By Carol Zimmermann
WASHINGTON (CNS) — The fall semester at Catholic colleges and universities around the country will look and feel very different.
As the nation continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic, university life is cautiously stepping back into the fray of bringing students, faculty and staff members back together under extreme restrictions.
Crowded lecture halls, sporting events and dining halls will be a thing of the past. Instead, classes will either be predominantly online or significantly smaller with separated seating and plexiglass barriers. Dorms will be at reduced capacities and primarily singles-only rooms. Grab and go meals will replace self-serve buffets in dining halls and fall sports at many schools have already been canceled.
And that’s just the start.
Catholic colleges and universities, like their public and private counterparts nationwide, will be operating on an entirely different playbook this fall. School emergency response teams at most colleges have put together COVID-19 guidelines detailing what’s required at every level of university life, with plenty of emphasis on social distancing, sanitizing, health checks and contact-free services.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking 1,250 colleges, reported July 26 that 50% of colleges and universities are planning in-person classes this fall and 35% are planning a hybrid model. Only 12% of institutions will start the semester with just online programs; 2.7% are considering a range of scenarios and less than 1% were still undecided.
These plans all come with the caveat that they are subject to change following national and local guidelines and COVID-19’s unpredicted spread.
Catholic higher education’s fall plan is a similar mix of online, in-person and hybrid scenarios.
A chart developed by the Association of Jesuit College and Universities shows that most Jesuit schools across the country are planning a hybrid combination of in-person and online classes with only a few schools saying they were specifically one or the other. Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, Loyola University Chicago and the University of San Francisco plan to offer primarily remote learning while Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, Loyola University New Orleans, St. Louis University and Xavier University in Cincinnati plan to be in-person.
Georgetown University, which had planned to be a mix of in-person and online, announced July 29 that it would be virtual for the fall semester due to the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic and new restrictions put in place by Washington’s mayor.
“This was a very difficult decision — and one that I know will disappoint members of our community who have been eagerly anticipating a return to campus,” the university’s president, John DeGioia, said in an announcement on the university’s website.
Another change for almost all U.S. colleges this fall is the academic calendar. Most colleges are starting earlier, eliminating fall holidays and ending their in-person session either just before Thanksgiving break or concluding the semester virtually, with online exams, in the first few weeks of December.
One of the first Catholic colleges to announce they were using this plan was the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. A letter to faculty posted May 18 by the university’s president, Holy Cross Father John Jenkins, said the school would begin classes during the week of Aug. 10 and continue without a fall break in order to end the semester before Thanksgiving. By not having breaks, the school hopes to eliminate students coming back to campus with potential infections.
On campuses, posted signs will remind people to social distance and wear face masks. Cleaning supplies will be at the ready and students will have to wipe down some areas before using them.
Another big change is student housing. To keep the numbers down, many colleges are only offering on-campus housing to freshmen and not allowing visitors after move-in day.
Loyola Chicago announced it is reducing the number of students living on campus by nearly 50% and is making all of its double rooms single. The campus will not be taking out the excess furniture, so the school advised students in an online form to think of creative ways to use that extra twin bed, desk and dresser.
Another new twist this semester will be the requirement by many colleges for faculty, students and staff members to do daily health checks either online or on a campus app.
What colleges can’t control, of course, is what students do off hours with parties, group gatherings or going to bars.
Some schools are asking their students to sign a pledge promising to wear a mask and keep safe distances even at off campus events. In the pledge from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota, a Lasallian school in Winona, signers promise to protect themselves and others by following basic protocols and keeping personal and shared spaces clean as well as “observing protocols for group gatherings.”
Other schools, like Providence College in Rhode Island, include behaviors to stop spread of COVID-19 in its conduct code. It is requiring students to sign a form acknowledging that they have read and understand the expectations and potential sanctions for not adhering to social distancing or wearing face masks.
Another change students might notice this year will be in costs. Most colleges and universities indicate on their campus websites they will help students obtain federal emergency financial aid grants to available to those impacted by the pandemic.
Some schools, like Mount St. Mary’s University in Los Angeles, are freezing the cost of tuition for returning students.
Georgetown University had already planned to give students not living on campus a 10% reduction in tuition. And now, with the school changing its plans for all-virtual learning, it is reducing fall semester tuition for all undergraduates by 10%.
Walsh University, founded by the Christian Brothers, in North Canton, Ohio, has gone some steps further by offering students financial incentives, new majors and a more flexible eight-week term.
The school is offering free on-campus housing for eight weeks of the fall semester for freshmen and transfers and will freeze tuition for sophomores, juniors and seniors.
“This is in addition to the already planned freshman tuition freeze,” the school’s president, Tim Collins, said, noting the tuition freeze is meant to provide financial stability during this challenging time.
While all Catholic colleges and universities have implemented major changes, some, in more rural areas, did not have to do quite as much adjusting because with their smaller size they already have some built-in social distancing.
For example, the University of Mary, in Bismarck, North Dakota, which like other universities, has detailed protocols in place for this fall, points out in a news release about the school’s reopening that the university is one of a few nationwide with a 24/7 dining hall that has less crowding at peak times and allows students to eat where they want when they want without space issues.
The school’s large classrooms with its small student body — 14 to 1 student-to-faculty-ratio — also means classes did not have to be significantly modified.
But even its rural location and smaller student body population do not make the school immune to the coronavirus pandemic. To combat the virus, the school has identified levels of risk from level one or “new normal” where it can continue operations with heightened hygiene and cleaning standards to a fifth “critical level” where all classes move to online and only essential employees work from campus.
When the university begins the fall semester Sept. 8, the campus will be on level 3, “moderate risk.”
“We are all in this together. So, in order for this to work successfully, students, faculty and staff need to adhere to the designated guidelines and protocols at each specific risk/action level,” said Jerome Richter, the school’s executive vice president.
But using the term potential risk levels in a school reopening message highlights just how different this school year already is.