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Will Colleges Keep All Virtual Classes For Fall Semester?


College campuses are closed. Students are taking classes online. What will fall semester look like? NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been asking.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: It's a hard decision to make. California State University, Fullerton was one of the first campuses to acknowledge they're planning to be online in the fall.


PAMELLA OLIVER: We are assuming that in the fall we will be virtual - we will at least start virtually.

NADWORNY: That's the Southern California school's provost Pamella Oliver speaking at a virtual town hall on Monday.


OLIVER: And of course, that can change depending on the situation, depending on what happens with COVID-19. But at this point, that's what we're thinking.

NADWORNY: Other schools have been hesitant to announce their fall plans publicly, though behind the scenes many are planning for multiple possibilities, including making it all virtual.

NICHOLAS CHRISTAKIS: I don't think there's any scenario under which it's business as usual on American college campuses in the fall.

NADWORNY: Nicholas Christakis is a sociologist and physician at Yale University who's studying how coronavirus spreads.

CHRISTAKIS: This idea that we can somehow just get back to normal and go back to school in the fall because we always have is not reasonable actually. I think we're going to have to figure out other ways of doing this.

NADWORNY: There are several ideas on how to make these changes. Schools have floated starting later in the fall or in January. Or instead of a semester-length class, they're shortened into four-week cycles, optimizing flexibility.

Another idea is to try a hybrid approach - some face-to-face classes and some online. Kim Weeden is a sociologist at Cornell University. She set out to study this along with her colleague Benjamin Cornwell. They used enrollment data from Cornell to see how often students came into contact with each other. Essentially, how interconnected is a campus network? They were hoping that if they eliminated larger lecture classes, students would have less interaction with each other. It turns out it didn't matter.

KIM WEEDEN: I confess that I was a little bit disappointed that we did find such tight networks and that just eliminating those 100-person or more classes didn't seem to reduce the small-world nature of the network all that much.

NADWORNY: And of course, they didn't factor in campus life - dorms, sporting events and parties. Because of these elements, residential colleges may have to make the most significant changes while schools with larger commuter populations, including community colleges, might be less affected.

But no college wants an outbreak on campus because with risk comes liability and, potentially, lawsuits. That's why colleges need to have a contingency plan ready, says Bryan Alexander, an educational futurist at Georgetown University. He says schools need to face the realities of this virus.

BRYAN ALEXANDER: It's going to change things. And the degree depends on the shape that the pandemic takes in the fall semester.

NADWORNY: And, he says, colleges, which are usually quite competitive, need to start collaborating.

ALEXANDER: I think if we can just get more and more college and university leaders working together, we could have a more intelligent response.

NADWORNY: The challenge is that college enrollment was already down before coronavirus, so it's a competitive field. Every student who enrolls really counts, and there's real fear that students and their families won't be willing to pay as much for online offerings. If students don't show up in the fall, the financial hole colleges already find themselves in will only get deeper.

Elissa Nadworny, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.