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5 Approaches to the Fall Semester - How Universities are Planning to Open


By Maureen O. Hall, Suzan Brinker, Gregory B. Milton

Tarragona Associates, 6/25/20


As Fall 2020 approaches, colleges and universities are announcing plans for how to navigate the continuing Covid-19 pandemic. Tarragona Associates has mapped out the five most common scenarios, along with examples of institutions to illustrate them.


Last month, in an Inside Higher Ed article, Edward Maloney and Joshua Kim offered 15 scenarios for campuses to re-start while maintaining low campus density in this COVID-19 era, and some of these scenarios describe real approaches applied by U.S. colleges. Currently, only 12.5% of the over 1000 colleges tracked by the Chronicle of Higher Education are either “waiting to decide” (4.5%) or “considering a range of scenarios” (8%), which means most institutions have begun implementing their re-opening strategies. The large majority are considering some form of in-person return (64%), but there is broad variation across this definition. Of these, five major approaches deserve exploration:

  1. In-Person: Start Early, End Early

  2. In-Person: Regular Start, Remote End

  3. Hyflex Model

  4. Focused Student Populations - Reduced Campus Density

  5. Fully Online

Concerns about maintaining student, faculty, and staff health, delivering a full-range of courses to maintain academic progress, as well as the capabilities of the physical and virtual environments of each institution, drive both planning and uncertainty. The American College Health Association developed a 20-page document outlining considerations colleges should take into account as they prepare for a healthy and safe return to campus, and most colleges are identifying ways to comply:

  • ensuring physical distancing;

  • establishing a supply chain to ensure they have a sufficient supply of personal protective equipment;

  • creating enhanced cleaning protocols;

  • establishing contact tracing, quarantine & isolation protocols;

All while developing effective models for delivering quality teaching practices.



1) In-Person: Start Early, End Early

Starting early and ending early, as planned by the University of Notre Dame and Pepperdine University, poses the significant advantage of potentially getting ahead of a resurgence of Covid-19 cases this Winter. With a Fall semester ending by Thanksgiving instead of the weeks leading up to Christmas, as is usually the case, students can return home for an extended winter break. Institutions following this plan might take varying approaches to whether classes start online and move to on-campus instruction a few weeks into the semester, but the general intent of this scenario focuses on minimizing the time students would spend on campus during what many consider to be an inevitable resurgence of the virus when colder weather returns.


Notre Dame will use a five phased opening model approach for the Fall semester. The University is scheduled to start two weeks earlier than usual, on August 10, and conclude their Fall semester on November 20. Notre Dame will open all campus buildings, with some restrictions in place, and will phase-in the return of employees and students to campus. The university will work to provide a safe and healthy environment when classes resume by following CDC guidelines: faculty and staff will be required to conduct daily temperature checks before coming to campus, along with other safety precautions, and the university is putting in additional social distancing protocols for all common spaces. Students will begin to arrive on campus in phases starting late July (Phase 4).


Many faculty and staff will be back on campus in late July, with most back at the start of the semester. The vast majority of undergraduate and graduate students will return in the Fall on a modified schedule. Notre Dame is building flexibility into course instruction by asking faculty to deliver their courses with most students in the classroom, knowing that some students will be remote. Faculty are also asked to record sessions to allow students to preview previous material. Having the remote platform will make it easier for students who are unable to return to campus and for those who might be in isolation or quarantine to continue their studies.



2) In-Person: Regular Start, Remote End

Michigan State University intends to proceed with the Fall semester by bringing students, faculty, and staff back to campus. The university will open on September 2 as previously scheduled, but will end in-person instruction on November 25 and move to remote for the last three weeks of the semester. The final weeks of the semester will include remote final instruction, study sessions, and final exams.


However, MSU also plans to expand its offerings of online and remote courses. Faculty have been asked to put half of their courses online, move a quarter of their classes to a hybrid model, and the balance of their courses should be in-person taught in large rooms to facilitate six-feet physical distancing. Students unable to return to campus for health or other reasons have an opportunity to continue progress toward their degree via the enhanced offering of remote classes. New and returning international students unable to make it to campus will be assisted with remote classes.


Many university personnel will continue to work from home but those deemed necessary to return to campus will have an established Return-to-Work Procedure and Protocol framework to follow. Employees coming to campus must complete an online health screening form each day they come on campus. Students, visitors, and employees must wear face coverings, practice good personal hygiene, and practice social distancing. With increased efforts to ensure social distancing, this scenario will still pose difficulties for face-to-face interactions, demanding extensive precautions to ensure the mental and physical health of faculty, staff, and students.



3) Hyflex Model

Northeastern University in Boston has announced the NUFlex Plan for their Fall term which places the choice for whether to be on campus or online in the hands of faculty, staff and students. Over the Summer, NU is instituting a phased re-introduction of faculty and staff to campus, stressing the need to be physically present on campus to complete work, while respecting the preferences of individual employees. In addition, alternative work schedules and location are possible, using options such as staggered arrival/departure, alternating between onsite and remote work days for employees in the same labs and offices, and moving people to different offices and workstations to enable social distancing. The NUFlex model also allows for staff to make autonomous decisions about whether to come into the office or work from home, as their responsibilities permit.


For instruction in the Fall, the university has made a significant effort to equip every classroom with hybrid learning technology in order to empower students and instructors to interact from wherever they prefer. Northeastern will implement “a hybrid learning model that utilizes new technology and flexible schedules to enable students and faculty to learn and teach from anywhere, anytime.” Faculty and students will have autonomy to decide whether, and when, to attend classes in person or remotely. Some may decide to start in-person and later move to remote, or vice-versa, with schedules provided to students of which classes will be available in-person. In turn, the students will be able to indicate their intentions and will be able to update their schedule as the term proceeds. Faculty and students in courses on campus will be required to wear face coverings and sit at least six feet apart from one another.


For the workplace and in residences, NU has produced a series of detailed protocols for COVID-19 Hygiene and Safety Guideline. Face coverings, healthy distancing, cleaning and sanitizing spaces regularly are defined for regular application. Students who choose to live on campus will be required to maintain their housing for the entire semester.


NUFlex may not be a one-time contingency strategy. Down the road, this new approach could save the university office space, which is expensive in the heart of Boston and in the other areas where Northeastern has established campuses: Seattle, the San Francisco Bay Area, Vancouver, Toronto, North Carolina, and London.



4) Focused Student Populations - Reduced Campus Density

Bowie State University plans to start their semester on August 31 and transition all classes to remote learning after Thanksgiving. The university’s strategy is to significantly reduce the density of the student population on campus. They plan to deliver a hybrid first-year intensive model. Bowie will focus on offering in-person classes primarily to first-year students. The focus on this group of students will permit physical distancing in residence halls and ensure that students can have a full first-year experience. They may offer in-person classes for some upper class students, especially if their programs and coursework are difficult to deliver remotely.


Instruction will be delivered with a mix of in-person, hybrid, and fully remote. All classes will be developed to be delivered remotely to provide flexibility for students and faculty. Classes will move to a remote format after the Thanksgiving break.


Bowie will have a four phase operations plan for the return of faculty and staff. They anticipate Phase One will begin on June 29 and move to Phase Two in early August. They have developed Faculty & Staff Return Guidance that outlines protocols for remote and on campus expectations. Bowie will have some employees work remotely and others in-person to manage the density of the office environment, while still ensuring that the operations of all university programs and services are fully functional.



5) Fully Online

The California State University system decided relatively quickly (with a policy announced May 12) to open all 23 campuses, with over 481,000 students, fully online for Fall 2020. According to the system Chancellor, Timothy White, the decision was motivated by public health forecasts and the desire to provide appropriate time and resources for faculty and staff to prepare for the Fall term. “If we would have waited until summer, there would not have been enough time or the chance to invest in training and technology to make the fall term as robust as possible for those experiences that have to be done virtually.”


Implementation is driven by each campus individually, with most recognizing that some learning will require in-person scheduling. At San Jose State University, a majority of courses will remain virtual while activities such as labs, dance studios, music instruction, art programs, research, graduate seminars, and clinical sessions may be adapted for in-person instruction to meet physical distancing and other public health guidelines. Across the CSU system, campuses are deploying technology and training to support continued faculty development and to enhance the student experience in their online courses.


Student residency remains an issue. Some campuses, like CSU Chico, will offer limited student housing (single-room accommodation) to a reduced number of their students, with approval from state health experts and the chancellor’s office. As with the other campuses, CSU Chico will deploy COVID-19 training and safety guidelines, including regular self-monitoring and cleaning protocols, for on-campus students, faculty, and staff. CSU Tuition and fees will not be reduced, although specific, on-campus fees may be waived, depending on individual decisions (CSU Chico will only charge double-occupancy rates for single-room residents, for example). Student satisfaction with their academic progress and the price of their virtual experience remain unknown.



Uncertainty Remains

These plans, and those of colleges and universities across the country, may be overwhelmed by circumstances, if infections and hospitalizations surge and public health policies impose new closures. Even if there are no drastic changes, not everyone is convinced that universities are truly prepared. One Yale University student has presented some of the potential problems:

  • in the reality of student life - living, studying, and socializing in close quarters - safety guidelines will be met with difficulty, if at all;

  • sick students, and those exposed to the infection, will require space for treatment and quarantine.

  • policies around long absences, for sick students and sick faculty, will need nuance, flexibility, and methods to fill the gaps;

  • shortened academic terms and the loss of mid-term breaks will reduce the amount of time students have to prepare for exams and complete projects;

  • Even though serious illness and death rates are lower for college-age people, university populations can be quite large. Are institutions prepared for the death of a dozen or more of their community?


Back in early April, Boston University floated the possibility that they might start their academic year in January 2021, but currently no U.S. college or university is planning for this approach. Hopefully, none will be required to take this drastic step.


On-campus returns present many difficulties. As we have described here, many institutions are working innovatively to provide learning with flexibility and safety. Online options will continue at some institutions as the primary path for Fall, but these leave challenges for delivering high-quality learning to all in ways that meet student expectations. Flexibility, collaboration, and innovation must be embraced by each institution to truly prepare for the 2020-2021 academic year.



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About the Authors

Maureen O. Hall, M.A., is a higher education professional with over 20 years of experience managing business school graduate programs and student affairs. She has worked in public and private institutions. She has been successful in enhancing student and faculty engagement with her office through establishing relationships built on trust, excellent performance, respect, and open communication.

Suzan Brinker, PhD, has dedicated her career to helping higher education initiatives build strong value propositions and communicating them to the right audiences. Having served as Director of Marketing at both Penn State and Northeastern University, Suzan now leads Viv Higher Education and consults for Tarragona Associates. She specializes in online education, internationalization, and enrollment marketing

Gregory B Milton, Ph.D., brings 30 years’ experience in the professional development, training and academic fields to his focus on creating innovative lifelong learning opportunities for all learners. He employs an entrepreneurial approach to facilitating teams, always seeking to better achieve objectives, more efficiently and with higher quality, objectives that provide student-centric success through market-driven digital learning opportunities and enrollment growth.

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