Earlier this week my family took in a videoconference hosted by the University of Vermont, where Owain is a history major. The UVM team was very clear on one point: the return of a pre-COVID educational setting by fall 2021. Students will be required to be on campus in Burlington. There will be no remote classes, no online education.
This brought home to me on a personal level that at least some of American* higher education anticipates a return to normalcy this fall semester. I’ve been looking into this, and wanted to share some forecasting notes today.
Campuses planning on an entirely in-person fall experience are apparently betting that COVID-19 vaccines will triumph over the summer in what I’ve called “the race between vaccines and variants.” This lines up with the Biden administration’s campaign for enough people to have gotten shots that July 4th will be celebrated without masks.
The data point in that direction, so far. Vaccinations are getting into people, despite many logistical problems:
Partly as a result, infections are declining:
One caveat: while cases plummeted from mid-January, that curve took a hit in March and now seems to have either slowed down or hit a plateau. I hope the current slew of
idiocy openings don’t breed a new spike.
At some point the infection situation will drop below pandemic levels. I don’t see any move to eradicate COVID. Instead, we seem to be headed to living with it, much as we live with other infectious diseases (flu, AIDS, etc.), through a mix of public health strategies, a lack of media coverage, and acceptance of certain amounts of injury and death.
So if all goes according to plan, what might a post-pandemic fall semester look like on college and university campuses?
1: The more likely academic trends and developments
These are trends, topics, and problems whose outcomes seem relatively predetermined or constrained. Relatively.
Post-traumatic communities: students, faculty, and staff setting foot on campus in August and September will have lived through one and one-half years of national trauma. Some members of the academic world will have experienced illness, long-haul tissue damage, or economic hardship, or a mixture of these. Additionally, people will have seen others deal with all of these, plus witnessing deaths of family members, plus realizing that the pandemic slaughtered more than 600,000 people.
As a result campus communities will likely have to cope with trauma and its aftereffects. Colleges and universities have the opportunity to help them recover by providing access to care. Administrations may be pressured to do more.
Depressed financials: while many institutions were badly hit financially over the past year, losses were not as great as I and others forecast, thanks mostly to several federal aid packages from both political parties. Overall, state governments seem to be trying to spend a bit more on public institutions, albeit with exceptions, naturally. Yet hits did occur and enrollment did drop in 2020-2021, hence the loss off 650,000+ academic jobs.
Depending on their individual situations, a number of colleges and universities will struggle to balance the books and pay bills. This may drive more program cuts, campus mergers, and closures.
Online meetings: from office hours to committee meetings, presentations, and consultations, 2020 taught many academics that these could be done decently – or better, in many ways! – through video. We could see a quiet maintenance of these virtual habits even as people physically gather.
Loss of learning: to some very hard to quantify degree students may have fallen behind in learning during the pandemic. Traditional-age undergraduates starting their first post-secondary years this fall may have had a weaker senior high school year than most. Continuing students may have missed curricular items that campuses could not offer virtually, such as those requiring in-person, hands-on practice. Some faculty may feel that their students didn’t learn at a pre-COVID level during the past year.
As a result campuses have several options. They may devote resources to enhancing learning in 2021-2022, such as through paracurricular centers (teaching and learning, writing, numeracy, etc). Faculty may lower expectations to a degree during fall classes. Remedial classes might be offered as well.
COVID curriculum: I coined this term nearly a year ago to refer to an increase in student demand for pandemic-related classes and degrees, most notably the full range of health care topics. NPR agrees, but prefers their “Fauci effect” nickname. Either way, there are signs that this increased demand is occurring (one example). The pandemic’s enormous catastrophe may push that enrollment forward in fall 2021. The flipside of this forecast is that other fields will lose out, especially if total enrollment remains lower (but see below).
Athletics: clearly American higher ed will do absolutely anything to keep playing college sports, including spending huge amounts of money and/or risking COVID spread. If I’m right about this, then we should see a massive push for athletics to go full tilt in fall, especially the high profile and occasionally money-making sports of football and basketball.
2: Open questions
These are trends and topics whose expressions in fall term are harder to pin down and have a greater range of possibility.
Online and hybrid classes: how many students will demand online classes or hybrid access to in-person ones? Depending on how successful the 2021 public health campaign is, there may be a number of students who prefer online learning because of convenience (balancing study with work and family) or not being convinced of a campus’ safety measures.
Which campuses will insist on entirely in-person education, and which offer online and/or hybrid and/or HyFlex options? How open will departments and other units be to remote work?
Toggle terms: depending on how the virus plays out this fall, some campuses may decide to throw the switch and order students to shelter in place if infections spike. Other campuses may be ordered or pressured to do so by local or state health authorities. It’s hard to anticipate numbers on this score, given so many viral variables: mutations, different local conditions, students partaking in superspreader events, etc.
Enrollment: will it continue ticking down as it has done every semester since 2012? If the Biden administration’s Department of Education follows the Obama team’s anti-for-profit strategy, we could see that sector lose students – and those are then lost to the rest of higher ed, typically. Some would-be students might not feel they can risk in-person education. Or will there be some bounceback after fall 2020 and spring 2021’s steeper drops, as people sign up for classes without fear of infection?
Commitment to improving teaching: one of the Georgetown Opening‘s findings was that much of higher education determined to improve teaching during the pandemic semesters. This was partly to address complaints of low-quality online teaching and partly to make in-person education work despite anti-COVID measures.
Will this commitment extend to fall 2021? It might not. Faculty switching from online to in-person teaching may feel more confident and ask for less support. The absence of plexiglas and masks may similarly restore instructors’ sense of their quality, and perhaps senior administration will share that sentiment. Additionally, campuses might have a hard time allocating funds to instructional designers, faculty professional development, and paracurricular centers given so many other crying needs from 2020-2021.
On the other hand, how many instructors returning to physical classrooms will find themselves exploring new techniques and approaches? Lessons learned from online teaching can often inform face-to-face instruction. A desire for equity may also drive some to change their pedagogy or decolonize their curricula. We could, in other words, see a persistent drive to improve education once the pandemic situation eases.
Efforts to address racial inequalities: as with improving educational quality, academia rededicated itself in 2020 to grappling with racism. How might that play out in fall 2021? Again, our Openings research found many scholars unsure of momentum here. Will the Biden administration encourage more racial justice work, or will the absence of the antipathetic Trump take away some energy for such efforts? Will structural changes get under weigh and support continued work, or will 2020 become a flash in the historical pan, a brief moment of racial rethinking that faded too quickly?
Women and research: non-COVID-related research suffered during the pandemic as scarce resources were prioritized and as coping with the disaster meant losing research time in favor of caring and recovery. Female scholars suffered this more strongly than did males, since to the former fell the lion’s share of family and home-based care work. If we experience a return to normalcy in fall 2020, will colleges and universities not only devote resources to recovering research progress, but also target women for more support?
Socialization: a popular thought is that students socializing online lose the opportunity to learn how to interact with people in person. To the extent that this is true, the pandemic semesters represent a loss in social learning, especially for traditional-age undergraduates. How will campuses respond? They could host expanded residential life programs aimed at catching up for lost time. Campus mental health capacity could add “learning how to interact better with humans offline” to their already crowded service agenda. Faculty may decide to increase small group and team work exercises.
Campus design: how will a college or university’s built environment change by fall 2021? Months ago I imagined transformed architectural spaces under the assumption that the pandemic lasted three years or more:
Architecture, cities, and the overall human-built environment have changed somewhat by 2023. Insofar as renovations and new construction occurs, buildings have bigger openings to the outside through wider windows and doors, more galleries and porches, all aimed at facilitating social distancing or externally circulating air. Inside buildings there are larger hallways and fewer, yet larger, rooms. Rooftops are more widely used. Fast food restaurants have more drive-throughs and fewer dining rooms – they are, in effect, for pickup only.
Yet fall term 2021 proceeds with just one and one-half COVID years. That’s not a lot of time for major alterations to buildings and the construction of new ones. If the pandemic ceases by autumn, to what extent will a campus look different? Will we see those wider doors and windows, those enlarged rooms, or will the 2019 physical plant simply continue?
Job placement: will academia’s methods for pointing students towards employment change in fall 2021? How will changes to the labor market (higher unemployment, certain industrial sectors sapped, others booming) elicit academic responses? Groups like The Taskforce on Higher Education and Opportunity represent some innovation in career support. I am not sure how widespread such rethinking and transformation will be.
The Greek system: fraternities and sororities played a prominent role in spreading COVID in academic communities and surrounding areas (for example) (another example) (another example) (example) (example) (example) (example) (example) (example). Will campuses that allow Greek systems to function rethink that stance or come up with new policies?
I posed this question in August, and that post has a more substantial argument than what I’m making here. Events haven’t invalidated it. On the one hand, we can see that some fraternities and sororities took steps that clearly worsened the pandemic. On the other, the Greek system is buttressed by hefty amounts of money, not to mention serious support across and adjacent to academia. Additionally, I suspect many academics who might dislike those houses have resigned themselves to their continuation. Will COVID alter that picture?
Assessing and administering students: Wesson Radomsky (a splendid Georgetown LDT student) asks us to think about some aspects of instruction:
I think this is especially true when it comes to including hybrid/online components in courses at schools that were 100% in person pre-pandemic, but I think the tension will extend beyond instructional modes — what about grading and pass/fail policies, attendance policies, etc?
— Wesson Radomsky (@WessonRadomsky) March 17, 2021
Will faculty members decide to grade like it’s 2019, or maintain pandemic modes of assessment and administration? What will departments and chief academic officers prefer?
Policing the campus perimeter: Robert McGuire wonders how campuses will police who’s allows on site:
I'm sure "require vaccinations" is on your list of open questions already.
Complicating that is what states may do that limit their decision. Some, like Iowa, are considering bills that forbid employers to require vaccinations.
— Robert (Prepared To Go Forward) McGuire (@robertwmcguire) March 17, 2021
If campuses insist on proof of vaccination, what will they require? Many vaccination services issue stamped or stickered cards; is that the badge of entry? Or will the United States stand up a vaccination passport scheme in time for fall residence hall move-in? Some could maintain the not-very-useful temperature check instead. And what should campuses do about students – and staff, and faculty – who are not vaccinated yet see themselves as having a rightful place on the grounds?
Study abroad: how might these programs change? For example, will certain destination countries block or otherwise make entrance difficult for American students, given how badly this nation bungled COVID?) and length of stay. Or campuses could select hosting areas depending on how they are at present handling the virus.
Stepping back a bit from this more detailed themes and issues, will colleges and universities continue to push hard on innovation overall as they did in 2020, or will they fall back? How many academics will greet an in-person fall term with a sigh of nostalgic relief and dust off fall 2019’s playbook? How many will see fall 2021 as an opening to new possibilities?
*I’m focusing on American higher ed in this post for reasons of time. I need to pry loose more time to cover other nations on this topic.
(thanks to Owain Alexander, Phil Long for ideas)