Early signs of fall 2020: three paths, three scenarios for higher education

Several days ago I posted a set of scenarios for how higher education might function during this upcoming fall semester, depending on how the coronavirus pandemic develops.

One of the scenarios, COVID Fall, imagines today’s “remote instruction” continuing for the rest of calendar 2020.  Another, Post-Pandemic Campus, envisions colleges and universities returning in the fall to the traditional face-to-face mode after COVID-19’s danger has ebbed to a certain level.  A third, which I called Toggle Term, described campuses being ready and able to switch between online and in-person instruction as circumstances changed.

That post elicited a lot of attention, from plenty of good comments to NPR appearances (1,2) and a Wall Street Journal interview (forthcoming), which suggests – unsurprisingly – that planning for fall 2020 is top of mind for people thinking about colleges and universities. The broad range of responses also suggests that the situation is wide open, even chaotic.

Since then several stories have appeared which look to me like cases of campuses planning on fulfilling these scenarios, or at least very early signs thereof.  Let’s look into them.

Post-Pandemic Campus The University of Central Florida created several scenarios for fall 2020.  Two of them describe face-to-face campus activities resuming that semester:
UCF fall scenario 2020 1
UCF fall 2020 scenario 1a

Along those lines, last week Purdue University’s president stated that that campus will offer an in-person fall term.

Fall 2020 will not be a re-run of fall 2019, since administrators plan on paying attention to infection’s possibilities.  Initial tactics discussed include:

spreading out classes across days and times to reduce their size, more use of online instruction for on-campus students, virtualizing laboratory work, and similar steps.

We will look to protect the more vulnerable members of our community by allowing (or requiring, if necessary) them to work remotely…

an indefinite prohibition on gatherings above a specified size, continued limitations on visitors to and travel away from campus, required use of face coverings and other protective equipment, frequent if not daily deep cleaning of facilities…

Testing and surveillance are also likely:

We intend to know as much as possible about the viral health status of our community.  This could include pre-testing of students and staff before arrival in August, for both infection and post-infection immunity through antibodies.  It will include a robust testing system during the school year, using Purdue’s own BSL-2 level laboratory for fast results.  Anyone showing symptoms will be tested promptly, and quarantined if positive, in space we will set aside for that purpose.

We expect to be able to trace proximate and/or frequent contacts of those who test positive.  Contacts in the vulnerable categories will be asked to self-quarantine for the recommended period, currently 14 days.  Those in the young, least vulnerable group will be tested, quarantined if positive, or checked regularly for symptoms if negative for both antibodies and the virus.

There is a philosophical approach behind these initial plans:

a return-to-operations strategy is undergirded by a fundamental conviction that even a phenomenon as menacing as COVID-19 is one of the inevitable risks of life.  Like most sudden and alarming developments, its dangers are graphic, expressed in tragic individual cases, and immediate; the costs of addressing it are less visible, more diffuse, and longer-term.  It is a huge and daunting problem, but the Purdue way has always been to tackle problems, not hide from them.

“one of the inevitable risks of life”: the pandemic is not something extraordinary but is instead just another thing we have to worry about.  That view echoes some current Republican opposition to lockdown measures.

Brown University’s president offered a similar call for in-person classes to resume this fall semester.  As with Purdue, there are several measures on the table:

Testing is an absolute prerequisite. All campuses must be able to conduct rapid testing for the coronavirus for all students, when they first arrive on campus and at regular intervals throughout the year….

Testing and tracing will be useful only if students who are ill or who have been exposed to the virus can be separated from others. Traditional dormitories with shared bedrooms and bathrooms are not adequate. Setting aside appropriate spaces for isolation and quarantine (e.g. hotel rooms) may be costly, but necessary. It will also be necessary to ensure that students abide by the rigorous requirements of isolation and quarantine.

IT plays a key role:

Traditional contact tracing is not sufficient on a college campus, where students may not know who they sat next to in a lecture or attended a party with. Digital technology can help. Several states are working to adapt mobile apps created by private companies to trace the spread of disease, and colleges and universities can play a role by collaborating with their state health departments and rolling out tracing technology on their campuses.

Such measures raise a different philosophical problem than the one Purdue’s president introduced. What happens to student privacy and freedom of movement?  President Paxson has an answer:

Aggressive testing, technology-enabled contact tracing and requirements for isolation and quarantine are likely to raise concerns about threats to civil liberty, an ideal that is rightly prized on college campuses. Administrators, faculty and students will have to grapple with whether the benefits of a heavy-handed approach to public health are worth it. In my view, if this is what it takes to safely reopen our campuses, and provided that students’ privacy is scrupulously protected, it is worthwhile.

She also clearly rejects the Toggle Term scenario, stating that Brown’s

plans must be based on the reality that there will be upticks or resurgences in infection until a vaccine is developed, even after we succeed in flattening the curve. We can’t simply send students home and shift to remote learning every time this happens. Colleges and universities must be able to safely handle the possibility of infection on campus while maintaining the continuity of their core academic functions.

William Jewell College made a similar announcement.  “[I]t intends to reopen campus for in-person classes on Aug. 26.”  There will be testing, and “[u]pon request, students will be given private residence hall rooms at no extra cost.”  There are also some differences from Brown and Purdue.  For one, WJC is outsourcing some of their strategy:

The College partnered with MRIGlobal, international biorisk experts highly skilled in identifying and containing outbreaks. MRIGlobal has reviewed Jewell’s safety practices and will train faculty, staff and students on the best protocols for the current health care climate. Headquartered in Kansas City, MRIGlobal will conduct biological cleanup if anyone on campus is diagnosed with the coronavirus.

The college will also link up with a nearby entity:

Jewell already collaborates closely with health care teams and administrators at Liberty Hospital—just three miles from campus—and will continue to work closely with Liberty Hospital to ensure that students have access to quality health care.

COVID Fall One of the aforementioned UCF scenarios forecasts online education running through December 2020:

UCF fall 2020 scenario 2

Another, worst case scenario, pushes remote instruction through summer of 2021:

UCF fall 2020 scenario 3

San José State University looks like it’s planning on fulfilling at least scenario 2, with fall 2020 classes to be entirely online.

“It is probably a bit over-used to call it the “new normal,” but I am not sure higher education, in the near or long-term future, will look the way it did a year ago,” SJSU Provost Vincent J. Del Casino Jr. said in a letter Wednesday. “The best option, for now, based on what we know is to plan that the majority of our courses — particularly lecture courses — will be fully online.”

Toggle Term In a campus town hall Cal State Fullerton (CSUF)’s provost announced plans for that institution to begin fall 2020 entirely online, but to plan on switching back to in-person education.  “Cal State Fullerton plans to start the fall semester with virtual classrooms and will gradually ease restrictions when it is safe to do so, officials said…”

When making the decision to reopen, the university will heed the advice of state officials, the Chancellor’s Office, the Orange County Health Agency and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention…

Plans echo those from Purdue and Brown above:

As for plans to gradually open the 40,000-student campus, the university must be able to ensure adequate physical and social distancing and also take into account that there could be spikes of the virus in the future that would require flexibility, she said.

Johns Hopkins University also hinted at a toggle term:

We are understandably committed to the expeditious resumption of our university’s various activities. But the timing and the extent of that resumption must in the first instance be guided by the health and safety of our faculty, staff, students and patients. This will doubtless mean that some activities are resumed before others. It will also mean that the resumption of these activities will require all of us to be flexible and open-minded in how we work in, and contribute to, the university. We may need to stagger work hours and shifts, limit the density of occupants in certain spaces, and limit exposure of some employees over others (for example, those who are more at-risk for serious health consequences from COVID-19). We also need to accept that the re-emergence of infection in certain populations may require a return to self-isolation. [emphases added]


Some reflections on these announcements and cases:

My intuition is that some of these statements are trial balloons, lofted to elicit reactions sooner rather than later.  I like the way UCF carefully considered multiple possibilities.

Geography may play a role in which schools decided to resume in-person classes, as Lilah Burke observes:

One reason for the differences in messaging might be location. Fullerton and San José are in some of the most populous metropolitan areas in the country. West Lafayette, Ind., and Liberty, Mo., are much less dense…

“A residential campus like the University of Idaho that’s in a fairly isolated location depends so much on really bringing students to that location,” [Chuck Staben, former president of the University of Idaho] said. “They’re going to try very hard to have a face-to-face semester.”

Party politics can shape these decisions – a likelihood that may increase as the 2020 elections heat up.  Burke links academia to state and national politics:

With governors sometimes taking radically different approaches to the virus response, it’s possible that the politics of a state could affect its opening. Southern states with Republican governors, such as Georgia, have been pursuing aggressive reopening plans in the hopes of limiting economic damage.

It’s possible that Purdue’s president, Mitch Daniels, is making this statement for non-academic political reasons.  Daniels was Indiana’s Republican governor for two terms, and these remarks could be aimed at the current open-the-economy tendency within the GOP.   Perhaps he’s angling for a position of some kind in the Trump administration. (I’d love to hear from more Indiana folks on this)

Tony Moretti compares the Purdue and Johns Hopkins announcements very well, and I’d like to build on that post.  Each offers a different kind of American cultural politics.  JHU emphasizes care and caution, while Purdue stresses boldness and a can-do attitude.  JHU doesn’t want to lose a single person, but Purdue seems close to be willing to accept some casualties.

It’s almost a question of style.  Purdue is “sober about the certain problems that the COVID-19 virus represents, but determined not to surrender helplessly to those difficulties but to tackle and manage them aggressively and creatively.”  In contrast, JHU:

Time, as well as the development of sound and reliable data and the tremendous expertise of public health colleagues, will allow us to make more accurate assessments of the risks of various courses of action. This means that our decision-making needs to be measured and evidence-based. We will take decisive and urgent actions today in order to manage our risks, but we also want to see how the pandemic develops over time, to gauge the effectiveness of our efforts towards resumption of work, and then, on the basis of this information, to make sure that we are neither under- nor over-reacting to the pandemic.

The pair come close to the liberal and conservative models George Lakoff identified.  In that view liberals speak from a metaphorical set based on supportive, nurturing, open families, while conservatives prefer the stern parents in traditional gender roles.  All that’s needed for Baltimore and West Lafayette to fit the picture is more family language.

Last note: these are early days yet.  Campus leaders are struggling to make decisions in a very uncertain situation, buffeted by a set of complex and growing forces.  Being open about process and options can blow back, as we saw when Boston University ran an article on very sensible fall plans for that campus, only to have media outlets misread it.  I suspect senior administrators are consulting very intensely and watching each other for signals of decisions to come.

Have you seen any other examples of colleges or universities following these three scenarios?

(thanks to Tyff, Lindsay Ellis, and Tony Moretti)

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9 Responses to Early signs of fall 2020: three paths, three scenarios for higher education

  1. Gretchen McKay says:

    The scenarios that require testing (as well as these “surveillance apps”) worry me. Where are we going to find tests? How much are they going to cost? Our college is in Maryland, where the Governor, who has been awesome through this whole mess, brokered a deal with South Korea to get 500K tests. I had an episode this weekend – sick – and called my doctor who said I would likely not be tested because my symptoms were not “severe enough.” I didn’t think I had the virus anyway, but if that is the case, then how the heck are we going to be able to test students to the point that parents will feel comfortable sending them to campuses? I don’t see it happening, as much as I dearly want it to be so. I am hoping for a move to the “low density” plan that allows for online for much of instruction and yet some 1:1 and face to face meetings so that there is some semblance of the residential model. How they live – how they eat – students that is – I’m not sure. But something in the middle needs to happen.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Good question, Gretchen – and what a story that was, wrt Maryland.
      Who will fund those tests, esp. when done as frequently as they should?

      Low density: I do wonder what % of the full enrollment population a campus can host in this. 50%?

  2. Hi Bryan, thanks once again for some very interesting insights into all of this. I really liked your new coined phrase ” Toggle Term.” To me, this makes the most sense given the current uncertainties and warnings of possible second waves. Also, who is to say a completely different type of disease doesn’t show up in the future. I’ve stated elsewhere that a good benefit of this situation is that it has forced many instructors to learn new technologies, appreciate the benefits of both synchronous and asynchronous learning, and start to experience what many of their online students go through all the time. The hope is that we can all learn from this, improve, and be that much more ready for a possible “next time” event.

  3. Joe Essid says:

    Again, as said in an earlier post, at my school we’ll know in late June. We are preparing for all of the models above.

    Stunning how we supposedly out-of-touch academics can adapt, pivot, plan, and resume operations, when the Federal government, led by an incompetent man and his nearly-as-bad minions, have fumbled early on, sent out wrong information or dangerous lies (ingest disinfectants) and put states into bidding wars over vital supplies.

    It’s not higher education that needs a radical change: it’s the Federal Government’s leadership.

  4. Scenario planning is a powerful way to evaluate an institution’s alternatives, especially in the time of a great crisis. For some ideas on how to evaluate the scenarios from the perspective of uncertainty, bias, and data see https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/considering-uncertainty-bias-data-scenario-planning-peter-j-/. Feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss.

  5. Pingback: Forecasting the US Higher Education Market: A Primer - The Scholarly Kitchen

  6. Pingback: Trends In Higher Education: 7 Must-Know Expert Predictions for 2020 | Legal Tech Monitor | Mainstage

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