However, as you could expect, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach.

In a landmark ruling, the NCAA voted last week to allow student-athletes in all sports to return to campus for voluntary workouts starting June 1 and lasting until June 30. However, it’s up to each individual university to strategize when and how athletes will return to their campuses.

Days later, ESPN reported the Big Ten won’t offer conference-wide guidance on how schools should go about reopening athletics and instead leave the tough decisions to individual programs. Penn State has yet to comment on the ruling or offer insight into its plans.

Despite the optimism stemming from the NCAA’s ruling, administrators around the country hold that fall sports won’t happen without students in classrooms. In fact, earlier this month, NCAA President Mark Emmert stated if a school doesn’t reopen, “they’re not going to be playing sports.”

“All of the commissioners and every president that I’ve talked to is in clear agreement: If you don’t have students on campus, you don’t have student-athletes on campus,” Emmert said. “That doesn’t mean [the university] has to be up and running in the full normal model, but you have to treat the health and well-being of the athletes as much as the regular students.”

Additionally, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf spoke on the fate of Penn State football and said a vaccine would likely be needed to see Beaver Stadium fill up this fall.

Decisions regarding athletics and academics will likely go hand-in-hand this summer as universities plan for the fall. For now, it’s anyone’s guess what on-campus life will look like come September.

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About the Author

Matt DiSanto

Matt is a junior majoring in journalism and is Onward State's managing editor. He's a huge Philadelphia sports fan, fantasy football aficionado, and washed-up drummer hailing from Collegeville, Pa. The quickest way to his heart is Margherita pizza. His favorite shows include Community, Seinfeld, and Arrested Development, and he'll probably talk your ear off about them. Follow him on Twitter @mattdisanto_ for bad sports takes or email him at [email protected]

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