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U.S. universities might cancel in-person classes until next year due to the pandemic

Although universities remain optimistically hopeful about students being able to return for the fall semester, they are also acutely aware of the possibility that this may not be the case.

U.S. universities might cancel in-person classes until next year due to the pandemic
Image Source: Students move out of dorm rooms on Harvard Yard on the campus of Harvard University on March 12, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Given the unprecedented scale of the current global crisis, universities are now discussing the possibility of not being able to resume in-person classes until next year. While the pandemic has already forced colleges to move classrooms online, as each passing day reveals the true impact of the coronavirus outbreak, institutions are preparing long-term strategies for handling the pandemic. Although universities remain hopeful of students being able to return in time for the fall semester, they're also aware of the fact that this might not be the case if the crisis continues.


According to CNN, Boston University—which has already canceled all "in-person summer activities" on its primary campus—has prepared a coronavirus recovery plan that includes protocols for the event of experts advising against in-person classes for the fall semester. The plan dictates that classes would continue to be held remotely through the end of this year. "We’ve made the big decisions relating to the spring and summer," said the president of the university, Robert A. Brown, in an said online statement. "We are now in a position to focus on the fall and the best and safest way in which to bring the residential teaching and research community back onto campus when time and public health considerations permit."


Brown explained that the recovery plan aims to detail what a residential research university would look like in the early days of the post-pandemic world. "The recovery plan is an organizational approach to achieving our goals," said Jean Morrison, University provost and chief academic officer. "It allows us to task certain individuals with developing specific recommendations. It is designed to expedite decision-making and allow us to put a plan for the fall in place fairly quickly, so we have time to implement that plan in a thoughtful manner. By launching this effort now, we get out ahead of some of the issues for what is the best-case scenario, meaning we are able to come back to in-person classes and activities in the fall."


The university clarified that "the Recovery Plan recognizes that if, in the unlikely event that public health officials deem it unsafe to open in the fall of 2020, then the University’s contingency plan envisions the need to consider a later in-person return, perhaps in January 2021." The school further stated that it plans "to offer remote learning courses this summer" and that it will "continue providing the minimal housing and dining services that are currently available."


Speaking to NBC10 Boston, Morrison stated that while suspending the fall semester is a possibility, it's not the one they're aiming for. "We are planners, we like to be thinking about what the possibilities might be so we can be prepared, so that is certainly a possibility, but it's not the primary one we’re working for. We’re focusing our planning on a fall return to campus," she said. Nicole Somerstein, a junior at BU who is aiming to graduate in May 2021, expressed disappointment at the possibility of not returning to college in the fall but supports the university's proactiveness.


"I think BU is definitely doing the right thing, and throughout this entire process have shown that they care about our well-being more than anything else. The possibility is sad, but I understand that they have to consider all scenarios," she said. Meanwhile, Harvard—one of the first universities to send students home earlier this spring—is also considering probable scenarios for the fall semester. President Lawrence S. Bacow said in a recent interview that the University is "focused on the fall" and that schools are identifying dates by which enrollment and teaching decisions have to be made. He also expressed concern that by the time these decisions have to be made, there will still be "a tremendous amount of uncertainty."


As for how Oregon State plans to tackle the fall semester, spokesman Steve Clark told The Oregonian that "only the novel coronavirus will determine what happens. We can hope for a full return in fall 2020, but hope is not a strategy. So that is why we are going to prepare as best we can for every possible contingency." Meanwhile, the University of Arizona remains "cautiously optimistic" about launching the fall semester with the familiar college experience. "But, of course, we will prioritize the health and well-being of our community in making that decision," the university said in a statement to the Arizona Daily Star.


Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and visiting scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, supported the universities' decision to prepare for the unexpected. "I think colleges should all definitely make plans for delaying start dates and for intermittent closings and reopenings because epidemiology modeling suggests we may have to go into open and close waves until potentially even 2022," he said.


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