Colleges Are Preparing for a Full Reopening. What Should They Worry About?

Michael Beausoleil

After a year of challenges, vaccines have been put in arms and COVID cases are ticking down. It seems possible that life could emulate normalcy, and college campuses are trying to give students the full experience again. After a year with remote learning, social distancing, and reduced activities, it's finally time to make students feel they're at a college.

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It feels as if the return is overdue, but it won't come without its precautions. Schools will need to have protocols in place to protect the staff and students, allowing them to feel safe upon their returns to campus. If this works, 2022 might feel a lot like 2019. There's also potential for health violations to raise concerns and turn Universities into danger zones.

Likely, the experience will fall somewhere in the middle. If administrators enforce COVID protocols, they're likely to avoid disaster. Without protocols, the return to campus life could result in a lot of problems. Not only would this be hazardous for students, but it could also have financial implications. Most schools are in a position where they're hoping for the best. To avoid more problems, they also need to prepare for the worst.

What Will Fall 2021 Look Like?

Universities needed to come up with a plan early. While early 2021 showed a lot of promise with vaccines, the number of COVID cases in the United States was still high. This was also the period of time when schools began accepting students. During this process, they made plans for Fall 2021. This means many students are enrolling in universities for the first time based on a promise of in-person learning. Strategies were designed before vaccines were easily accessible.

Fortunately, the number of cases did decline. Admissions offices can breathe a sigh of relief knowing they won't need to reverse their plans to have students move on campus. This doesn't mean the on-campus experience is going to be uninhibited. In fact, many schools will have regulations in place and standards to uphold. Life will look different for students, but the upcoming academic year is leaps and bounds better than the prior academic year.

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The biggest regulation going into effect is the need for a vaccine. Public schools in California will require vaccines for in-person learning, and many other universities are following the trend. Verifying students are vaccinated will be a new challenge, but it is common for universities to verify immunization against other diseases (such as measles, mumps, rubella, and meningitis). Of course, some students will be considered exempt from these policies for medical conditions or religious affiliations. For this reason, schools will never be a fully contained bubble.

Most schools have large populations, and some events have amassed over 1,000 people. Each state has its own guidanceon handling indoor gatherings and large events. Generally, there are few restrictions for vaccinated individuals. This means there should not be any issues with groups of people gathering for classes, but schools may be hesitant to have larger gatherings or lectures.

How Could Things Go Wrong?

Students returning to campus likely approach the transition with a mixture of excitement and hesitancy. This is a great sign of progress, and a lot of evidence suggests people can share spaces and interact safely once vaccinated. Universities have put a lot of thought into their strategies, but they're not foolproof. Things can go wrong, and there's no doubt there will be complications at times.

Most aspects of college life will face some impact. This is unavoidable when migrating back on campus, and a part of the progress. While it's great to move in the right direction, this year will also be very experimental. If anything goes wrong, the holes in universities' plans will get exposed, and adjustments will need to be made along the way.

Social Distancing

Students who have their vaccines are likely excited to have social interactions again. Generally, this is considered safe, but larger gatherings may pose some complications. If there are active COVID cases, they could spread in such environments. There's no telling who has the virus (especially if they're asymptomatic), but it poses a risk to those who do not have the vaccine.

Masks will likely remain commonplace. When there is a scare, they will become the first line of defense. This is another area where schools are going to vary, but there's no doubt students will continue to cover their faces. Expect a lot of giveaways to include masks, and schools will specify whether or not events are mask-optional.

Online classes will still be offered at many schools to appeal to unvaccinated students or those who prefer to avoid crowds. While many students will be able to have fully in-person classes if they'd like, professors will be burdened with the task of implementing hybrid and remote courses.

Professor Burnout

Online courses have become a staple of the post-COVID education system. While this is not an ideal solution, it can be more challenging for the faculty. Many professors have struggled during the pandemic due to increased workloads and reduced staffing.

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A return to in-person learning is a welcome change for many people. When schools discuss hybrid models or "online components," there's an added burden to educators. Now, they need to create new materials and restructure their learning model to appeal to two populations. Over time this demand wears on them.

Remember, the education students receive is highly dependent upon the quality of the staff. Giving more work to professors means students get less attention and lecture quality suffers.

Overcharging

The 2020-2021 academic year has been hard for both students and universities. Facilities need to be maintained, but students don't want to pay for services they can't use. When campuses first went remote, there were even cases of students suing their school for maintaining full tuition. Fortunately, it seems as if most facilities will open. Students can expect to have access to gyms, cafeterias, libraries, and academic buildings this year. Universities are never cheap, but at least students aren't not paying for closed doors.

If universities begin to compromise, students will take notice. Nobody wants to pay full price and receive reduced services. Online education can give credits to the same degree but doesn't always offer a full experience. Administration knows this, and they will be very hesitant to move online. If they do, students will respond unfavorably.

New Outbreaks

Obviously, campuses want to be safe places for students. As much as they try to ensure everyone is vaccinated, there's no guarantee. Universities often have large venues used for outside events. There's a possibility that outside cases are brought onto campus, especially when facilities are used for public events like admissions seminars. Plus, this assumes the vaccines are perfect. They're undoubtedly a huge help, but there's no guarantee they will work 100%.

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Last year schools dealt with numerous outbreaks thanks to frat parties and social gatherings. Even with regulations in place, outsiders will congregate in small spaces and germs will be swapped. Parties are going to happen again in the upcoming year, and universities shouldn't be surprised. This is part of college life and a reason students want to return to campus. If administrators think otherwise, they're fooling themselves.

There are also fears that no amount of preparation can protect students. The delta variant has been causing states to reconsider protocols, and even vaccinated people have tested positive. If this becomes a bigger concern, universities could face shutdowns and social distancing again.

Mental Health

It's safe to assume universities have put a lot of thought into their on-campus protocol. These policies address physical health, but there doesn't seem to be a huge emphasis on mental health. However, this should be a major concern. A lot of college-aged students have suffered as a result of the pandemic. It's been reported that up to 95% have experienced some type of mental health concern, and these won't resolve overnight.

By design, on-campus activities will assist students who are feeling lonely or isolated. Levels of anxiety and depression have increased which may require mental health resources. An increased need should be predictable, but budget constraints may compromise the number of available resources.

Communications from schools may contribute to levels of anxiety. Students will assume the worst, and the constant flow of outreach can become exhausting. Administration can amplify concerns with their constant communication, and this can instill a level of fear in the community. 

Are Schools Fully Prepared?

In an ideal world, students would be able to study at universities without fear of getting sick. In reality, we're about to enter a year of rebuilding. After time without social interaction and freedom to roam the campus, students will have a greater appreciation for these freedoms. Students should expect a year that is boring by 2019's standards, but a huge improvement from 2020. 

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In the worst-case scenario, schools will not be able to fully open. If students lie about vaccination or a new variant emerges, infections could spread quickly across campuses. This would result in shut-downs, quarantining, and reduced services. Fortunately, we also have more testing available. This may make it possible for campuses to identify single cases before the virus spreads. 

Even if students are safely on campus, there are other concerns to be aware of. Mental health concerns have risen, and faculty members have felt the burden of increased workloads. Students have also become more critical of the services they're receiving. If universities want to charge a huge amount to attend, students want to get everything they're paying to receive. 

Before going to campus, you can check university websites for their Fall 2021 protocol. This will provide guidance, but it's only a fraction of the discussion. Beneath the surface, they have plans for potential outbreaks and rule violations. Hopefully, this is a discussion that will never be put into practice. If there is a concern, staff will need to react quickly. Universities are trying to prepare for the worst, but they can only do so much. No one predicted the events of early 2020, and they're certainly not trying to repeat this scenario in 2022. 

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