Colleges Prepare for Possible Cancellation of In-Person Classes Until 2021

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health researchers said the U.S. may have to continue some forms of social distancing through 2022.
Published: April 16, 2020

Although many colleges and universities are hoping to reopen for the fall semester, some are considering the possibility that in-person classes may not be able to resume until next year.

Boston University (BU) was one of the first schools to discuss the potential of a 2021 reopening when there are fewer restrictions due to coronavirus. The campus already canceled all in-person summer activities and will continue to offer remote learning courses and “minimal housing and dining services” throughout the summer, reports CNN. Although officials are planning for a fall return, it also has a contingency plan for if officials say it isn’t safe to reopen campus by then.

“The Recovery Plan recognizes that if, in the unlikely event that public health officials deem it unsafe to open in the fall of 2020, then the University’s contingency plan envisions the need to consider a later in-person return, perhaps in January 2021,” the university said in a statement on April 10.

Harvard University, located less than two miles from BU, is also preparing for a possible 2021 return. In an interview last week, President Lawrence Bacow said the school is “focused on the fall” but that by the time decisions have to be made about enrollment and teaching, “there will still be a tremendous amount of uncertainty.”

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Across the country at Oregon State University, spokesman Steve Clark told The Oregonian that a fall date is also uncertain.

“Only the novel coronavirus will determine what happens,” he said. “We can hope for a full return in fall 2020, but hope is not a strategy. So that is why we are going to prepare as best we can for every possible contingency.”

Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and visiting scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said colleges are doing the right thing by planning for all possibilities.

“I think colleges should all definitely make plans for delaying start dates and for intermittent closings and reopenings, because epidemiology modeling suggests we may have to go into open and close waves until potentially even 2022,” he said.

On Tuesday, researchers from the Chan school said some degree of social distancing may still be needed in the United States until 2022 to stop large outbreaks.

Colleges Changing Grading Systems

Colleges are also making decisions on how students will be graded for the spring 2020 semester. Many are changing their grading policies from letter grades to Pass/Fail, including Yale University in New Haven, Conn., and Columbia University in New York City.

“I think that it’s a great alternative and I hope that colleges all over the country are going to commit to making that move,” Columbia Professor Jenny Davison told CNN. “To me, it really seems unconscionable for us to do anything else.”

At BU, all undergraduate students will be given a letter grade in each of their classes upon completion of the coursework. Students will then have the option to designate any of their courses taken in spring 2020 as “Credit/No Credit.”

This designation differs from Pass/Fail, according to the school’s website, because students can count Credit/No Credit courses toward their major or minor. The designation also will not impact a student’s GPA.

Colby College in Maine, the University of California Davis and the University of Vermont are also giving students the option to take a course for a grade or as Pass/Fail, according to NPR.

“Our goal was to give students as much flexibility and choice as possible and allow our students to focus on learning and doing their best work knowing that they have control over how they are evaluated,” said Margaret McFadden, who oversaw the changes to Colby’s grading system.

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