The College Post
The College Post -- Covering Higher Education in America

Scrapping Plans to Bring Students to Campus, DC Universities Shift to Online

American University sophomore Brian Kramer spent most of his spring and summer at home in Montgomery County, Maryland, evaluating the state of the COVID-19 pandemic, and considering how safe it would be to return to campus in the fall.

By the beginning of the summer, he was still unsure about the safest option but decided to commit to living on campus again.

“It was weird because I was very conflicted,” Kramer, a political science and secondary education major, said to The College Post. “What I really wanted to do was be able to be in a space, like be in housing, but not necessarily go to classes [in-person] because I felt like that would have been very bad.”

So, Kramer paid his housing deposit and continued to monitor the evolving status of the pandemic.

On June 16, American University’s administration announced their plan for the fall semester, called AU Forward. They planned for a semester with limited on-campus housing for freshmen and sophomores and “a blend of in-person and online classes and activities.”

The university planned for students to live in single rooms to reduce density. They also announced that after Thanksgiving break, all classes and exams would be completed online to reduce the risk of community coronavirus spread from students traveling home. 

At this point, Kramer was still on board to live on campus and operate in a blended class environment.

“AU has small classes … compared to other universities. Our biggest classes are usually only about 40 people and an average class is usually about 18-20, so you could possibly do it,” he said. “I was like ‘Yeah, maybe this can work.’ But as things started to become more real and people were like ‘Yeah, this [virus] is not going away,’ I started to realize that this is completely ridiculous and we should’ve just planned to be online the whole time.” 

American University leadership came to a similar conclusion at the end of July.

“The rising number of COVID-19 cases in the nation and the DC metro area indicates that transmission of the virus remains a constant threat and community spread continues throughout the country,” university president Sylvia M. Burwell and her cabinet wrote on July 30.

“These evolving health conditions and government requirements now compel us to adjust our plan and offer fall semester undergraduate and graduate courses online with no residential experience,” they announced.

In just over a week, three other Washington, DC, universities — Howard University, Georgetown University, and George Washington University — also reformed previous plans and announced their fall semester would be conducted all-online.

The Safest Option

“I am absolutely in favor of online for this semester,” Aden Hayes, the Executive Director of the Foundation for Practical Education, told The College Post. “I do not believe that any college or university, with a possible exception of a very rural college in North or South Dakota or something like that, could actually keep the virus out of the campus.”

“No matter how much they plan and how much they spend I don’t think the universities are going to be able to avoid having a very significant percentage of their students test positive,” Hayes added.

In a recent article in Inside Higher Ed, Hayes wrote about deal-breakers and “circuit breakers” that he thought should be enough to push a college campus into an all-online environment. Circuit breakers, Hayes wrote, were community factors that “could strongly incline an institution to move to online instruction.”

A woman wearing a mask looks at her laptop.
In the wake of COVID-19, online classes have replaced classroom teaching. Photo: Edward Jenner/Pexels

One circuit breaker was that a university would have to quarantine hundreds of students as soon as they arrived on campus due to local travel advisories.

Another circuit breaker kicked in if local schools remained closed or planned to remain closed for the fall.

Both of these were cited by American University in their July 30 letter announcing the institution’s move to an all-online environment. 

On July 24, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser issued a mandate requiring all travelers from COVID-19 hotspots to the DC area to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. And, on July 30, the DC public school system announced all classes would be online through at least November 6. 

That same day, American University announced its move to all-online classes. 

“Everybody has to suffer a bit this semester and the way to suffer least overall is to do online classes,” Hayes said. 

Social Drawbacks for Students

Though the coronavirus pandemic has been ravaging the US since March, the effects of prolonged quarantine and social distancing measures on the emotional well being of the general population, including students, are not yet known. 

Hayes acknowledged that students will suffer social and sociological drawbacks from learning and communicating in an online environment rather than in person.

“The colleges and universities claim that ‘our clubs will meet online,’ and you’ll get to have parties online and things like that. Every student knows that that’s just not a substitute for what he or she were used to,” Hayes said.

Kramer, who just completed his freshman year at American University, described that bonding with peers online, such as via Zoom, in the spring was definitely tougher than it was in-person.

“It’s definitely going to be the weirdest part of it,” he said. “When you’re in a community it’s far easier to meet people, to talk to people. It’s hard to describe, but you kind of bump into people and you form a community and stuff… It’s so much harder to do that online.”

But even throughout the summer, social interactions on college campuses have caused COVID-19 outbreaks.

At the University of California, Berkeley, 47 positive COVID cases in early July were tied to “a series of recent parties connected to the CalGreek system.” That same week, the University of Washington announced that 121 positive COVID-19 cases were tied to students living in fraternity houses near campus.

“There is just no way to keep people apart, I mean look what is happening this summer … where fraternities have spread coronavirus,” Hayes said.

Kramer understands the need for social distancing but is still optimistic he’ll be able to make some social connections online this fall.

“I’ll probably still be able to bond with people in classes, I hope. I’ll probably still keep in touch with the people I already know, but social events on Zoom are very weird,” he said. “It’s going to be hard but I mean, we have to be flexible.”

Hayes explained that two of his own children are college-aged, and that he understands the social aspects of not being on campus or in classes with peers are tough.

“That’s a sacrifice we have to make to the pandemic; to the coronavirus. There is no really good solution under the circumstances,” he said.