As the Pandemic Continues, What Will College Look Like in the Fall?

UNT student Hannah Smilie faces health risks if classes resume in person in the fall.
UNT student Hannah Smilie faces health risks if classes resume in person in the fall. Mike Brooks
A few months ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic was just beginning to make its way to Texas, Hannah Smilie heard a joke on campus about how, if they got sick, students would probably keep coming to class. Classmates didn't think it was anything to worry about, because the only people who were at risk, they said, were people with weak immune systems.

Smilie knew that meant her.

Smilie, 26, is an education major at the University of North Texas. She's on her second try at a bachelor's degree. When she was 12, Smilie was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and chronic liver disease. She started college in 2012, but had to drop out to have a colectomy and a liver transplant.

Smilie's road to recovery from the transplant was a rough one. She had to go on immunosuppresants to stop her body from rejecting the new liver, but those limited her body's ability to fight off other sicknesses. When she started college again this year, she knew she'd be more susceptible to colds and any other illnesses she might pick up on campus. She thought she could live with that, she said. But the pandemic brings another level of risk that she hadn't planned for.

Now, as UNT makes plans to reopen in the fall, Smilie is watching nervously and wondering whether there will be a way for her to go to class without putting herself at risk.

"It's not like we're talking about a small cold that will put somebody out of commission for one or two weeks," she said. "It's life or death with this thing."

With the spring semester over, college and university administrators across Texas and nationwide are trying to figure out the safest way to bring students back to campus in the fall — or whether it will be safe to bring them back at all. Some schools are planning to reopen for in-person classes with safeguards in place. Others are adopting a hybrid model in which some portions of the class are online and others are in person.

Still others, like the University of Texas at Austin, are planning modified semesters in which students come to campus at the end of August, then go back home later and finish out the semester remotely.

But no matter which model schools pick, it's becoming clear that the college experience at campuses across the state won't return to normal for some time.

click to enlarge UNT President Neal Smatresk says the university will take a mixed approach to tackling coronavirus in the fall. - MIKE BROOKS
UNT President Neal Smatresk says the university will take a mixed approach to tackling coronavirus in the fall.
Mike Brooks

'We're Not an Island'

According to a recent working paper by two sociologists at Cornell University, in-person college classes create almost ideal conditions for the spread of the novel coronavirus. Even if classes with 100 or more students enrolled were moved entirely online, students in face-to-face classes would still be exposed to other students in large enough numbers that the virus could spread rapidly across campus.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released updated guidance for colleges and universities as they make plans to reopen their campuses. Among other recommendations, the CDC advises colleges to promote physical distancing, step up cleaning and disinfection practices and shut down common areas like lounges, dining halls and exercise areas.

The CDC also recommends colleges rearrange classroom areas to keep students physically separate from one another. Colleges should space desks or seating 6 feet apart "when feasible" and consider taping off seats and rows in large lecture halls to ensure 6 feet of distance between students. The CDC also advised college officials to encourage faculty, staff and students to wear cloth masks when they're on campus.

UNT President Neal Smatresk said the university is making several major changes going into the fall semester, with the most obvious being fewer people on campus. On any given day, about a third to half of the university's normal population will be on campus, he said. The rest will be at home, doing web-based portions of hybrid online/in-person classes. Hybrid classes could be divided up, with half the class meeting in person one day a week and the other half meeting on a different day. Big lecture classes with hundreds of students may be entirely online, he said.

"We're not an island. We're not a cloistered monastery. I can test everybody, and that night they can go out to Fry Street, and who knows what we're coming back with?" – UNT President Neal Smatresk

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Fewer people on campus means the university can space people out better in classrooms. It also means fewer people passing through hallways, using campus bathrooms and touching hand rails and door knobs.

Residence halls are another challenge, Smatresk said. If a student brought the virus into a dorm, where students live in close quarters and nearly everyone has a roommate, it could spread quickly. UNT is blocking off an entire wing of one of its residence halls to use for isolating students who show symptoms of COVID-19, he said.

University officials are also working on a plan for testing students regularly so they know quickly if there's an outbreak on campus, Smatresk said. But he acknowledged that testing has its limits, especially when students and faculty come and go from campus all the time.

"We're not an island. We're not a cloistered monastery," he said. "I can test everybody, and that night they can go out to Fry Street, and who knows what we're coming back with?"

Even as the university tries to make plans to avoid an outbreak, officials there, like those at colleges and universities nationwide, have also been forced to slash budgets as major sources of revenue dry up. Last month, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered state agencies and universities to cut their budgets by 5%, a figure that's likely to grow as the state gets a clearer picture of how badly the pandemic has affected revenues.

Smatresk said he's expecting a budget shortfall of about $50 million as a result of the pandemic. Some of that shortfall comes from declining enrollment of international students. International students pay full out-of-state tuition, so they're a major revenue source for universities. The university is anticipating that about 25% of the prospective international students who'd planned to come to UNT in the fall won't be able to make it because of visa issues or travel restrictions related to the pandemic.

Then there are revenue losses from lost retail sales on campus. Fewer students on campus means fewer people spending money at campus fast food restaurants, coffee shops and the university bookstore.

"When you add it up, it's a pretty good chunk of change," Smatresk said.

click to enlarge The student union area is devoid of students and may be sparsely populated in the fall. - MIKE BROOKS
The student union area is devoid of students and may be sparsely populated in the fall.
Mike Brooks
The university's returning students seem to be coming back in their usual numbers. But officials are still waiting to see what its incoming freshman class looks like. It's possible that students who'd planned to go to UNT in the fall will decide to spend a year in community college instead, or take a gap year between the end of high school and the beginning of college, Smatresk said. But it's also possible that students from North Texas who'd planned to go somewhere else for college might decide to stay closer to home.

Any plans the university makes for keeping students safe on campus are based on the assumption that the university will be able to return to in-person classes at all. The biggest concern, Smatresk said, is that North Texas could see a spike in confirmed cases over the summer, forcing colleges and universities to go back to online-only classes for the beginning of the fall semester. Recent modeling has shown that the Dallas-Fort Worth area could be in for exactly that kind of spike over the summer months.

If that happens, the classes that students take online next fall will be different from the ones faculty members hurriedly moved online when the university shut down last semester, Smatresk said. Even before the pandemic, the university was moving toward offering more online classes. But when the campus shut down, university officials had to figure out a way to work what they'd planned to do over three to five years into a few weeks.

The results weren't always good. In March, just after colleges and universities across the state began online-only classes, students complained about technical issues. A UNT student from Mesquite told the Observer that the majority of one of his first online class sessions was taken up by background noise from other students who hadn't muted their microphones.

Since then, the university has had a chance to work with professors to polish up their online classes. Students who finished last semester online will find the university's new online classes stronger and more compelling than the ones they saw last spring, Smatresk said.

click to enlarge Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell says the fall will be difficult for his campus if it proceeds online. - KATHY TRAN
Paul Quinn College President Michael Sorrell says the fall will be difficult for his campus if it proceeds online.
Kathy Tran

'Life is Going To Be Hard'

Michael Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College, said colleges that are looking to expand their online courses need to make sure they do so in a way that doesn't leave disadvantaged students behind.

Paul Quinn is a private, historically black college in southern Dallas. About 85% of the college's students are eligible for Pell Grants. Most of those students have spent their academic careers in under-resourced classrooms where they've felt like no one was paying attention to them, Sorrell said.

Those students need to be engaged in class, he said, and they often get angry and frustrated when they don't feel that way. To them, being moved into online classes can feel like one more way they're being ignored or overlooked. No matter what online options colleges pick, they need to be implemented in a way that makes sure those students feel engaged and respected, he said.

Paul Quinn hasn't made an announcement about whether it will resume in-person classes in the fall. But in an op-ed published last month in The Atlantic, Sorrell said college administrators who are making plans to reopen in the fall are "deluding themselves." College presidents need to be realistic about the challenges their schools face and transparent about their decisions, he said.

"Any path forward — for higher education and for everyone in society — requires telling people this truth: Life is going to be hard for the foreseeable future," Sorrell wrote. "We are in the early stages of a pandemic that we do not yet fully understand. What we do know is that this crisis was mismanaged from the start. As a result, every aspect of our lives is going to be changed for far longer than we are comfortable."

Unless there's a vaccine for COVID-19 and widespread testing, Paul Quinn will start the semester online, Sorrell told the Observer. The country is in largely the same situation where it found itself in March, when colleges and universities began to shut down, he said, so it makes no sense to bring students back to campus and pretend the crisis is over. If the college does have to start the fall semester online, faculty members and administrators will have to make sure students understand that, even though classes are being done remotely, they'll still be rigorous, engaging and challenging, he said.

Whether the college's fall semester begins online or in person, one of the most noticeable changes will be a smaller freshman class, Sorrell said. The college intentionally kept its incoming freshman class smaller this year as a way to give itself more flexibility. Paul Quinn emphasizes personal, hands-on instruction, he said. That model works well when everyone is on campus, but it's harder to do remotely. Having fewer students means professors will be able to give each student more attention, he said.

"We want to reduce it to a number that we thought we could care for well," he said.

Like nearly every other school in the country, Paul Quinn has felt the financial effects of the COVID-19 recession, Sorrell said. Paul Quinn uses a work college model, meaning a large percentage of its revenue comes from placing students off campus with corporate partners. If those companies are in bad financial shape, that affects the college, as well, he said. But, Quinn added, having students off campus also gives the college the opportunity to take stock of its areas of strength and find ways to improve in areas where it's underperforming.

click to enlarge Paul Quinn College's campus in southern Dallas - KATHY TRAN
Paul Quinn College's campus in southern Dallas
Kathy Tran

Not One Answer

The Dallas County Community College District announced last month it would run almost all of its classes online through the fall semester. Chancellor Joe May said the online model is the only feasible way to bring students back at all.

The community college system has about 162,000 students annually, a number that district officials expect to see grow as laid-off workers look to change careers. During normal times, on any given day, there are about 40,000 students across the district's seven campuses. If the district tried to bring all those students back for in-person classes, there would have to be temperature checks and medical questionnaires as students came into class. There would be no way to do to those checks for so many students without asking them to show up long before classes started, May said.

The district has seen greater demand for online classes, in part because of health concerns related to the pandemic and in part because of convenience, May said. Unlike four-year universities, community colleges are generally commuter schools whose students often take classes part-time. Many of those students are beginning to find online classes are a better fit for their lives, he said.

There are some classes the district can't do online, May said. Many of the district's job training classes have hands-on lab components that don't translate well to distance learning. Moving as many classes as possible into an online setting allows the district to offer the few classes that must be taught in person safely.

For some classes, that may mean splitting a course that would ordinarily be taught in one classroom up into three or four, May said. For others, it could mean installing plastic dividers between work stations. In classes where an instructor needs to look over students' shoulders to see how they're doing, they might use Bluetooth cameras to watch from a safe distance, he said.

"It turns out there's not one answer," he said.

Smilie, the UNT student, thinks that taking steps to keeping people spaced apart in classes and putting classes either partially or entirely online are a good start. But she worries about going to classes that are taught in person. Even during a once-in-a-generation pandemic, younger college students feel invincible, she said. That may make some of them less likely to take the virus seriously and more likely to come to class even when they're feeling sick. Smilie worries that would put her and other students like her at risk.

Smilie hopes universities will give students an online-only option even for classes that are taught in person. Students who are sick or worried about getting sick could connect to in-person class sessions through Zoom, she said. She'd also like to see colleges require everyone who comes to campus to wear masks.

If there's a class in Smilie's schedule in the fall that doesn't give her any alternative other than to show up in person, she'll have to drop it, she said. That's not a choice she's happy about. She's already seen a medical situation derail her college career once. But she also knows the risks involved in showing up to an in-person class with other students would be too great.

"It's starting to feel like it's a decision, again, between my health and my education," she said. "I've had to make that decision before. I don't want to have to do it again."
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Silas Allen has been the Dallas Observer's news editor since March 2019. Before coming to Dallas, he worked as a reporter and editor at the Oklahoman in Oklahoma City. He's a Missouri native and a graduate of the University of Missouri.
Contact: Silas Allen