COVID-19 and Higher Ed: Preparing for the Fall Semester

The COVID-19 pandemic was and is nothing any one person or institution could have prepared for, including colleges and universities. Despite thorough emergency and continuity planning and responses, the fall semester is still up in the air. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is extremely infectious, and puts immense pressure on higher education institutions to find a safe approach for educating students in the fall.

Some schools have already started exploring the idea, and have come up with a few key points and ideas to consider or include in a return-to-school plan.

Criteria for Resuming Classes

Colleges and universities need to consider basic criteria as they begin approaching how their institutions will resume classes in the fall. They’re more basic questions, ones we’ve all become accustomed to:

  • Can the school’s facilities, buildings, and other parts of campus enable students, faculty, and staff to practice social distancing?
  • Can the school provide PPE to its employees working in more public spaces, such as dining halls?
  • Is re-opening for physical classes within local, state, or federal guidelines or laws?

Once a college or university answers these questions, it’s staff can start looking at other processes and items their university will need to implement to ensure the safety of its stakeholders.

Contact tracing has already proven to be one of the most effective actions we can take in limiting the spread of COVID-19. Universities and colleges will need to have something in place to perform this function. Preventing infections is the only way they can begin to run physically-held classes.

Some schools may want to consider partnering with their local or state health departments to get contact tracing working on campus. These agencies may be able to provide guidance or resources that will greatly simplify and streamline the implementation of a program, a key factor given how close the start of the academic year is.

Limiting Students on Campus

Another strategy that’s being coupled with the ones listed above is a staggered return.

Some institutions have recognized that having multiple schools presents them with the opportunity to systematically stagger their returns. Larger universities with medical, law, and graduate schools can have those students return before undergraduates.

A hybrid return is also possible. Universities and colleges can start to identify students that may need to be on campus to finish their studies; students that need laboratories and need complex equipment to continue their education may be allowed to live on campus in order to provide them access to necessary resources.

If schools opt to resume athletics in the fall, these groups can also live on campus. Capping the amount of students on campus this way also bakes social distancing and quarantining capabilities into areas like dormitories.

Policies, Communication, and Administration 

Returning to campus will be an involved effort, and rely on the cooperation of all a university’s or college’s stakeholders, including students, administrations, staff, and employees.

Schools can implement policies that help ensure people comply with proven methods of limiting the spread of pathogens. Strong communication will need to couple with these policies so all stakeholders are aware of these administrative decisions.

Policies universities and colleges can consider are:

  • Compulsory mask wearing
  • Self-quarantining after traveling or possible exposure
  • Limited group or gathering sizes
  • Shutting down non-essential public spaces

Additionally, Schools may also want to consider having students finish their semester virtually following the Thanksgiving break at the end of November. This will prevent students from bringing the virus from their hometowns.

Preparing for the Fall Semester

To bring students back to campus, colleges and universities have to take a particular set of measures. As the start of the Fall 2020 semester nears, schools can look to their peers for examples and guidance. Every person and organization plays an active role in preventing the spread of COVID-19, and these are some of the steps higher education institutions can take.

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