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Colleges Weigh What It Would Take To Reopen Campuses For Fall Semester


Twenty million students should be heading to colleges in the fall, but universities are struggling to figure out what to do. And so what's emerged, like so much of what's happened here in the United States during this pandemic, is a grab bag of responses. Several universities have announced that they'll go completely online. Others say that they will open their campus but with modified teaching arrangements. Most are still struggling to put together a plan. And that's left faculty, staff and students in limbo - students like Alexis Jones, (ph), a high school senior in Washington, D.C., who got into Cornell University. Cornell is still evaluating its options for the fall, but Jones says she and her friends understand that their freshman year might have to look different than they imagined, but that doesn't make it any easier.

ALEXIS JONES: It's one thing to, like, lose their prom and their graduation. And some people lost, like, their senior trips. And then on top of that having to possibly do one semester of online schooling - it's really, like, deterring for a lot of students. You're going to miss part of what it feels like to be a freshman and everything because when you go back, it'll be second semester.

JAY DAVIS: There's nothing like putting your hand on somebody's shoulder and say, yes, you can do this. You know, it's going to be OK.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jay Davis teaches at Shasta College in Northern California. He says he's not just having to figure out how to support his students from afar but also how to teach them a subject that has been very challenging to move online, welding.

DAVIS: You cannot teach someone to weld without some - you know, without a lot of hands-on time with these different processes. And there's just no way to replace that. But we are trying to do the best we can, understandably, with the situation and give them the technical information online and then hope to schedule those lab components in the future.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In northeastern Oklahoma, Laura Pillman (ph) teaches music at a small college that has announced plans to completely open its campus - dorms and all - in the fall.

LAURA PILLMAN: I'm absolutely certain that it's a concern of every administration right now of students getting sick on campus. I do hope, as well, that they are thinking about faculty getting sick and what type of impact that would have for our ability to teach courses.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says she has no sick days or paid time off, and the annual flu season already takes its toll on her department.

PILLMAN: You know, it's just not possible, when you're all teaching and taking classes in the same building, to not be in constant contact with each other. So I'm certain if that happens every year with the flu, the - something similar would happen with this illness.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We want to take a closer look now at one school trying to balance safety and education - the University of Maryland Baltimore County. It's a public university known for its science and engineering programs, and joining us now is UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski. Welcome to the program, sir.

FREEMAN HRABOWSKI: Thank you. Delighted to be with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we're also joined by Elissa Nadworny, who covers higher education for NPR. Welcome to you.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: So, President Hrabowski, will you be reopening the campus this fall? Do you know yet?

HRABOWSKI: Yes, the campus will be open, as it has been this spring. However, we are still to decide how many of the students will be in the residence halls. We are between 40 and 50% residential now. And we are thinking it will be some combination of remote learning and some students on campus, but it's all up in the air depending on everything from the CDC guidelines to what our governor says to what the system says as we work across all the campuses.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. As we've mentioned, several universities have announced their plans for the fall. What have you found in your reporting, Elissa?

NADWORNY: So it's really been all over the map. I mean, we've got a number of schools that have come out to say, yeah, we plan to be in-person in the fall, or we intend to be in-person in the fall. I think it's important to know, you know, they're still trying to woo students to enroll. We've seen a lot of really creative solutions. The president of Stanford University said, maybe we'll hold classes outside under tents. You know, that - maybe that works in California, not so much Boston or other locations. And then we've seen, you know, California State University system - they have 23 campuses and about half a million students - they announced they're planning to be totally online in the fall.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We've seen, as schools and colleges shift to distance learning this spring, it's exposed inequality among students. Not everyone has reliable internet or the right devices to do school online. How do you make it a level playing field for all the students?

HRABOWSKI: Keep in mind that we produce about a third of the IT graduates in the state of Maryland, and so we know how to do this well - how to work with students who may not have the devices, how we can, in some case, have loners and other cases approaches to buying it, how we use financial aid to give them support. The No. 1 challenge, really, is to set a tone that says, we will get through this. We will work together on this because we know it's our responsibility to make sure we're addressing their needs, being responsive, building community - I can't emphasize that theme enough.

NADWORNY: Well, I had a question. You know, we've seen some of these lawsuits from students who, you know, want tuition refunds from transitioning to online. You hear this concern that online education isn't equal to this on-person - the magic kind of in the classroom, one-on-one - I wonder if you could talk a little bit about, how do you educate just as well? How do you get that same experience, especially when you have a campus with a lot of science and engineering classes? You have a lot of labs.

HRABOWSKI: You may not know this, but two-thirds of Americans who start in science leave it within the first year or two. I think it would be a mistake to assume, particularly in the STEM areas, that we've been doing a great job, and this is not going to allow us to do a great job. No. Most - we call the first year of science and engineering in America weed-out courses. One of the practices that's old fashioned that we want to think about is this idea of cutthroat work in science, where students don't work together. They just compete against each other. This is giving us a chance to think about how we teach people to work in groups. And you can get a lot done through these Zoom calls, through face to face, through using technology. And so I would challenge educators and the public to not be so quick to assume, oh, the old way is the best way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Are you now seeing this as an opportunity to reimagine what universities are and what they do?

HRABOWSKI: Looking in the mirror itself - as a society, as an individual, as a university - can be painful, but we have been doing that for some time now and have been changing the way we teach and much more emphasis on supporting faculty and professional development. But - and much more work in groups, use of technology, a hybrid approach already. And so to the extent that campuses are looking in the mirror and rethinking their approach, they have much more possibilities for doing what's necessary to educate well and to cut costs. And this next year, of course, will be very challenging because of the economy but also because there will not be COVID-free campuses.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just briefly and to close, are you worried that some universities and colleges will not make it through this period?

HRABOWSKI: You know, people say that all the time. And I don't have the crystal ball. What I know is that I have confidence in our country that we know that we would not be who we are if it were not for higher education - education in general and higher education because the future of America is tied inextricably to the strength of higher education in our society.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Freeman Hrabowski is the president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County. And Elissa Nadworny covers higher education for NPR. Thank you both very much.

NADWORNY: Thank you.

HRABOWSKI: Keep hope alive. Remember that. Keep hope alive. (Laughter). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.