Towards fall 2020 in higher education: what an “in person semester” really means

American higher ed is moving ahead with fall 2020 planning.  Let’s check in with current developments and see what they suggest for the next academic year.

As a frame I will reiterate my three scenarios for fall termLast month I found them still in play.  The Post-Pandemic Campus was the most popular, while some schools were opting for COVID Fall.  Nobody publicly avowed a Toggle Term plan, but I found evidence that at least some members of campus communities were preparing for it.

As of Juneteenth, that pattern continues.  Also, two of those scenarios are quietly blending into one, for a good number of campuses.  Read on:

Post-Pandemic Campus It looks like a majority of American institutions are opting for some form of reopening this fall (more on “some form” below).  The Chronicle of Higher Education’s running total claims almost 1,000 campuses, or about 23% of the nation’s ecosystem.  Out of those 65% have said they’ll resume in-person instruction this fall:

coronavirus fall plans 2020 June 19 Chronicle

Examples are easy to find, like a recent statement from Rice.  High Point will open in July.  Penn State announced an in-person fall, which means creating a campus that’s one part higher ed experience plus one part medical state:

Individuals will be required to wear masks and follow social distancing procedures on campus. Back in May, Barron said Penn State had already acquired 500,000 masks and 2,500 hand sanitizer stations to place across its locations.

All students who’ve exhibited coronavirus symptoms or were exposed to the virus are asked to take precautionary steps before coming back, including self-quarantine and seeking testing. Penn State is also building “capacity” to isolate and quarantine “impacted individuals” to deliver medical care.

Note that some faculty are publicly criticizing the move for (among other things) not offering enough protections for either faculty or students.

American University is opening up, but creating different ways for faculty and staff to work:

Departments will work with HR to classify faculty and staff into three groups based upon university needs and job functions: 1) full presence on campus with modified work schedule, 2) partial presence on campus with telework, or 3) full telework. Faculty and staff will be notified of their status by the end of July.

Sweet Briar Collegeplans to offer in-person instruction in fall 2020 on our safe and spacious campus.”  Already low student numbers makes this easier to accomplish.

George Washington University’s plan is quite comprehensive, from changing classroom size and campus shuttle ridership to changing up water systems.  Start with page 5 to get the outline.

COVID Fall.  Very few campuses are proclaiming a wholly online semester, because (among other reasons) they fear losing enrollment.  Yet it seems like many are quietly planning on the possibility.

For example, George Washington University:

Our planning efforts, collectively our Back to Campus initiative, are comprehensive, and address the modifcations necessary to our on-campus lives in the context of our new COVID-19 reality. They are inclusive, considering the needs of all of our students, faculty and staff. And they are anticipatory, accounting for the many unknowns through multiple scenarios. While our primary scenario involves most students attending on-campus in the fall, we are also planning for an equally high-quality online fall and a hybrid fall, which would include a mixture of online and in-person learning. [emphases added]

Toggle Term This is the least popular scenario in terms of public statements.  But I think many campuses are exploring it – quietly, under the radar – as they try to anticipate lawsuits pandemic possibilities.

For example, listen to Georgetown University’s official letter to its grad students:

Most graduate classes will have a hybrid format, which would allow students to participate both in-person in campus classrooms and on-line. This will provide the full schedule of curricular offerings to students who can return to campus in the Fall as well as those whose return might be delayed due to health, travel or other restrictions. The hybrid approach would also allow for a transition between in-person and on-line instruction during the semester if the public health situation shifts or if required by individual circumstances. Faculty are structuring their graduate classes so that students will meet the same curricular goals whether online or in-person. [emphases added]

Or look deeper into the American University statement: “Classifications may change during the fall as conditions in the region and on campus change. Faculty and staff will be notified of any changes.”  Conceivably those conditions may improve, and lead to more AU staff on campus.  They could also go the other way and lead towards some part of a COVID Fall scenario.

Now that these scenarios are becoming more real every week, we notice a classic dynamic which occurs in this process: combining scenarios.  Futurists are familiar with this in every scenarios exercise, wherein a participant will find elements of two or more narratives that they like and seek to snap them together like so many Legos.  This is terrific, pedagogically, by the way.  It’s a great sign of people using scenarios to think in more complex, creative, and ambitious ways.

So now I’m seeing campuses proclaim re-opening, but at the same time offering online options.  It’s really a blend of online and in-person.  In fact, it seems that “reopening” is really a code for “open face to face and also online at the same time.”  “In person” doesn’t actually mean what it says.

Look back at the Penn State opening story or their official announcement.  “Penn State plans to resume on-campus work and learning in fall semester” goes the headline.  And yet, as we learn further down the announcement,

Delivery of the curriculum will occur through a highly flexible mix of in-person, remote and online instruction throughout the semester, with all classes of more than 250 students delivered online and/or remotely.

That means some learning will be in person while some will be online.  So this isn’t an either-or situation but a both-and one.  Since that statement Penn haa openly announced a formal program for returning students to take classes entirely online.  First-time students can begin without setting foot on a PSU campus through their Start at Home program.

Furthermore, there will be local variations in that state:

Given Pennsylvania’s county-by-county approach to managing the pandemic, the status of each Penn State campus may vary, particularly for those that may be located in an area of the commonwealth where various restrictions remain in place or may subsequently be put in place due to the number of COVID-19 cases in that region.

Consider the Sweet Briar statement, which includes this line: “We can offer hybrid or remote instruction to any student who needs it.”  So that college is offering in-person, hybrid, and remote education at the same time.  No word on remote faculty or staff that I could find.

Or look closely at the Rice University announcement.  Classes will meet in person… unless they don’t.  First, “Courses with enrollments of 100 or more will be offered only online.”  I don’t know Rice well enough to figure out what proportion of the course catalog this covers.  It’s at least significant enough to merit a public statement.

But wait, there’s more, as the commercial used to say.  Or less:

Courses with enrollments of 50 – 99 will default to being offered online only; however, a number of instructors have expressed a desire to accommodate these larger classes and still preserve a significant in person experience. For these courses, the instructor should make a request to their chair to offer the course in dual format utilizing a plan that caps individual in-person class meetings at 50 persons…

So any class over 50 students may also be “online online.”  Some of those will be divided in some way (multiple sections?  one in-person and the rest online?).  And there are clear plans for having students meet with each other when the professor appears online:

Other than large classes that are moved only online, all courses normally assigned a room will be assigned a room so students can gather even if the instructor is present remotely in order to better facilitate student interactions…

Purdue has won a lot of attention as a leader in the opening up space, but while they plan on having people on campus, they are also doing something different:

Classrooms and residence halls will drop to 50% capacity in the fall, while 30% of university staff will work remotely during the fall semester, which will run from Aug. 24 to Nov. 24 without any breaks.

This “‘in person’ really means a blend of in-person and online” meme isn’t just something coming from presidents, provosts, and deans.  A recent EDUCAUSE poll finds that more than 4/5ths of campus IT departments are planning on some kind of blended fall:

Bar chart illustrating teaching and learning scenarios guiding fall planning

So as we look to fall semester 2020, two our our April scenarios are clearly in play, led by Post-Pandemic Campus.  A fourth scenario, found at the intersection of two of April’s, is a hybrid where “in person” really means “a mix of online and in person.”  That is now very active as well, once you look closely.

That joined-up scenario needs a name.  Is “hybrid” sufficient?  “Amphibious Autumn”?

NB: all of this post describes planning at the present. Plans tend to change when they hit reality.  How might these alter if the pandemic picks back up?

The World Health Organization just announced that COVID is “accelerating” worldwide:

Here’s today’s forecast for American COVID-19 deaths, including historical data for the year up until today:


coronavirus US daily deaths Mar 1-Oct 1_2020 June 20_IHME

Do you see the rise starting around September 1, as classes resume?  It seems pretty clear that if such a mounting death toll occurs, an increasing number of students (plus faculty and staff) will seek to study and work remotely with their “in person” campuses.  And if infection rates rise past a certain point, especially on or immediately next to a campus, the Toggle Term scenario will become increasingly plausible, perhaps even required.

(thanks to Tom Haymes and University Business for links and ideas)

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17 Responses to Towards fall 2020 in higher education: what an “in person semester” really means

  1. Just shared, with opening comments from the FB thread, on a closed adjunct group — asking for their take. I’ll keep you posted — and may share to another group or so.

  2. Sally Brett says:

    Wondering how soon administrations will begin to calculate an online class, or even an online/F2F class, as ‘less’ in the calculus of hiring and assigning classes to faculty. Thus: one faculty member and four ‘sections’ = one class assignment (and pay).

    To be honest, I’ve already seen this in local university summer school teaching loads.

  3. Glen S McGhee says:

    Thanks for posting the Death Curve that trends upward as Fall approaches. This is as scary to me as hell is for fundamentalists.

    This is a simple population curve for the Covid-Dead, right Bryan? Where is the upper limit? IS there an upper limit? As a population specialist, you must have some opinion, right?

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Glen, history teaches us that the upper limits of human death vary from situation to situation, and are very hard to predict.

      My sense is that we don’t see or experience the deaths and – in greater numbers – injuries (lung damage, etc). They tend to happen behind layers of closed doors in medical or senior facilities. Without video or even pictures, they are invisible. Until many Americans see those stories, we’ll pay the butcher’s bill and ask for another helping.

      The economic miseries are, in contrast, all too evident. And Americans have a long history of making all kinds of somatic sacrifices to work.

      PS: some spectacular celebrity deaths would go a long way to making this more real.

  4. Glen S McGhee says:

    This Fall trend is scary because if this comes anywhere near to reality, it will crush the football season flat.

    Schools are very foolish to run sports programs — as are they are now — because positive-test athletes are showing up at school, possibly infecting staff, instructors, and other students.
    The number of infected students at public schools is a public record, but some schools are hiding behind FERPA and HIPAA, claiming confidentiality.
    So far, this is an impression management/public relations concern, but will become a moral battleground shortly.
    But parents are not that stupid, and are not willing to drop off their children at college if they know that there are ALREADY infected students on campus. Students are not dumb either — they would rather stay home than risk getting Covid. Same for teachers.
    But maybe not for administrators; they cannot be that bright if they are allowing infected student athletes on campus, as well as going on campus themselves.

  5. Glen S McGhee says:

    The Covid-19 WHO website is a treasure trove of data trends. Truly amazing!

  6. Paul Cook says:

    Thanks for this resource! I also am a big fan of the new book, Bryan. Keep it up!

  7. Nirmala sridhar says:

    It will be better if universities give the choice to students on whether to attend the classes in person or remote

  8. Glen S McGhee says:

    I don’t know if anyone has seen these recent campus population simulations.
    Covid testing parameters for quarantine are wildly optimistic. Tweak that variable in the simulations, and everyone gets infected eventually.

    • Bryan Alexander says:

      Yes. My first read is that they posit two extreme scenarios.

      • Glen S McGhee says:

        Look at the wildly optimistic parameters for Covid testing.

        “We assume that the false positive rate (FPR) is 0.1% and the false negative rate is 3.0% in the main analysis. We have endeavored to select these parameters to be consistent with what is possible with existing tests.”
        This is wrong.

        “…none of the existing molecular tests have been examined closely enough to carefully determine the order of magnitude of the false positive rate. At least a few have been shown to have [false] rates higher than 1%, which could lead to the unnecessary quarantining of literally thousands of students over the course of a semester.”

        If testing fails to detect active infection before the onset of symptoms, that’s a 100% failure rate for those students at the time they are tested. This paper does not model the temporal variation in testing.

        Summary of test accuracy at The Atlantic:
        “One model using COVID-19 cases from seven previously published studies suggests that the false-negative rate is 100 percent on day one of exposure, which falls to 38 percent on day five (when symptoms on average appear) and then a minimum of 20 percent on day eight.”
        None of these facts made it into the reopening modeling simulation.

  9. Pingback: Where We Stand with Covid-19 — June 26 - Off the Silk Road

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