There is a standing COVID-19 pandemic debate about what higher education institutions should do about Fall 2020, when the Class of 2024 will begin their postsecondary studies, and when millions of other students are supposed to return. There are many who believe that because of where things are, that schools should remained closed through the fall, and that university heads should have already made this decision. At one point, Harvard University floated the idea of postponing its Fall 2020 semester to January 2021, but its President Lawrence S. Bacow recently made the announcement that Fall 2020 will proceed. How it will proceed, delayed, partially as online, gradually as face-to-face, no one knows.
But there are a series of if-thens that colleges and universities could work out to make it possible to open up campuses for in-person classes in Fall 2020 and to ensure a safe and healthy campus community for all involved.
1. No matter when they open, these institutions should test every student, staff member, and faculty member for COVID-19. They cannot rely on the honor system to make sure everyone is not contagious.
2. Those who do test positive should be afforded every opportunity to work or teach from home, or to take classes online.
3. Those who do get sick must be quarantined and allowed to make up their work, even if this takes more than a semester, for up to two years.
4. In the event that the US remains on this disheveled trajectory of every state for itself, many schools will not be able to open by mid- or late-August. This is where opting for a quarter-system semester may be best. A 10-to-12-week semester that begins around September 30 would provide enough time for university communities to prepare for a shorter semester, and to prepare to test everyone for COVID-19. But this option only works well if universities announce this soon, between now and June 30.
5. In the event that colleges and universities wait until after early July to think through their options, that will leave only three plausible scenarios for Fall 2020 on the table. One of them would be to opt for an even shorter semester, a half-semester of six-to-eight weeks, similar to a summer session format, but for everyone, starting sometime in mid-to-late-October.
6. Or, universities could just opt for a full-blown semester (however they decide to define this) online, from start to finish, even for incoming first-years. Although this breaks the tradition of welcoming freshmen to universities and upwards of two months of Welcome Back activities, it does have the advantage of protecting everyone while the shit storm continues.
7. Or, if it comes to it, universities could cancel the semester. But this is the worst of all possible options. Contingent faculty like myself would be out of work for four months without any interventions from universities or governments. Students may opt to stay local or try for two-year institutions (already cash-strapped prior to this pandemic), which would lower enrollment and may put even more pressure on higher education institutions to cut faculty and staff.
The truth is, there are no perfect solutions here. Add to this the real possibility that the US version of this pandemic might be with us until 2022, and even then, sans an effective vaccine. Which means that we could be having this same conversation about Spring 2021, Summer 2021, Fall 2021, and Spring 2022. No one wants that, certainly not me.
Which is why options 1., 4., and/or 6. are the best ones. They offer the most in flexibility for everyone involved, and balance safety and health with the need for people to work and enroll in school. All of them are likely expensive. But it’s less expensive than paying off billions of dollars in lawsuits if students, staff, and faculty die in the middle of a lecture or an event. It’s less damaging than rendering millions to unemployment. But we will all see how well America’s college and universities will succeed and survive this pandemic.