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Should Universities Have Students Return to Campus?


René F. Najera, DrPH

July 28, 2020

Across the United States, the number of COVID-19 continue to increase. A few months ago, the thought of opening schools for in-person learning was met with optimism. But now, as the pandemic continues to worsen with the beginning of the school year approaching, many schools and universities are still promising to open. For universities, many are concerned about students from all over the country congregating onto one campus. Especially when considering residence halls, many incoming first-year students worry about their safety when living in such close proximity with other students, especially in buildings with communal bathrooms. With many universities planning to welcome students back to campus within the next month, it is important to be aware of safety measures that must be taken to ensure students on campus are staying safe and healthy.

Many universities are opting for a hybridized style of learning, where students have the option to attend classes physically or virtually. For the classes that are being held in person, it is likely that masks will be required and social distancing will be enforced. Many residence halls, especially those with communal bathrooms, are planning to lower the capacity of their buildings, moving students into other living spaces, such as nearby hotels.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention , the lowest risk option for opening Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) is for all activities and classes to be in an online setting, and for residence halls to be closed. They also state that IHE faculty can work in collaboration with state and local health officials to determine the best options for their institution depending on the geographical location, size, and structure of the institution. A hybridized learning style, along with reduced capacity residence halls, does pose more of a risk than strictly online learning without opening residence halls, but the highest risk would be to have full-sized classes and activities with residence halls housing their normal capacity. 

The states that a significant component of the plan to open universities is clear, transparent communication from universities to families. It is important that the measures being taken to promote the well-being of students. Expectations of students and faculty to comply with public health guidelines should also be continuously emphasized. Plans for responding to potential COVID-19 cases on campus should also be clear, so that families can feel safe sending their students to campus. It is essential that this communication is frequent, direct, and continuously updated as the semester goes on.

For some students, another semester of online classes is not a feasible option. Many low-income students do not have access to high-quality internet connections or adequate study spaces. This makes an online format of learning much less accessible to some demographics of students. Certain aspects of learning which are much more practical in an in-person classroom setting, such as , have been shown to significantly improve student performance. Additionally, certain types of learning, such as in hands-on laboratory settings, cannot be done virtually.

For students who have become accustomed to an in-person style of learning, the transition to remote learning proved difficult. Many students had a lack of motivation with online classes compared to in-person classes. It is common for students to learn and perform better in an in-person setting, where they can better interact with their professors and peers. With proper guidelines in place, it can be possible to have in-person classes, as long as students strictly follow these guidelines.

While the university is making decisions regarding campuses reopening, students themselves play the main role in ensuring campuses are safe. Students must adhere to university guidelines in order to protect themselves, as well as their fellow peers and faculty members. While it is the choice of the university faculty to open campuses, it is ultimately the students’ responsibility to ensure campus is a safe place for all.

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