Snapshots of COVID on campus: evidence from late October 2020

I’m writing this in haste, as I’ve been spending hours in meetings, interviews, and class preparation.  I have an experimental teaching game to share shortly, among other news.

Yet at full speed I wanted to share some datapoints from today concerning COVID-19 and higher education.

ITEM: Another student died of the pandemic.

A University of Dayton student has died, apparently from complications due to COVID-19, the school reported today.

Michael Lang, 18, a first-year student in the College of Arts and Sciences from LaGrange, Illinois, died Thursday, Oct. 22, following a lengthy hospitalization, UD says.

That makes five coronavirus campus deaths this fall, according to my count: three students, one security officer, and a university president.

(I don’t know any other trackers on this score.  And I fear that these stories will vanish as they make us uncomfortable, occur in rural or flyover areas, and don’t take place on elite/media-friendly campuses.)

ITEM: another campus declared a Toggle Term.* This time it’s HBCU Florida Memorial University, and they will spend the rest of the semester online.  That’s about 24 cases for the current semester.

ITEM: Lilah Burke reports on how infection rates spiked early this term for some universities, but have dropped steadily since.  Negative reactions have also dropped: “As colleges have continued to rack up cases, the outrage and concern that once met them has become quieter.”

ITEM: some campuses are pushing for more faculty and grad students to return to the in-person classroom.  Northeastern University is making such a push for spring term.  This is a change from fall:

For the fall semester, Northeastern is offering a mix of online and in-person learning, and the university has allowed wide latitude for both professors and students uncomfortable returning to campus.

But in the spring, faculty requesting to work from home will be approved on a case-by-case basis, [David Madigan, the university’s provost and senior vice president for academic affairs] said. Those eligible include people with disabilities, those with pregnancy-related conditions, anyone with a medical condition that puts them at greater risk of becoming severely ill if they contract COVID-19, and those living with someone who has such a condition.

The University of Florida is making a push for faculty to teach in person this term.  And their president explicitly linked that drive to layoffs and cuts:

ITEM: a university chancellor told his community to avoid large scale gatherings, then went to a Trump rally.

ITEM: American tuition and fees rose more slowly this year than at any time since the 1990s.

ITEM: Pew Research surveyed Americans about their attitudes towards higher education this semester.  I’d like to share two findings from it.

First, political party affiliation is closely linked with assessing how colleges and universities opened up for in-person education.  Republicans tended to see opening up as a good thing, while Democrats oppose this view.  Taken together, we Americans are split right down the middle:

Pew Americans on coronavirus highered by party 2020 Octobe

Second, a clear majority think online learning is inferior to face-to-face education:

Pew Americans on online learning highered by party 2020 Octobe

ITEM: COVID-19 infections are rising not only in number, but also in age, according to the CDC.  Bloomberg summarizes thusly:

Cases generally rise first among highly social young people, including recently returning college students. Then, they slowly bubble up among older demographics, in part through multigenerational housing and other interactions.

“including recently returning college students”: again with campuses causing infections, and deaths, to spread. Which does bring us back to the question I asked yesterday.

ITEM: The New York Times published a good summary of some recent developments.  I’d like to share the ones that struck me as most significant.  It may also be behind a paywall.

  • “By one estimate, the pandemic has cost colleges at least $120 billion” – my readers might not be surprised by this, since I’ve been forecasting and making other observations along these lines.  Still, it’s bracing.  To put it in crude perspective, imagine that’s around $27 million per individual campus.  Or think of it this way: what if $120 billion is too low?
  • Mergers are being accelerated.  For example, “the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education… board of governors… voted to forge ahead with a proposal to merge a half-dozen small schools into two academic entities.”
  • Poor and working class student enrollment is declining: “A survey of 292 private, nonprofit schools released this month by the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities reported a nearly 8 percent decrease in enrollment among students who receive federal Pell Grants.”
  • That class-based enrollment drop is also hitting graduate schools: “Suzanne T. Ortega, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, noted that interrupting that [grad school] pipeline could also have a lingering impact on the higher education work force, diverting promising students from low-income households, for example, or discouraging candidates who might bring much needed diversity to faculty rosters.”
  • Faculty cuts are looming.
  • Plus other topics you all heard here already.

Where does all of this leave us?  I have many thoughts and no time to share them tonight.  More from me later – but I’d be delighted to read yours in the comment boxes below.

*Toggle Term: this is when a campus changes its COVID-19 response during a semester in a big way.  Typically it means switching between in-person and on-line education.

(thanks to this Inside Higher Ed roundup and this Chronicle of Higher Education one)

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