Virtual lecture halls or hopes for campus life? How colleges plan to reopen during COVID-19

E-learning, traffic patterns and off-campus housing are all part of complex strategies to bring students back

May 21, 2020

Purdue University, Bloomberg / Contributor / Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic upended university life around the globe. As this year’s college session ends, pressure is building for higher education leaders to decide if, when, and how they will reopen next session.

Universities that are re-opening campuses are leaning toward a hybrid model, offering the in-campus experience modified by social distancing, e-learning and other safety practices incorporated across classrooms, student housing and dining areas, says David Houck, Executive Managing Director, JLL, who is based in the U.S. and specializes in higher education.

At the Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia in Spain, for example, students and researchers will return to labs in shifts.

“Schools are considering everything from rotating students in and out of campus in modules to keeping classes online and using the campus only for lab work,” he says.

California State University’s 23 campuses are staying almost entirely online for the fall semester. Other schools are taking a wait-and-see approach: Yale University’s president said a decision will come in July.

“Even for those schools that are planning to reopen campuses, the details are a work in progress,” Houck says. “This is new terrain for everyone.”

Back to class?

Colleges are pursuing a variety of approaches to keep their classrooms safe, with a focus on flexibility to respond to evolving scenarios, Houck says.

“This extends to staffing,” he says. “Many organizations are adjusting staff schedules in creative ways to reduce the number of people in circulation on campus, which can also help cut costs, something that is crucial for struggling universities right now.” 

Lacking the facilities of a large state university, Claremont McKenna College, a 1,300-student private liberal arts college in Los Angeles County, is exploring holding smaller classes in multiple sections, extending hours into the evening. The school is also looking into taking classes outdoors, where the virus spreads less easily.

While universities in Austria will hold no physical lectures through the end of the year, there is expected be a gradual opening this summer of labs and limited functions.

Purdue University in Indiana plans to open on time this fall and is considering taking large in-person lectures online, while hosting smaller groups — where students most benefit from interaction with instructors — on campus, says Jay Wasson, the school’s Associate Vice President, Physical Facilities.

“We are developing layout diagrams for different types of spaces all across campus,” Wasson says.

In buildings with fixed seating, empty rows and seats between students might be taped off. Across other areas, furniture could be removed and placed in storage to reduce seating density.

Even the traffic patterns in some building stairwells are being discussed, along with hand-sanitizing stations and disinfecting wipe dispensers.

 “The goal is to respect social distancing guidelines in an environment that also serves pedagogical needs,” he says.

Housing issues

De-densification challenges are even more pronounced when it comes to housing.

Oregon State University kept its single-occupancy rooms open this spring for international students who were unable to return to their countries and others who had nowhere else to go.

Many colleges are planning to pursue this approach come fall, says Bob Hunt, Managing Director of Public Institutions at JLL, based in the U.S. However, most schools worldwide have residence halls designed for roommates, raising capacity questions.

“The loss of revenue resulting from lower occupancy has significant negative financial impacts on universities,” he says.

It’s important that campus housing include space dedicated to safe isolation in the event a student contracts the virus, says Lindsay Stowell, Executive Vice President, JLL, Public Institutions and Higher Education, based in the U.S.

Claremont McKenna is considering separating quarantining students onto separate floors of the off-campus apartments it leased to distance students.

“We’re seeing a wide range of plans,” Stowell says. “Some universities exploring the use of hotel rooms and off-campus apartments to augment student housing. Others are saying, ‘if our enrollment is down significantly, we won't have a capacity problem.’”

The freshman 15: navigating dining  

Reopening cafeterias is another question universities are contending with.

At the University of Shanghai for Science and Technology, students line up to pass through infrared thermometers that scan their temperatures before entering dining facilities. All meals are pre-packaged, and diners are encouraged to bring their food back to their residences. Those who eat onsite must sit a set distance apart.

Vanderbilt University in Tennessee experimented with a grab-and-go approach, reconfiguring its operations to feed the essential staff and the small percentage of students that remain on campus this spring. Using a text-based online-ordering platform, the school’s dining services operation is serving more than 700 meals per day.

“To sidestep the social distancing and sanitation challenges of large cafeterias, some universities may opt for a take-out-only model,” Hunt says.

Mission intact

 At colleges across the country, there is hope that widespread testing and contact tracing can successfully monitor the health of their communities.

The University of Washington in Seattle is home to the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, a global research center that built one of the leading projection models tracking the pandemic.

“We are drawing heavily on the advice of these experts to drive decisions about reopening,” says Mike McCormick, the school’s Associate Vice President, Asset Management and University Architect.

Because of the financial challenges that existed before coronavirus and are now being amplified by it, many universities are seizing opportunities to make changes that cut costs for both schools and students.

“I do believe the current pandemic will alter the university well into the future — if not permanently,” says McCormick. “The key will be to preserve as much of the student experience as possible while dramatically reducing the costs.”