Back-to-College Plans Devolve Into a Jumble of Fast-Changing Rules

Douglas Belkin and Melissa Korn:

Spelman College announced on July 1 that the Atlanta campus would welcome back students to dorms and classrooms for the fall semester. Last week it reversed course. Classes would be online only.

In Waterville, Maine, Colby College plans to open most of its campus to students and faculty with one of the more ambitious testing protocols in higher education. The small school expects to administer about 85,000 Covid-19 tests this fall, including testing students, faculty and staff at least three times during the opening weeks of the academic term.

About 50 miles away, first-year students will be among the only ones on campus at Bowdoin College. “It was not prudent to bring everyone back,” said Clayton Rose, the college president. “We’re walking before we run.”

With fall semester just a few weeks away, the Covid-19 pandemic has stumped the brightest minds at universities across the U.S. There is no consensus about how college campuses are going to open, and what they will look like if they do. There are as many plans as there are institutions, and their guidebooks are being written in pencil, leaving families and students in limbo.

At stake are the health and well-being of more than 20 million students, faculty and staff—as well as billions of dollars in revenue from tuition, dormitories, dining halls and sports competitions. If colleges allow students back on campus, they could be inviting a public-health nightmare. Yet keeping classes online risks a drop in enrollment by students transferring elsewhere or sitting out the year. The University of Michigan, which plans to have students on campus, estimated this spring that its losses from the pandemic could reach $1 billion.

“College presidents are basically in an impossible situation,” said Robert Kelchen, an associate professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. “If they announce they’re going online too soon, they run the risk of losing students and probably making some alumni mad at them. If they open up in person there are serious health concerns, and they run the risk of protests and a vote of no-confidence.”