Fall 2020 is a looming question yet to be fully answered on shuttered campuses across the nation, as the duration of social distancing practices and potential treatments for COVID-19 remain uncertain.

Faculty, students, and parents remain in limbo after colleges and universities shut their physical doors and moved students to all-online learning as the novel coronavirus spread rapidly across the nation.

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Some students and parents have requested reimbursement for housing and dining plans, while others are reconsidering their choice of institution altogether: thirty-four percent of students in a recent poll said they plan to withdraw from their current college or university if the institution only offers a remote learning option.

An April 2020 survey by Tyton Partners shows that 40 percent of parents say their child is unlikely to return to their institution in Fall 2020 if remote learning continues.

Surveyed parents are first concerned about their child’s well-being and mental health (36 percent), followed by their continued engagement in learning and skill acquisition (32 percent) and on-time progression toward a degree (27 percent).

One thing is certain: instructional practices are likely to look drastically different in the fall, whether students return to campus or whether continued social distancing practices or a new wave of the virus keeps students learning remotely.

Many institutions turned to video conferencing tools already in place and scaled up when physical campuses closed, said Fred Singer, CEO at Echo360, a video-based learning platform.

Phase 1 of the sudden shift to online learning found educators getting online, ensuring students could get online, and figuring out the best way to teach. Phase 2, Singer said, tasks educators with finding the best way to teach students who may have home obligations and who might be in different time zones, making synchronous learning a challenge.

With colleges and universities relatively stable for the next two months when it comes to online instruction, continuity is the next big issue: How do institutions think about the next 12 months? What happens in the fall?

“I think hybrid is the right word for the next 12 months,” Singer said, noting that many universities may bring students back in the fall but revert to online learning should a second wave of the virus emerge, or some institutions could bring professors back to classrooms but keep students online.

“Think about how technologies, teaching, and instructional design work,” he said. “Schools have to design courses so they work in class or remotely. You have to think about how you’re going to get engagement if nobody is [physically] in class.”

As technology becomes more prominent in the interactions between students and teachers, teachers can examine data on how their students are learning and where they spend their time online, can identify ways to boost engagement, which drives better grades.

“Online learning has existed for a long time, and there’s a lot of good research about how it’s done. Almost all of that involves a combination of synchronous and asynchronous, and that’s what’s going to come,” Singer said.

What does Fall 2020 hold for college students and faculty?

Here’s a look at what some institutions across the nation are doing or considering for Fall 2020:

Southern New Hampshire University aims to slash its campus tuition 61 percent by 2021, bringing it down to $10,000 per year. SNHU also announced one-time “Innovation Scholarships” to all incoming campus freshmen. Those scholarships will cover 100 percent of first-year tuition for incoming freshmen, who will take courses online while living on campus and participating in available activities and experiences. Starting in 2021, it is anticipated that these students will continue in a new model at the $10,000 per year tuition rate.

“We knew that a traditional college education was increasingly out of reach for a majority of Americans before the COVID-19 pandemic hit,” said Paul LeBlanc, President and CEO, SNHU. “Now, with the nation facing massive unemployment, there are even more students who find themselves unable to afford an on-campus experience, and more than ever, students need access to high-quality, affordable degree pathways that are workforce relevant and won’t saddle them with years of debt upon graduation.”

Universities that do bring students back in the fall will also have to plan for the chance–or near-certainty–that a new wave of the virus will sicken students and could spread through campus. The University of New England and Bowdoin College are two such institutions, with leaders from each saying they are working on contingency plans for the summer and fall.

Boston University plans to resume in-person classes in the fall if safe to do so. Just how to do that, however, could look like any number of scenarios based on emerging research about COVID-19 and the effectiveness of social distancing and efforts to flatten the curve. It could mean staggered move-ins, for example, or classrooms with fewer students.

New York University plans to reopen in the fall, but also is “committed to ensuring the education continuity of all students enrolled next fall, and will offer a flexible and robust array of options to students such that they can feel confident that the University will continue to deliver high quality academic instruction, no matter the circumstances.”

At the California State University, Fullerton, faculty should prepare for a number of scenarios. “Our goal is face to face, on campus instruction, however, we are asking faculty to be prepared to start the semester teaching virtually. This is the correct and prudent choice,” noted Provost Pamella Oliver in a statement and a town hall discussion. “We want to avoid the situation we had this semester when the switch to virtual was required after the semester instruction began on campus.Our priority is the safety of the entire campus community and the educational success of our students.”

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About the Author:

Laura Ascione

Laura Ascione is the Managing Editor, Content Services at eSchool Media. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland's prestigious Philip Merrill College of Journalism. Find Laura on Twitter: @eSN_Laura


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