Fall Semester Will Hardly Be Normal

Claudia Neuhauser and Brian Herman

Whoever said “[t]he definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” surely did not foresee the COVID crisis we find ourselves in. A little less than a month before residential colleges and universities open their doors for the fall semester, the expectation is (again) that students will have a residential experience, classes will be taught face-to-face, and college athletics can return to in-person attendance.

Colleges were similarly optimistic last year around this time: The 2020 summer wave peaked on July 20 when the 7-day moving average of COVID cases reached 68,709. Numbers started to go down, and many were hopeful that we would not see a repeat of Spring 2020 when students were sent home and instruction went online. By the middle of the fall semester, however, it was clear that we were heading into the next outbreak. Many institutions decided to go at least partially online, either right from the beginning or halfway through the semester, and many did not return at all after Thanksgiving. Hardly a normal fall semester. 

This year, the number of daily new cases is still rapidly increasing. This is due to the rapid spread of the Delta variant, which causes higher viral particle loads in infected individuals and can even infect vaccinated individuals, although the morbidity and mortality in vaccinated individuals are much lower than in non-vaccinated individuals. A combination of the much more contagious Delta variant, less than half the U.S. population fully vaccinated, and an end of many restrictions gave us another wave that is just getting into gear, despite the promise that this will all be over by Independence Day. At the end of June, the number of daily new cases was quite low, but even by July 4, it was already clear that this number was creeping up again. On July 27, the 7-day moving average was 63,248, and the number of cases is currently increasing by 145% every two weeks, according to the New York Times. We should know by now what exponential growth looks like, and so we should not be surprised to find ourselves in another wave. 

It is understandable that people are tired of the pandemic and want to return to their pre-pandemic lives. But the virus does not seem to be tired of us. A strategy of opening and leaving it up to individual responsibility may not be sufficient to get this wave quickly under control or to avoid future waves every time a more contagious strain sweeps the globe. Despite a daily barrage of bad news, the vaccination rate is holding steady at a rate that is much too low to keep the pandemic under control. The low vaccination rate among younger people is particularly troublesome for colleges. And so, we find ourselves in a similar situation as last year, prompting the CDC on July 27 to revise its mask guidance to urge masking in schools and indoors in COVID hot spots, even for vaccinated individuals, and the Biden administration to consider a vaccine mandate for all federal employees.

We seem to still be at the beginning of this wave, and so it is unlikely that we’ll be done with it a month from now when many colleges and universities are starting to welcome back students into their dorms and classrooms. Back in April of this year, we argued that for colleges and universities to hold in-person classes this fall, they should mandate vaccinationsThe Chronicle of Higher Education has identified about 600 colleges and universities that are requiring students or employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The rest, and this is a much larger group considering that there are over four thousand colleges and universities in the U.S., does not have a vaccination requirement. Depending on the state, there may not even be mask requirements. 

It is not difficult to predict what will happen when we invite the virus back on campus this fall semester. Vaccination rates among younger people are particularly low, and if there is no vaccine requirement, we should expect students to have similar vaccination rates as the counties they are coming from. We should expect that there will be students who will bring the virus with them as they return to campus and infect others, mostly unvaccinated but also vaccinated students, and likely also staff and faculty as they begin to interact more. Many colleges and universities will not have adequate testing and tracing programs, and so the virus will spread undetected and uncontrolled before it becomes obvious that the campus community is in the middle of a local outbreak. 

It may not take long before a large number of students, faculty, and staff find themselves in self-quarantine or self-isolation, and before we know it, faculty will struggle to manage face-to-face instruction and to provide instructions to those who cannot show up in the classroom. Students who are sick may fall behind and may be unable to catch up if they are away for two or more weeks. Dormitories may have to move students to isolate sick students on separate floors. Instructors who fall ill may be unable to teach, and it may be difficult to find someone who can substitute. Co-curricular activities may have to be canceled to limit contact among students.

As we have seen in the past academic year, it is not just the college or university that is affected. Colleges and universities are embedded in communities. Students live and work off-campus and encounter the local population. A New York Times article last year in December talked about this: “Links between university outbreaks and deaths in the wider community [were] often indirect and difficult to document, but some health experts say there are clear signs of a connection.”

What should be clear after three semesters of dealing with the virus is that we cannot assume that we can bring students back on campus and expect a normal experience without taking significant precautions. Requiring the vaccine still seems the best way in the current situation, but many presidents and chancellors feel that their hands are tied behind their backs. They cannot or don’t want to wade into the political battle of requiring vaccination. In some states with Republican legislators and governors, they are legislatively and legally prevented from even asking about vaccine status and cannot require masks. Even if they could, there are states, like Minnesota, where it is very easy to get a non-medical exemption, and so a requirement may not do all that much. What institutions are left with is having Plan B ready for roll-out when face-to-face instruction is not possible anymore. In many cases, the plans won’t look any different from the plans they had a year ago.

When the pandemic first hit, there was a lot of talk about the ‘new normal’ and that higher education will significantly change. There was some optimism about changing the instructional model since we were surprisingly successful in pivoting from face-to-face instruction to an online environment. People were talking about that this could spell the end of the lecture and students could get more experiential learning opportunities instead. However, what we see now is that the past academic year was exhausting, and many people simply want to go back to what it looked like before the pandemic hit. 

This gets us back to the quote in the beginning: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” This won’t be the last semester where we have to deal with this virus. The hope to be able to control COVID-19 has faded. Instead, we are being prepared by politicians and public health officials that we need to learn to live with it. This means that we will have COVID-19 on our campuses for years to come. 

Continuing to pivot between online and face-to-face instruction depending on the infection rate could be a strategy but feels like being stuck in an infinite loop with no escape. We may need to start thinking seriously about different residential models since it may simply not be possible to bring tens of thousands of students at the same time on our campuses and keep the virus at bay. 

The private sector, where a large percentage of the workforce is sitting in open office spaces, is facing similar problems, and we may want to get together to come up with new models for learning and working. We have seen that students can learn online and that there are many jobs that can be done from home. While nobody wants this to be the exclusive model of the future, a combination of virtual and real places where we work and study is likely in our future. It is up to us to design the future so that we can get together at times, even in larger groups, without risking another outbreak. The future may include models where students learn and socialize in a hybrid environment with some activities entirely in virtual environments, such as the traditional 50-minute lectures, and other activities in smaller groups with the occasional large event, such as convocation or graduation or a football or basketball game. We may also move away from the traditional academic year of two 16-week sessions with the campus largely empty the rest of the year and, instead, keep our campuses open year-round to decrease the student density on campus.

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