Fall 2020 College Return: Navigating the “New Normal”

Fall 2020 has arrived and it is likely nothing that you expected your college experience to be.

After months of uncertainty, universities are returning to campus, converting to online, or some hybrid blend of the two. If you keep up with Inside Higher Ed or the Chronicle of Higher Education, or just the general news, you know that for those colleges attempting an in-person or hybrid format, there is still uncertainty about how to move forward with COVID-19 testing, liability waivers, classroom layouts and instruction, dorm life, cafeteria layouts, etc. And even if your college or university is confident in their approach to the campus reopening plan, students returning are still adjusting to wearing masks and maintaining 6 feet distance from their peers.

I cannot even begin to claim any sort of expertise in regard to what you should expect moving forward, but I can tell you that it is highly likely that classes will again be moved fully-online within the next month, if your particular college or university has not yet done so. Even with testing, following health standards and regulations by wearing masks and maintaining distance, we are (perhaps unsurprisingly) seeing what is being referred to as “clusters” of COVID-19 cases popping up at universities that just recently reopened – particularly in dorms, fraternity/sorority houses, and other student housing on- and off-campus.

The most recent and reported example of this is the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which will be moving to remote learning starting tomorrow.

(Note that Notre Dame just suspended in-person class as I am writing this.)

Of course, the general response from all sides has been one of frustration. It is pretty safe to assume at this point that no university reopening plan was going to be well-received by everyone, but in this author’s humble opinion: though it is understandably disappointing, especially for students, a remote classroom learning model is the safest option for everyone (faculty, student, staff, and administrators alike). I also think it’s equally safe to say that no one is surprised that these COVID-19 clusters are occurring. It seems a bit naive to think that young people away from home in close proximity to other young people are not going to attend gatherings and have a good time with a disregard for health and safety regulations. The social aspect of higher education is just as relevant to the in-person college experience as attending class. If students are going to be allowed to return to campus then it is inevitable that those students are going to interact with one another and, in all likelihood, be in contact with at least one student who is infected with COVID-19, thus initiating the spread.

(If anyone is uncertain as to how infectious diseases spread and would like an accurate visual depiction, I suggest watching the movie Contagion.)

But since I am not here to implement scare-tactics to encourage you to consider moving to fully online classes, which is my personal and profession recommendation, I will give you some advice for how to move forward with in-person learning and on-campus living that will minimize your risk of catching and/or spreading the virus:

(1) Wear a mask. For your safety and for the safety of others, when you are outside of your dorm room or the cafeteria, wear your mask. Most universities are mandating this, but have limited ways of enforcing it. That said, just because you may be able to get away with not wearing a mask without negative repercussions, it is the safe, smart, and responsible thing to do for yourself and others.

(2) Maintain 6 Feet Distance. This is a hard one even for me. When I walk to Starbucks with my coworkers, I rarely think twice about being next to them. I understand that when you are with your friends the last concern is whether you or they are infected. But try to maintain distance for your and their safety.

(3) Sanitize/Wash Your Hands. According to healthline.com, we touch our face an average of 16 times per hour. That equates a lot of opportunity for you to spread infection from contaminated surfaces to yourself – so wash your hands for at least 20 seconds and/or use an at least 60% alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

(4) Sanitize your space. Most colleges and universities are disinfecting classrooms daily, but in my opinion, it is important to keep your desk space clean. If you have them, bring antibacterial wipes with you to class and wipe down your desk area. (Note that many colleges are also providing wipes.) In a pinch, use your hand sanitizer.

(5) If you or someone you have been in contact with has been diagnosed with COVID-19: Quarantine. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you should quarantine at home for 14 days and avoid contact with others.

(6) If you cough or sneeze, try to do so in a tissue and throw it away.

For more information on these tips, please check out the CDC website.

Additional suggestions to the more common ones listed above are:

(7) If you are not feeling well or around anyone not feeling well: Quarantine. Work with your college and/or individual instructors to see if you can utilize remote learning for a week or two while you quarantine as a safety precaution. Trust me, if you tell a faculty member that you are not feeling well and do not want to chance coming to class, he/she will most likely appreciate your concern for him/her as well as your fellow peers, and will accommodate you as much as possible.

(8) If available to you, get tested frequently. A baseline test is a good starting place, but ultimately not very helpful if you are in constant contact with people on- or off-campus. I would personally suggest testing every couple of weeks at least, but some colleges have implemented required testing every two days, which I think is preferable. Even if it is not a requirement of your particular college, I personally recommend testing often.

(9) Avoid traveling. Many colleges are implementing travel restrictions, but I personally suggest you avoid going back home to visit your family and friends with any amount of frequency. Stay on campus or around campus for the duration of your semester. This helps not only protect your family/friends from possible exposure, but also helps prevent you potentially returning to campus and infecting your roommates, friends, professors, etc.

I realize it is not realistic to expect you to not engage with your peers or not occasionally visit home, but please do so safely and responsibly for yourself, for them, and for your faculty and college staff.

Be safe. Be smart. Be responsible. And try to make the most of your college experience, despite this unfortunate circumstance.

Regardless, I wish you a successful, happy, and healthy semester!

Your Academic Advisor


Higher Education Options for Fall 2020: Community College, Online Learning, or On-Campus Learning

With so much uncertainty around whether the economy will be reopened to the extent that students will be able to return to campus in the fall, many are wondering if they should take a semester or year off, move to a fully online option, go to a community college, or chance returning to campus (should it be open).

In my opinion: it depends.

Your options, as I see them, are three-fold and as follows:

(1) Take a semester (or year) off. This option is available to current students (as a Leave of Absence) and most newly admited, perspective students (as a Deferment).

If you are a perspective student and you just need more time to think about your options for whatever reason, ask your Admissions Officer/Counselor about the possibility of deferring for a semester or a year – generally, deferments can not be granted for more than one year from the semester of the request.

A Deferment will allow you to keep your admittance into the program without being enrolled in classes and without giving up your place in the program. If you decide not to attend the university, but contact admissions a semester later asking if you can now enroll without requesting a deferment, they will likely request that you reapply to the program. Skip the potential for a reapplication process and defer. There are generally no obligations to doing so, but you will want to check with your individual college.

If you are a current student and you need a semester or longer off, talk with your Academic Advisor about the possibility of taking a Leave of Absence.

A Leave of Absence will allow you to take off a semester or more (like deferments, they generally go up to one year) and return without having to reapply. Even as a currently enrolled student, you are not immune to being required to reapply to the program if you go MIA for a semester. (Note that the summer term is generally not counted against you, if you do not enroll, so you will likely not have to request a Leave of Absence in order to remain in the program should you sit summer out.)

(2) Take classes at your local community college. If you are a perspective student or enrolled in your first two years of a four-year university, consider taking some of your core classes at your local community college and later transferring them in. This is an especially good option if your university has decided to move fully online for the summer and fall semesters, as the tuition rates are usually considerably cheaper and you will be able to transfer these classes at a later date.

If you are interested in transferring community college classes to your current (or future) four-year university, it is imperative you speak with your advisor about the logistics of doing so. Most accredited colleges and universities have a maximum number of classes that you can transfer toward your degree and the number varies by institution. Do your homework and talk with your advisor and admissions counselor about how many classes you can transfer in. Once you are enrolled in classes, check with your institution about how those specific classes you are registered for will transfer in. Most universities have a page on the Registrar’s website or within your student portal that will allow you to see how classes will transfer. If not, or if you are not sure where to find this information, talk with your academic advisor/admissions counselor.

If you are a current student, you will want to apply to the community college as a transient student, meaning you are planning on taking classes there to later transfer to your current institution. Talk with the community college admissions counselor about how to apply as a transient student.

(3) Chance going or returning to campus. No matter what you are hearing from your university administration, faculty, family and/or friends, even if your university decides to reopen, chances are there will be some kind of “new normal” established. In other words, do not expect that things will resume as per usual, no matter what your university administration may be telling you.

Let me here make a point very clear: universities are worried about losing students if they move to a fully-online format. No matter whether the quality of education is comparable (or even in some instances better) than an in-person format, many parents and students take issue with paying full-tuition prices for online learning, because they see it as less of a quality education than in-person. University administrators know this. They also know that online tuition is very generally much cheaper at the community college and that many students will opt to take community college classes to later transfer (as described above in option 2).

The college I work for is one of the few that has been extremely forthcoming about the fall semester not returning to “normal.” They have numerous work-groups that have been considering a variety of options from full-online, to hybrid, to in-person finishing after Thanksgiving. And I have seen the responses from students and parents alike, most of which express extreme disappointment at the lack of normalcy for the on-campus students returning or starting this fall. There will be loss of student tuition dollars, regardless.

Knowing that on-campus students are especially vulnerable to spreading illness, if you attend a university that promises on-campus instruction and a return to normalcy by August: be suspicious. It is much more likely that many of these universities are going to bait and switch you, whether or not it’s intentional. They will tell you that they plan to be on-campus, but are preparing contingencies behind the scenes for a full-online or hybrid option, and will at the last possible minute, once you are already enrolled in classes and excited to attend, move to the contingency plan.

We are facing a potential collapse of higher education due to the ramifications of COVID-19. Universities are afraid of losing students. Period. Even if universities want to reopen in fall, it is very likely that the Governors, especially of those states that have already suspended all K-12 in-person class sessions for the rest of the year, are going to make the decision to continue remote learning in higher education as well. The Governor of your state, not the President of the university, has the final say on the matter. Keep that in mind.

That said, assuming your university is promising a return to campus and you are packed and ready to go: you are a brave individual! Know that more likely than not, students will not be coming back to campus after Thanksgiving break. You will likely have hybrid type sessions, six feet distance, masks – the whole shebang. Football stadiums will likely not be packed. Many of your favorite older faculty may simply refuse to teach in-person sessions, so though you are on campus, you may still be taking classes online. And if you are living on campus, know that all diseases (whether the flu or COVID-19) spread more readily in communal living. Prepare for sickness. You may think you are young, healthy, and immune, but until there is a vaccine, no one is. If you want to risk it, that is up to you. But know many of your fellow students, faculty, and staff do not and are going to be working remotely if and when at all possible.

There are options available to you. My personal suggestion is to continue your education, even if it is in a full-online format. I can tell you that online learning has come a long way and the quality of the online format, just like in-person, depends more on your instructors and what effort you put into the class. The format does not make or break your learning experience, especially in a day and age where we are all already plugged-in.

My advice is to educate yourself about the latest news in Higher Education (e.g., Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education are two of my favorites) and make the decision that is best for you. Good luck!

Your Academic Advisor