DENVER — Dorms without roommates. Classes held in hotel conference rooms with desks spaced out. Small numbers of students grouped together, taking the same blocks of courses to avoid mingling with too many people.
These are some of the ideas leaders at Colorado’s major colleges and universities are considering as they try to grasp what the fall semester will look like in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.
The new coronavirus prompted a swift transition to online learning for Colorado campuses in March. Now, as the academic year comes to a surreal close, college leaders are left staring into an abyss of unknowns — depleting finances, rapidly changing public health guidelines, and questions about how many students actually will show up — as they try to prepare for the start of the fall semester.
“The leadership of campus has been focusing on day-to-day operations, and now that the semester is wrapping up, we’re all lifting our heads up and looking to the future,” said Andy Feinstein, president of the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. “Not only the immediate future but even further out. How is this going to forever change the landscape of higher education at UNC?”
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University leaders across the country are walking a tightrope as they try to balance safety best-practices with providing students the educational and campus experience some are paying tens of thousands of dollars to obtain.
“It’s not going to be the same,” Feinstein said. “But truth be told, we don’t have a lot of clarity this early on about what the guidelines will be at the end of August. It makes for a lot of what-if scenarios and contingency planning.”
Health and safety
The University of Colorado Boulder expects to host a mix of in-person and online classes this fall for its more than 35,000 students in an effort to suit the varying needs of its campus community, said Dan Jones, CU Boulder’s associate vice chancellor of integrity, safety and compliance.
Jones said CU’s plans need to be flexible enough to rapidly switch to remote learning again in the event that worsening public health triggers another round of stay-at-home measures. He said CU officials will have more solidified plans at the end of May after university committees planning for the campus’s re-opening have finished their work.
“As we consider when and how we return to campus, it’s important for us to emphasize that the primary consideration will be the health and safety of our campus community members, particularly those who are most vulnerable,” CU Boulder Chancellor Phil DiStefano wrote in a letter to students, faculty and staff last week.
Suggestions on the table at CU Boulder include: enhanced physical distancing in classrooms; staggering in-person attendance; increasing transition times between classes to reduce the density of students and faculty; and delivering large lectures remotely with smaller in-person supplementary class meetings.
In a letter to the Colorado State University community, President Joyce McConnell said CSU fully intends to be back on campus and operational for the fall semester, but she acknowledged a worst-case scenario could mean remote learning through January if the pandemic worsens.
“I am convinced that for us to make it through this crisis, we must learn to be open to new ideas, assume good faith, work together with trust, expect grace and give it to others, and put the common good before self-interest,” she wrote.
At UNC, Feinstein is in talks with local hotels to see whether they could serve as potential housing solutions for students normally crammed in small living spaces together on campus.
“It’s not just about the 3,000 students we have living on campus, but you can imagine we have thousands of students that aren’t living in university-owned properties but in surrounding areas with maybe four, five, six students in an apartment,” Feinstein said. “We don’t have control or oversight in how they live, but we’re going to have to figure out how we educate and ensure the safety of all students when they do come to campus.”
CU Boulder, which requires thousands of freshmen to live on campus, is considering beginning the semester as planned in August, but placing first-year students in “closely-knit peer groups where they share academic courses and experience student life and co-curricular activities together in local campus environments.”
The UNC president is considering whether hotel conference rooms could double as classrooms so students are able to learn in-person, but spread out in a larger space.
During a normal semester, UNC houses more than 3,000 students on campus. Feinstein and his team are looking into whether UNC has enough housing to assign students rooms sans roommates in the name of virus-induced social distancing. If more than 1,500 students live on campus in the fall, Feinstein said it would be challenging to assign everyone their own rooms, but he wonders what enrollment numbers will look like.
“One of my responsibilities as the university president is you hope for the best and plan for the worst,” Feinstein said.
Planning for the worst looks at a possibility of 10% to 20% decline in enrollment, he said.
“Families and students are on the sidelines deciding what to do because of the uncertainty of the fall,” Feinstein said. “We have a number of students who still have not made a commitment or decision to come to school in the fall. They’re waiting for clarity.
“I suspect if we were to deliver all our instruction online in the fall, we would probably have a large number of students who would take a gap year or push their education back by a year. I understand and feel for them. They are having a difficult time committing to an uncertain future.”
Kevin Cincotta, 22, withdrew from his final semester at the University of Denver this spring, uninterested in paying to study music recording and production when the music school’s recording studio would be off-limits and his music ensembles wouldn’t be able to jam together.
He hopes to start back up in the fall, but understands things will be different.
Cincotta said his comfort level attending in-person classes come fall would depend on COVID-19’s trajectory.
“I’m hoping to be back in small classes but still have some restrictions,” Cincotta said. “I’d like it if everyone in class wore a mask. I’d love it if the school could administer masks for everyone. I could see if big lecture classes where there are 50 or 90 kids together needed to be online still. I think if people right now continue to stay at home and go out as little as possible, doing that right now and not getting sloppy about that is what’s going to allow us to be back in the fall.”
Regis University — Denver’s private, Jesuit Catholic institution — altered its fall academic schedule in light of the virus.
Students attending on-campus courses will start a week early, on Aug. 17, and end Nov. 20. After Thanksgiving break, finals will be conducted online Nov. 30 to Dec.6.
“This schedule will provide the same amount of instruction time to students but allow them to return home before the forecasted peak activity for the flu in December, which is likely to coincide with a second wave of COVID-19,” Regis University officials said in a news release.
The Community College of Denver plans on operating as normal come fall, assuming the relaxation of social-distancing guidelines, said Peter Lindstrom, dean of the college’s Center for Math, English and First Year Experience.
Dire financial forecast
Budget woes, felt by many industries across the world amid the coronavirus pandemic, are further compounding university unknowns in Colorado, which funds higher education less than nearly every state in the country.
UNC expects a $4.5 million decline in revenue this fourth quarter, Feinstein said. The University of Colorado could lose more than $1 billion in revenue if required to continue remote learning through the 2020-2021 school year, the Daily Camera reported.
Despite all the what-ifs and worry, Colorado colleges are committed to opening their doors — or, at the very least, their computer screens — to degree-seeking students for the fall semester.
“We’re here for you,” Feinstein said. “We’re committed to the success of our students. We have shown incredible creativity and hard work to ensure that continues. We’re working tirelessly to find ways to provide the educational experience people have come to expect from UNC.”
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