With almost 4,000 degree-granting institutions in the United States preparing for the 2021 Fall semester, there is no shortage of unique strategies to tackle the new academic year’s logistical challenges. To get a clearer sense of what challenges colleges are planning for this fall, we sifted through hundreds of news stories and temporarily updated school policies, and this is what we found.
With so many things to consider, from local government mandates and CDC regulations to an individual college or university’s priorities, there is no single solution. Some institutions have increased online and hybrid options while others have deemphasized them, and many are introducing new mental health and student support services. Read on for a closer look at how colleges are preparing for the fall.
Disclaimer: Many of these policies are in flux. Some may have changed since this article was written. For the most up-to-date information about policies at any particular college or university, visit their website.
Mask Mandates on College Campuses
In response to recent CDC recommendations, mask mandates seem to be the most common way colleges are preparing for the fall. Like the University of Nebraska, some only require masks for unvaccinated students, while others take a hard stance on masking. Penn State requires masks in all university buildings with only a few exceptions, and most public colleges in Mississippi have introduced similar requirements. The University of Michigan and public universities in Minnesota have also followed suit.
On the other hand, some state governments have forbidden schools from requiring face masks. These states include Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah. Still, many institutions in these states are encouraging masks, with a few even challenging the legality of such regulations.
Some Colleges are requiring COVID-19 vaccinations
Public Colleges in Colorado and Siena College in New York require that all students show proof of vaccination unless they have a medical or religious exemption, and Yale has followed suit. So far, they report that about 85% of staff and an equal percentage of students are fully vaccinated.
Only one institution in Utah, Westminster College, is requiring all students and employees to get vaccinated. Since they’re a private college, they’re able to set this mandate even though the Utah Legislature has ruled that public schools, colleges, and universities can’t require COVID-19 vaccines.
In many states across the country, requiring vaccinations is a controversial choice since the vaccine is still under emergency use approval from the FDA. Some unions have publically stated that vaccination can not be a condition of employment for their members. Ultimately, it will be up to the courts to define the legal questions around vaccine requirements. In the meantime, many colleges are encouraging vaccination but holding off on making them mandatory until the vaccines have full FDA approval.
The University of Wisconsin-La Crosse has taken the extra step of creating a vaccination incentive program that enters vaccinated students who report their status into a drawing for prizes and scholarships. The University of Wisconsin system also allocates additional scholarship funds to any campus in the system that achieves at least a 70% vaccination rate. In Arizona, where vaccine requirements are banned, public universities are raffling off prizes to encourage vaccinations.
COVID Testing for Students
Some schools, including the College of Charleston, will require students to receive a COVID-19 test before the start of the semester, and Northeastern University will require all students to be tested once a week, regardless of vaccination status. Several colleges will require unvaccinated students to undergo testing, and SUNY New Paltz will also require daily health screenings. A few colleges, including Arkansas Tech University, only test those who have symptoms or believe they may have been exposed.
Taking testing one step further, the University of Illinois Chicago plans to perform campus wastewater sampling to monitor the presence of COVID-19 among the campus population.
Remote learning for College Students
Many colleges are adapting by focusing on the shift toward online and hybrid classes in the fall. With synchronous and asynchronous options, schools are looking for ways to maximize flexibility for students and limit exposure to the virus. Texarkana College is offering a program they call “online on a schedule,” the synchronous online learning option is geared towards students who might not be comfortable with in-person classes.
Baton Rouge Community College has fully embraced hybrid learning. They’re offering a mix of in-person and remote options, allowing students to choose between attending in the classroom, synchronous online learning, or asynchronous learning on a class-by-class basis. College Chancellor Willie E. Smith, Sr., called it “the way of the future” in an interview with The Advocate.
Mental Health and other student services
With all this focus on students’ physical health, colleges and universities are also acknowledging the mental health challenges of the pandemic. They’re investing in mental health programs, bringing on new counselors, and training residential staff to help struggling students. Several colleges and university systems have earmarked part of their COVID-19 federal relief funds for mental health initiatives.
Some colleges, including East Central Community College in Decatur, Mississippi, and Cleveland State Community College in Tennessee, are adding free vaccine clinics to their list of student support services. At West Virginia University all students and employees must take a COVID-19 educational module to learn about COVID, vaccines, transmissibility, masking, and other related topics.
Planning for Change
With vaccination rates behind schedule and a Delta variant introducing new uncertainty, the only thing we know for sure is that these policies are subject to change. Colleges and Universities may need to pivot mid-semester, just like they did in 2020. Perhaps the most important thing colleges can do to prepare for the fall semester is to commit to clear and open communication with students and instructors.
Those institutions that embrace online classes may be in a better position since they don’t have to worry about the potential risks of in-person interaction. Yet many traditionally in-person colleges are doing their best to avoid relying on remote learning. West Virginia University told a local news channel that their “highest priority is to offer a fully in-person, on-campus academic and student experience this fall.”
What We’ve Learned So Far
It’s safe to say that virtual and in-person students alike are still dealing with the stress and confusion of the pandemic. They are likely to value student support services and flexible learning options more highly than ever. Whatever else colleges are doing to prepare for the fall, the right support services are an essential piece of the puzzle. At the same time, transparent and open communication is critical. Students, faculty, parents, and staff will need to remain informed if they are to rise to the occasion this Fall 2021 semester.