By Jhoana T. Merino-Martinez
FDU is assembling staff task forces to plan potential reopening scenarios for the fall semester.
The university took drastic measures in response to the coronavirus entering the United States midway through the spring semester. What started as a temporary suspension of on-campus courses on March 10 turned into a switch to virtual learning for the remainder of the spring semester on March 20. Now, the upcoming fall semester is at the center of focus.
Patty Keefe Durso, director of Writing and English at Petrocelli College, is on the committee and emailed students on Thursday, May 21, requesting feedback in the form of questions or concerns on a given plan. (Disclosure: This reporter is in the participant pool selected.)
Here is one re-opening scenario the FDU committee is considering, according to the email:
“In an attempt to mitigate logistical and health challenges related to the current pandemic, the University is considering a hybrid fall schedule that includes beginning the semester one week prior to the normal start (on August 17 rather than August 24). Students could return to campus at that time, but courses for the first three weeks would be online. After Labor Day, courses would be in-person. Courses would conclude prior to Thanksgiving, providing students with an extended winter break.”
While this is just one of the strategies being considered, it raises more questions than it answers:
- How will the shift in the semester’s size affect the curriculum?
- Is resident housing mandatory for the online portion of the semester?
- What health measures will take place for in-person classes?
- What facilities would be open on campus?
- What does this mean for international students? Athletes?
On Thursday, May 21, the CDC updated “considerations” for safety guidelines universities and colleges can follow once they decide to reopen in the fall — in addition to existing state orders in place.
Besides strict hygiene measures for public and private spaces, additional protocols are recommended such as encouraging the use of face coverings, social distancing and self-isolation without fear of academic consequences.
Under these guidelines, however, college life is bound to look different.
Should residence halls reopen, the CDC recommends that they should be kept at lower capacity — with shared spaces closed off. For the lowest possible risk, classes should continue in a completely virtual platform.
For a hybrid-structure, like what FDU is considering, the CDC encourages smaller classes and events. Students and staff will be expected to keep 6 feet apart and not share objects like learning aids that could be difficult to disinfect.
The CDC also stated that if shared spaces like exercise rooms and lounge areas are open, they should limit capacity and consider installing screen barriers. As for dining halls, pre-packaged and grab-and-go meals are recommended in lieu of buffet options.
With all of these precautions put in place, it is a question whether it is really safe to reopen at all.
Economic and Societal Pressures at Play
As social distancing measures are relaxing in the United States state by state, New Jersey Gov. Philip Murphy signed an executive order on May 14 that allows beaches, lakes and boardwalks to open at restricted capacity for the Memorial Day weekend.
However, Dr. Anthony Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, warned back in April that a potential second wave of COVID-19 is still a very real threat in the fall.
What will this mean for university students who are weighing a return to school?
The pandemic has affected some 4,234 U.S. institutions of higher learning and as many as 26 million students, according to Entangled Solutions, a San Francisco-based education consultancy.
With the pressure of a potential second wave in mind, universities are starting to plan ahead.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on Friday that of 740 colleges and universities it is tracking, 11% are considering a range of scenarios and 6% are working to propose a hybrid model to reopen in the fall.
CHART: Data on universities’ planning for the fall semester, as of May 22, via Chronicle of Higher Education.
Durso, a Task Force member, stated that the presented scenario is very tentative and still in its working stage, adding, while all these questions and more cannot be answered now, they will be soon.
“I can assure you that various Task Forces working on this are considering all of these questions as we discuss different scenarios for reopening in the fall,” said Durso via email. “Ensuring the health and safety of the entire university community is the most important part of the discussion.”