Some colleges and universities have opted to stick to virtual learning. Yet, others have said they still plan on going forward with their plans for in-person learning, or do a hybrid model that consists of a mixture of in-person and remote classes.
And students — some who are enthusiastic about being back, others who are worried about the safety risks — are still showing up.
The answer, according to education experts, is simple: their options are limited. They can reopen, and impose safety measures to try and curb the spread of the virus, or they can continue to conduct remote learning only, and risk financial devastation.
Terry Hartle, who is senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, described the situation to CNN as “a perfect storm for colleges and universities.”
The big argument for going back
What they — and many others — didn’t anticipate was how long the pandemic would last, and how quickly Covid-19 would spread. Lacking a nationwide mandate, many schools were left to figure out the rapidly changing situation for themselves, amidst external pressure.
Other revenue also disappeared. Over the summer, for example, many schools are accustomed to hosting alumni events and other types of gatherings, Hartle noted. But all that auxiliary money evaporated as the world screeched to a halt.
Meanwhile, the cost of keeping faculty and staff employed did not go down. And most colleges typically spend 60-70% of their budget on human resources, Hartle said.
“The biggest thing colleges spend money on is faculty and staff,” he said. “Laying these people off is not something anyone wants to do, because it’s the equivalent of throwing away seed corn.”
This is arguably the main reason so many colleges and universities are pushing to reopen. A reopened campus means football games (a source of revenue), parking fees (one school, Hartle said, is losing $2 million a month in parking revenue), and — of course — housing.
“We’re not yet seeing widespread furloughs and layoffs, but if financial challenges continue, those I am afraid will be unavoidable.”
Every college is being affected differently, Hartle said. Schools that have already been seeing declining enrollment are the ones that may face an existential crisis. Public schools, at least, get a significant amount of support from the state government. Private schools get significant backing from donations and gifts.
Still, the effects of the pandemic on universities are already visible.
Remote learning, less earning
Daniele Struppa, the president of Chapman University, told CNN that the pandemic has already taken a toll on the institution financially.
The private liberal arts school, which is in Orange County, California, made the decision earlier this month to keep classes virtual for the fall semester.
“This is not the news we wanted, nor the plan we have been working toward for the past several months,” he wrote.
But now, Chapman is looking at a deficit of upwards of $110 million, Struppa told CNN.
About 82% of Chapman’s revenue comes from tuition and fees. Some students, Struppa said, are deciding to take a semester off or deferring their enrollment because they’d rather return post-Covid.
Going remote also means the university won’t make any money off of on-campus housing, which will cost Chapman a whopping $40 million, Struppa said. The school also spent over $2 million in new technology to enhance remote learning.
The reduction in enrollment is also costing about $36 million, plus an extra $15 million the school allotted to extra financial aid due to the recession. That, plus all the small ways universities make money (think parking, bookstores, etc), adds up to about $110 million.
And Chapman isn’t unique, he said. The majority of universities have a similar business model.
Are the safety precautions enough?
Universities and colleges can, for the most part, control what happens on its campuses. They can require face masks, enforce social distancing and set up mandatory testing.
Many institutions that have made the decision to keep in-person classes have done that and then some, pouring money and resources into ensuring student safety upon their return to campus.
At Boston University, students are even getting involved in encouraging their peers to hold each other accountable when it comes to enforcing social distancing guidelines.
But even with help from vigilant students, school officials can’t necessarily control the off-campus gatherings, where rules are more likely to be ignored and the virus more likely to spread.
“I know every Chad and Brad isn’t going to do their part,” Ally Owens, a senior at the University of Michigan, told CNN. “I’m hoping for the best, but expecting the worst.”
But it’s feels like the university is checking off boxes, Owens said. Meanwhile, she’s already heard rumors about opening week parties, particularly within Greek life, where the university seems to be “turning a blind eye.”
When the virus spreads among students, it also puts faculty and staff at risk.
Linda Bolin, a professor at the College of Nursing at East Carolina University, is teaching her classes online this year.
But as a resident of Greenville, North Carolina, where the school is based, she said she still worries about students following guidelines outside of the classroom.
“I just don’t go out,” she told CNN.
‘A gamble with our lives’
For many, the fall semester already feels like a lose-lose situation.
Some students who returned to their respective college campuses said they are frustrated by how their school is handling coronavirus.
“I see an institution that I love so much making a gamble with our lives, and ultimately failing,” Payton Tysinger, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, told CNN.
Tysinger said he was not surprised by the Covid clusters that popped up on campus. Nor was he surprised when the university — one week later — announced it would switch to virtual learning entirely. At that point, more than 100 people in the campus community had tested positive.
But he was disappointed.
When asked for comment about student concerns, a spokesperson for UNC-Chapel Hill pointed CNN to a statement from its Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz.
“As much as we believe we have worked diligently to help create a healthy and safe campus living and learning environment, we believe the current data presents an untenable situation. As we have always said, the health and safety of our campus community are paramount, and we will continue to modify and adapt our plan when necessary.”
Other students said they are excited about being back at school.
For María Luisa Paúl, a senior at Notre Dame University in Indiana, the possibility of a semi-normal semester — even if it meant replacing bars and parties with masks and hand sanitizer — was better than remote learning.
“As a senior I’d love to go to bars, I’d love to hug people, I’d love to have a normal semester,” she told CNN. “But I can’t, and it’s something we have to deal with. With protocols, we can get a semester that’s a bit more normal than just being online.”
However, he said after receiving encouragement and advice from a medical expert, the university “decided to take steps, short of sending students home, at least for the time being.”
Still, the consensus among students CNN interviewed was that safety should remain a priority for colleges and universities.
“Even if people are young, they might not die,” Sosa said, “but it could still affect them in the long run or could get someone sick who’s vulnerable.”
Tysinger said before UNC-Chapel Hill reversed course, there was a gathering at a dorm called Hinton James. Video footage that circulated online showed a group of about 20 students all sliding down a slip-and-side outside.
“I just really can’t wrap my mind around how anyone saw a slip-and-slide being rolled outside a residence hall and thought it was a good idea,” he said. “It looked like coronavirus.”