Prospective college students reflect on re-opening school for the fall

June 5, 2020

As college campuses nationwide evaluate what course of action to take for the upcoming school year, many students anticipate a return to normal, on-campus instruction in the fall. However, as coronavirus continues its path of destruction throughout the U.S., that may very well not be the case. Though students, faculty, and administrators are all eager to jump back into first-hand learning, the question as to what exactly college instruction will look like in the future remains, and is being dealt with at varying levels of specificity and officiality from region to region.

*All statistics presented in this article were accurate at the time of the article’s publication.

Syracuse University (Upstate New York Region)

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Currently reigning first in U.S. coronavirus cases and deaths,  New York began a reopening of three regions on May 15. As of May 19, New York totalled over 360,000 confirmed cases and over 20,000 deaths. Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced May 11 that the Finger Lakes, Southern Tier, and Mohawk Valley regions have met the qualifications necessary to begin moving into Phase One of reopening, which entails agriculture, low-risk recreation and business, construction, manufacturing, and retail for pick-up only. As one such area cleared to begin reopening, Syracuse University has organized subcommittees in conjunction with a “Fall 2020 Open Working Group,” which will work to develop plans for instruction this fall. 

According to an official statement by Interim Vice Chancellor and Provost John Liu, “The working group and its subcommittees have already begun meeting and will be working intensely over the summer,” as the school’s ultimate goal is to resume regular instruction on-campus for the upcoming school year. However, that is as far as Syracuse University has officially stated, with incoming and returning students both left to dangle in the suspense of what housing and academic instruction will look like for the fall. Unofficial speculation of what SU might do includes the university ensuring an individual living space for each student, which would entail rental of hotel rooms throughout the city and an extramural bussing system to transport students to and from campus. 

While I, like thousands of other incoming Syracuse freshmen, am eager to get on campus and begin my college experience as normal, I do not feel that the school/dorms should be open for regular instruction without New York (and the tri-state area as a whole) becoming successful in flattening the curve. In having so many students kept in such close quarters, college (more specifically, the dorms) is generally an easy place to get sick with even just a common cold, which can spread like wildfire once one person contracts it. With this in mind, schools must be particularly careful in what they decide to do regarding housing, which proves to be an additional obstacle when implementing proper social distancing. Additionally, there is the issue of partying and Greek life on top of whatever precautions are set for classes and housing, which will be more difficult for schools to regulate since they pertain to student life. 

Even if Syracuse were to deem it safe enough to reopen campus for instruction, there are further concerns regarding public transportation both intramurally and extramurally, which could pose a serious risk to maintaining social distancing regulations due to the time sensitivity of bus/train schedules and locations of stops. There is also the factor of commuter and graduate students, who extend Syracuse University’s network to the outside world, as they require consistent travel between school and their own personal homes. All of these variables combined make the decision of whether or not it is truly safe to reopen campus in the fall very convoluted, as there really doesn’t seem to be any foolproof method that administration can implement. Though the situation at hand is incredibly unfortunate for all involved and everybody wants to return to life as we knew it before this pandemic broke out, I believe that reopening campus would pose a pretty much inevitable and unnecessary health risk to thousands of people, especially when considering that Syracuse is comprised of approximately 15,226 undergraduate and 7,577 graduate students alone.

 Since Syracuse is right in the heart of one of the most dangerous areas for coronavirus in the U.S., it is imperative that the school takes the proper precautions in classrooms, dorms, and concerning Greek life, if it were to even resume on-campus instruction in the fall. 

Rutgers University and Temple University (Tri-State Area)

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With New Jersey following New York in the highest number of coronavirus cases, its colleges are scrambling to make a decision on whether to open for the fall semester. 

There have been 148,000 positive coronavirus cases in New Jersey, and 10,435 people have died from the virus.

Gov. Phil Murphy says that New Jersey is entering Stage 1 of his multi-stage plan to re-open the state after the coronavirus. In this stage, “low risk” activities are allowed with the proper social distancing practices. He announced that on May 22, private tennis clubs, shooting and archery ranges, batting cages, golf ranges, horseback riding, and community gardens will be allowed to restart. 

While businesses like these and restaurants have been given permission to open their doors, there has been little mention of what the plans are for colleges, high schools, and elementary schools.

Rutgers University, the state university of New Jersey, is currently trying to figure out how to make a safe transition back to campus.

 In a statement on May 13, the President of Rutgers University, Rober Baruchi said “As we look to the fall semester, our planning teams are working closely with incoming president Jonathan Holloway in developing plans that prioritize community health and safety… A preliminary plan for returning to campus will be shared with our community in the coming weeks.” 

As of right now, the university is considering having traditional in-person classes with “minimal adjustments,” beginning the school year with select activities being conducted in-person, starting the year online and transitioning into in-person classes during the term, or having a full remote year. In response to the financial strain that the coronavirus has now possibly put on their students, Rutgers is also considering freezing tuition for the 2020-2021 school year.

Temple University, in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, has also decided to freeze tuition for the 2020-2021 school year. President of Temple University, Richard M. Englert, said “With the economy in its current state, we could not in good conscience propose an increase in Temple’s tuition.” 

Pennsylvania is the state with the sixth-highest amount of coronavirus cases, behind California and its 81,456 cases. Pennsylvania currently has 66,669 coronavirus cases and 4,515 deaths. Pennsylvania’s phases of re-opening are based on a three-color system, with a red, yellow, and green stage. The red stage demands that all residents stay at home, and only “life sustaining businesses” be open. The yellow stage lifts stay at home restrictions, but doesn’t allow large gatherings or indoor recreation, and businesses can only return to in-person operations with proper safety precautions. The green stage allows most businesses to open, and gatherings to take place as long as people wear masks. Currently, 37 counties are in the yellow phase, and those in the red phase are required to follow the stay-at-home order until June 4.

Temple University President, Richard M. Elgert, has insisted that Temple will be open for the fall semester, and students will be allowed on campus for their traditional schooling. On May 18, Elgert sent an email to Temple students saying “I want to assure you and your families that we will open our fall semester in a way that will maximize your safety while delivering the quality teaching, education and research for which Temple is known.” In the email, he cites safety measures such as ‘face coverings, social distancing, hand hygiene and active health monitoring’ as the methods the school plans to employ to protect students. 

As a student who will be attending Temple University in the fall, the actions they’ve taken so far and their future plans leave me both impressed and hesitant. I find it commendable that they froze tuition for the upcoming school year to accommodate students whose family’s finances may have been negatively affected by the coronavirus pandemic. I also appreciate their administration forming committees to brainstorm the best ways to get students back on campus safely, and keep them healthy once they arrive. 

My worry is that they are planning to roll out these new measures prematurely. Temple is a large institution, with about 40,000 students enrolled in their programs, and roughly 10,000 students staying on their main campus. Temple has mentioned reducing class sizes in addition to their safety measures, but it is hard to imagine that these practices can be efficiently applied to real-life situations. Even with smaller classes, how would these classrooms get sanitized after every class? Cleaning staff would have to be available at almost every building for every school within Temple, cleaning the rooms and sanitizing desks and boards between every class. Classes aren’t even the only worry, as colleges also run sporting events, clubs, student centers, dorms, and dining halls.

Move-in day alone could cause a major outbreak at the school. I keep imagining all 10,000 students and their parents, siblings, and grandparents lugging dorm furniture and bedding throughout the campus. If one person carrying the virus sneezes on their hand and touches a doorhandle, the thousands of students and family members who touch it thereafter could contract coronavirus. This one event could be the first and last hoorah for the academic year.

I understand why colleges are eager to open, as they are losing a significant amount of money being closed, leading them to make pay cuts and adjust their budgets. Rutgers University has “identified the potential for an estimated $200 million loss in the current quarter (April 1 through June 30, 2020) and expects more significant losses in the next fiscal year” according to an article on RutgersToday

Even with the trouble it is causing them, I hope that due to the uncertainty of the growth or decline of coronavirus cases, and a second wave of the virus in the United States, universities consider administering online classes for the first semester. While taking online classes isn’t my ideal way of starting my freshman year of college, I think it is best for colleges to wait until the spring semester for traditional in-person instruction, and ensure that all students and staff are truly safe.

Though it may be too early to make an official statement on what exactly will ensue for the 2020-2021 school year, there is no doubt that the safety of students and faculty should be the number one concern for every university. 

University of Texas at Austin (Southern Region)

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As a prospective student of the University of Texas at Austin, the situation in the state concerns me. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has already re-opened the state, but it has just had its largest single-day increase in COVID-19 cases, with more than 47,000 confirmed cases. Despite this, the state continues to move forward with its re-opening order, with nonessential manufacturing, gyms and work offices opening to 25 percent capacity on Monday, May 17. UT Austin, the flagship school of the University of Texas system that enrolled 51,090 students in 2019, continues to state that they are planning to re-open. They have assembled a task force, consisting of a Health and Wellness, Academics, Student Life and Engagement, Research, Operations, and Athletics group. Each of these groups is taking a specialized approach to determine the viability of opening up the campus in the fall. One of the University’s latest updates states, “We will also need to implement new schedules and approaches for many of our fall operations in consideration of health and safety. This will include a renewed commitment to social distancing and hygiene both on and off campus — in residence halls, classrooms and throughout the larger community.” 

The school has also stated that likely there will be some in-person classes with social distancing guidelines in place, as well as online classes. There have been no statements on housing, athletics, and other concerns. The University has not released a finite plan or decision yet but assures students and faculty that a decision will be made by the end of June. 

Unfortunately, because Texas’ coronavirus cases are rising steadily, coupled with the fact that many experts advise there will most likely be a second wave in the winter, re-opening UT Austin could be a recipe for disaster. Additionally, the Texas Tribune published data that shows how Texas’ metrics conflict with White House and Texas guidelines and recommendations; for example, the state’s framework for reopening the economy included a goal to reach 30,000 tests per day, while data shows the state ran an average of 20,700 tests per day. Austin-Travis County, where the school is located, currently has 2,459 cases,

While it is possible to socially distance in classrooms, the idea of social distancing in a dorm is impossible. Even though the idea of housing one student per dorm is floating around, it doesn’t change the fact that people will still be living on top of each other and sharing bathrooms. All it takes is for one person to have the virus for it to spread not just throughout a dorm, but throughout campus as well. Considering how many students attend the University, the virus could spread fairly quickly. Additionally, the school must take into account club meetings, sororities and fraternities, and other social outings and events that are hard to avoid in college. How the school conducts business on campus is equally important as to how students conduct themselves outside of classes and off-campus. The conditions are ripe for an outbreak, and because Texas has not entirely overcome the worst at this point, it could be a disaster if the school re-opens. 

What’s especially troubling is that the state has difficulties following its own reopening framework, even as it continues to reopen businesses. At this point, I think the school should maintain its online courses, and plan for re-opening in January, or until officials get a better hold of the virus. It’s important to remember that there is still much to learn about coronavirus, and any premature actions can have negative consequences. While it would be disappointing for students who want to get the most out of Austin and its opportunities, it is the safest option at the moment. 

Human lives are non-replaceable and the most important in this situation, and should be held at the highest priority when colleges decide what to do about re-opening campus in the fall. As Dr. Fauci said, “You don’t make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline,” I implore not just UT but other college campuses across the country to remember this, and to decide to do what is best for the safety of students, faculty, and citizens of the surrounding area and country. 

**UPDATE: As of May 21, Syracuse University released an official statement announcing its implementation of an “Accelerated Schedule.” This would involve students returning to campus earlier than originally anticipated and concluding the Fall Semester when classes break for Thanksgiving. Final exams would be administered and completed virtually. UT Austin is following a similar plan, with students returning to campus at the time they normally would, and staying at home after Thanksgiving break, with reading sessions and final exams being instated remotely. 

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