At the moment, both of our local residential colleges are pursuing optimistic plans that involve students living on campus and taking some classes in person this fall. Under ideal circumstances, this would be a sound plan, but these are not ideal circumstances, and many are wondering if UW-Parkside and Carthage College will make the move to online-only classes at some point in the semester. But based on the evidence, the better question is not if they will switch to remote learning, but when.
After just a week of classes led to over a hundred new COVID-19 infections, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has already moved to online-only classes for the rest of the semester, and the University of Notre Dame has suspended in-person classes until September due to student outbreaks. UNC and Notre Dame are much larger schools than Carthage or Parkside, but a study published last month by researchers from Harvard, Yale, and Massachusetts General Hospital found that on a small college’s campus, every student would need to be tested every two days to keep infections at a manageable level. If, instead of testing every two days, every student was tested once a week, over a third of the student body would be infected over the course of a single semester. Neither Carthage or Parkside have announced plans to test every student at any point.
Even testing everyone when they first arrive might not be enough to stop a large outbreak. Despite testing all new arrivals, U.S. Army bases Fort Benning and Fort Leonard Wood saw over two hundred infections among approximately eleven hundred new recruits within less than a month of welcoming them onto base.
And this isn’t even considering the challenges of enforcing social distancing rules among college students, many of whom live in (normally) crowded dormitories. This will pose a larger problem for Carthage than Parkside. UW-Parkside is mostly a commuter college, and while Parkside had over 1,700 students living on campus in the fall of 2019, they expect to have less than 600 living on campus in the fall of 2020 (a change which will allow for greater social distancing in dorms). To my knowledge, Carthage has not made any announcements about how many students are expected to live on campus this fall, but under normal circumstances 70% of students live on campus, and most students are required to live on campus. Parkside also has larger classrooms than Carthage, and may even use its ballroom and theater as classroom space. But given that Carthage and Parkside are likely to close their doors to students this semester, when will they? Let’s look at a few scenarios.
Scenario 2: Multiple outbreaks occur. This happening in rapid succession is what led UNC and Notre Dame to change their plans, and would likely cause Carthage and Parkside to change theirs as well.
Scenario 3: Outbreaks occur, and a student, faculty, or staff member dies. Many of them are already worried about a return to campus, and the death of someone closely linked to the colleges would make the danger to health and safety a far more visible concern.
Scenario 4: After the withdrawal date or as late as otherwise possible. There are significant financial incentives for colleges to delay becoming online-only, despite the difficulties that a delay can pose for students and staff. Not only are students less likely to enroll if classes are purely online, but closing dormitories will lead to hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost revenue from the need to refund room and board. Like social distancing, this will be more of an issue at Carthage, with its higher percentage of students living on campus.
Scenario 5: The colleges reverse their decisions to reopen campus before the semester starts. Time is ticking on this option, but Michigan State has just made that decision this week, and other colleges are likely to follow suit. Doing this would upset many people’s plans, but not as much as if they waited for students to move back to campus and classes to start, and hundreds of colleges have already reversed their reopening plans.
The decision to move classes online is made by college officials, but they do not make the decision in a vacuum. Students, faculty, staff, and the community can all influence when this decision is made.