Colleges plan fall opening, but campuses won't look the same

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In this Wednesday, May 20, 2020 photo carpenters John Mackie, of Canton, Mass., left, and Doug Hathaway, of Holliston, Mass., right, apply trim to a newly installed plastic barrier in an office area, at Boston University, in Boston. Boston University is among a growing number of universities making plans to bring students back to campus this fall, but with new measures meant to keep the coronavirus at bay. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Growing numbers of U.S. colleges are pledging to reopen this fall, with dramatic changes to campus life to keep the coronavirus at bay. Big lectures will be a thing of the past. Dorms will will be nowhere near capacity. Students will face mandatory virus testing. And at some smaller schools, students may be barred from leaving campus.

Even as some universities abandon hope of in-person instruction next semester, citing concerns from public health officials, dozens are announcing plans to welcome students back in August. They acknowledge that an outbreak could force classes back online, but many of their leaders say the financial and political pressures to reopen are too large to ignore.

At West Virginia University, President E. Gordon Gee said students don’t want to wait for a vaccine, and the school can’t afford to.

“If it was simply based on science, we would keep everything shut down until we have a vaccine and until it’s working. But I don’t feel that that’s feasible, either economically or socially, and certainly not educationally,” Gee said. “We will open, but it will be different.”

Colleges planning to reopen include Purdue University, Texas A&M University, the University of Notre Dame and statewide systems in Arizona, Florida, New Hampshire and elsewhere. Some plan to make decisions this summer, including Princeton University, where officials say it's too soon to make a call.

The California State University system, by contrast, has said its 23 campuses will stay mostly online this fall, citing predictions of a virus resurgence later this year. Others including the University of South Carolina, Rice and Creighton universities plan to bring students back but end the term early, before Thanksgiving, anticipating a second wave could hit later in the fall.

President Donald Trump has encouraged schools to reopen despite concerns from his top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci. Speaking at a Senate hearing last week, Fauci said it would be “a bit of a bridge too far” to expect a vaccine before the fall. Trump countered that the comment was "not an acceptable answer.”

New guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week say colleges should work with state and local officials to decide how to reopen. But the agency suggests a range of safety measures for campuses, saying they should keep common spaces closed if possible, hold smaller classes in larger rooms, and install plastic barriers in areas where it's hard to stay apart.