Certainly Uncertain

Colleges have released a flurry of statements saying that they will reopen campuses in the fall. Will that plan bear out?

April 30, 2020
 
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In the last few days, a number of colleges have announced they will be reopening in the fall. Or, maybe, they "plan" to reopen. "Intend" to reopen.

The list now includes Whitworth University, Baylor University and Haverford College, as well as many others.

The numerous announcements have often included caveats, such as "if it is deemed safe" or "depending on guidance from state and federal authorities."

Some in higher ed have questioned the value of these statements (doesn't every institution "hope" to reopen in the fall?) as well as how closely a college's intentions will hew to reality.

Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at Seton Hall University, called the statements "posturing." What a college announces today really has little relation to what its semester will look like in the fall, he said.

"I don't make much of anything out of these statements," Kelchen said. "The college presidents know it's not under their control."

College presidents said they've made careful decisions with the health of students, faculty and staff members as a top priority. They said they are well aware that a move by lawmakers or a new outbreak could scuttle their plans.

Dominique Baker, a professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University, emphasized the uncertainty of the situation. "The reason that we see so many statements that say, 'This is what we plan but we are open to changing' is that so much of this is unknown," she said. "The only thing we know for sure is that there is uncertainty."

Why Announce?

With colleges predicting severe revenue losses from the fall semester, and current students threatening tuition strikes and lawsuits if their fees aren't discounted for online learning, the decision to announce a fall reopening may in some ways be a numbers game for colleges. Students have been more wary than usual about committing to a college, and over 400 institutions have pushed back their traditional deposit deadlines.

"If colleges appear hesitant about opening up in person, students may choose to attend another college, even when the statements have no relation to whether the college will actually open or not," Kelchen said. "[Tuition] is part of basically every college's decision."

A flurry of announcements has come out this week, just before May 1, which is traditionally the day by which students are asked to decide and deposit.

Erin Hennessy, vice president at TVP Communications, said that's no coincidence.

"Institutions are putting their credibility on the line with students and their families," she said, "and hoping that those students and families don't make other choices that will negatively impact institutional bottom lines."

Kelchen said the decision may also be an attempt, especially at public colleges, to please governors and lawmakers that have been pushing to open their economies as soon as possible.

But certainly some of the pressure to make an announcement of intention has come from students and families themselves.

"We know that there's a real hunger among our students and parents to just have an answer -- are you going to be open or not?" said Elizabeth MacLeod Walls, president of William Jewell College, which announced its intent to reopen last week.

The response from students and families to the college's announcement has been overwhelmingly positive, she said, which social media posts from students bear out.

What Does a Reopening Look Like?

MacLeod Walls said William Jewell is uniquely situated to be able to open in the fall.

The campus is located in Liberty, Mo., which is much less dense than other parts of the country. Total enrollment is under 1,000 students, and the college has the inventory to give every student a single room. The administration has partnered with a bio-risk firm to assess the threat throughout the summer and the semester. And like other presidents, MacLeod Walls stressed that reopening in the fall is only an intention, not a guarantee. A serious outbreak or guidance from state and local public health officials would obviously change things, and the safety of students and staff is of utmost importance.

Radford University, with a western Virginia campus that enrolls roughly 9,000 students, similarly announced this week that it will be reopening in the fall, although with less wiggle room and fewer caveats than many other institutional announcements.

"The campus reopening will include full operations, such as on-campus housing and dining services, followed by face-to-face instruction beginning on Aug. 24," the university said on its website. "The reopening process will begin on Aug. 3."

But Brian Hemphill, president of Radford, said there is surely some uncertainty and that the college is planning for several different contingencies. Changes to operations, such as limiting class sizes or altering sports events, are most definitely on the table, he said.

Some of the concern about fall reopenings is focused on faculty and staff members, who are typically more likely than students to be of advanced age or to have underlying health conditions, both which make a person more vulnerable to COVID-19.

While students can ostensibly choose not to attend college, or take a semester off, that calculus is more difficult for those who depend on their institution for a paycheck.

At William Jewell, MacLeod Walls said no student or faculty member will be forced to come to campus. Faculty will still have the option to teach online if they want, and students will have the option to attend their classes online. The college already accommodates any student who cannot attend classes in person, she said.

"We will have to assess, I think, a little more deeply how many students are going to require that so that we can be ready for it," she said.

At Radford, the reopening plan calls for some staff to return to campus shortly after June 10, the date Virginia's stay-at-home order is set to be lifted.

Responding to a question about faculty or staff who may feeling uncomfortable returning, Hemphill emphasized the role of social distancing and personal protective equipment.

"We're going to make sure that as we are moving forward and making decisions on the phased return of our staff and then our faculty, we're going to make sure that social distancing is very much a part of those conversations," he said. "We're going to make sure we're thinking about the importance of PPE and providing the appropriate safety measures to ensure the health, safety and well-being of our faculty and staff."

As for students, Hemphill said Radford would work with them on an individual basis.

Jim Keller, a higher education lawyer at the law firm Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr, said if colleges choose to reopen, they may see potential disability accommodations claims from staff or students with underlying conditions. Those claims would not be likely to succeed as long as colleges take reasonable effort to accommodate people, he said.

Colleges that reopen may also see tort claims from parents or students if they are exposed to COVID-19 on campus, Keller said, although those also would be unlikely to succeed.

Some institutions have been thinking about incorporating informed consent forms or liability waivers into their enrollment contracts, Keller said. But the optics of that decision, combined with the varying enforceability of waivers in different states, may make those forms less than ideal for colleges.

What If You’re Wrong?

Hennessy, from TVP Communications, which is a higher education-focused firm, said colleges are rolling the dice with their decision making.

"Every institution is making a bet and hoping it's the right one, and we're not going to know if its the right one for a while," she said. "The circumstances around the virus have changed so rapidly that making a bold statement about your plan of action for August or September in late April almost guarantees that you're going to have to eat some number of your words when we get to the fall."

Having to go back on commitments might make some colleges look bad, she said. "How are those students and families going to feel if they put their trust in an institution that says, 'We intend to open face-to-face in the fall' and then they have to backtrack later this summer?"

Hennessy said it's hard to give advice to colleges at this stage, but she would emphasize communicating frequently and transparently to make sure that, even if people aren't happy with a decision, they know how an administration arrived at it.

"That's the way you maintain credibility as an institution," she said.

Some colleges, such as Cornell University, East Tennessee State University and Shenandoah University, have said they are unlikely to make an announcement for a couple of weeks. Colleges such as San José State University and California State University at Fullerton have been more open than others about planning for an online semester, leading to some amount of groaning and concern from their students on social media.

But Kelchen says the California State University system is unique because its campuses have no trouble filling seats, and those institutions likely will not regret their decision.

"They're not really concerned about enrolling enough students. They have plenty of students they can choose from," he said. "If anything, saying that we're prepared to go online may reassure some students who are choosing colleges."

Kelchen said that as far as firm commitments, the rubber won't meet the road until late June or early July.

"Don't pay attention to what colleges are saying now," he said. "Wait to see what they're saying two months from now."

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