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COVID-19 Casts Doubt on When Students Will Return to Campus

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College administrators are busy figuring out ways to safely bring students back, but precautionary measures may drastically change the upcoming school year.

Colleges are in a state of limbo while the novel coronavirus sweeps the nation. As school administrators plan for summer and fall, it's unclear when it will be safe for students to return to campus — and in what capacity.

There are more than 830,000 confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States as of this writing, with more than 42,000 reported deaths. Restrictive measures, including stay-at-home orders and social distancing, have forced institutions to suspend most face-to-face instruction indefinitely. Meanwhile, students and faculty are adapting to distance learning through video conference apps such as Zoom.

How long will this be necessary?

School officials across the country are waiting on recommendations from public health agencies. Much will depend on the availability of COVID-19 tests, state rules regarding large public gatherings, and the feasibility of social distancing on campuses.

Some administrators hope students can return by August or September, but others worry that restrictions may drag into next year. When students do return, precautions against the flu-like virus may be standard: Reduced class sizes, fever detectors, outbreak plans, and quarantine housing are among many countermeasures under consideration.

"The pace of the virus is so uncertain, but we want to be back," said Kelli Armstrong, president of Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. "We'll look at every possibility."

Salve Regina is a private, four-year school with an enrollment of about 2,000, and resuming face-to-face instruction is a priority — as long as it doesn't endanger students or faculty. Small class sizes, coastland views of the Atlantic Ocean, and lecture halls in quaint mansions are among the Catholic university's selling points. More importantly, however, it's tricky to replicate some of Salve Regina's programs in virtual environments, including social work, student teaching, and nursing, Armstrong said.

"We would need to make sure that if students are coming from all states and parts of the world, we have test procedures in place. If a student were sick or exposed, we need to make sure other students are safe."

"Our faculty have figured out how to offer clinical hours through simulation labs, but the best experience is to be in hospitals and schools," she said. "If they're closed and limited, that makes it really hard to have that lab environment they [students] need."

Salve Regina officials are planning for both the best- and worst-case scenarios, depending on recommendations from state, regional, and local public health agencies and departments. Armstrong said the university would continue remote learning for as long as it's necessary. If the crisis has not simmered by late August or September, but it is safe to return to campus, Salve Regina may create quarantine housing for sick students, use fever gauges at the entrances of classrooms, or consider other measures.

But these solutions are not fail-proof. Temperature screenings are only partially effective because they can't detect asymptomatic carriers — people who don't get sick but can still spread the virus. Screening tests can also deliver false positives or negatives, potentially sending sick people into spaces where others are healthy. Ultimately, Armstrong said, returning to some semblance of normalcy will depend on widespread testing and effective measures to isolate and contain cases.

"It needs to mirror what would be comfortable for all of Rhode Island," she said. "We would need to make sure that if students are coming from all states and parts of the world, we have test procedures in place. If a student were sick or exposed, we need to make sure other students are safe."

How other schools are responding

Other institutions are finding ways to offer on-campus instruction in limited capacities. About 100 students in Western Nevada College's nursing and emergency medical technician programs participate in simulation labs using dummies: While wearing federally-approved face masks and practicing social distancing, students log clinical hours, perform therapeutic procedures, and exercise emergency medical care in a variety of simulated health care settings.

The nursing and emergency medical technician programs are among the most in-demand at WNC, said school president Vincent Solis. They're also the most challenging to replicate in a virtual setting. The simulations started after some hospitals near the college in Carson City, Nevada, stopped permitting student clinicians.

"Offering them any other way would be difficult," he said. "We do everything within the guidelines of accreditation, but still provide a high-quality experience."

The rest of WNC's programs, including accounting, business, and criminal justice, will remain exclusively online through the summer and possibly longer.

"We suspect social distancing guidelines will still be in effect for the rest of the year and possibly into 2021," he said. "Everyone in a leadership capacity at universities and colleges need to be prepared with a long-term vision to work through these difficult times."

Much like Salve Regina, WNC takes cues from state health agencies and regional and local public health departments about when to reopen. The availability of testing, the ability to respond to flare-ups, and monitoring cases in the local community will help lower the risks of being on campus.

"We're trying to make it similar to what they would have gotten in class, but there are changes and adaptations students have to make."

There is some hope for an expansion to on-campus instruction at WNC, Solis said. The college could facilitate students in welding, auto mechanics, and manufacturing technician programs, where social distancing would be feasible with individualized booths, bays, and pods.

"We need to be smart about how we make our decisions," he said. "We'll look into wherever we can make those adjustments."

The College of Idaho, a private, liberal arts university in Caldwell, Idaho, is also weighing its options. Joe Hughes, director of marketing and communications, said risk levels between younger students and older faculty are a factor. If professors who may be at higher risk of serious illness were to continue teaching from home, more people could return to campus without putting them in danger, Hughes said.

"[With students, we're] dealing with an age group that is not as severely affected as those older people," he said. "When we weigh all these things out, we're going to err on the side of safety."

The Oregon Institute of Technology has had two employees contract coronavirus: one at each campus, in Klamath Falls and Portland, Oregon. Their illnesses helped drive home the need for safety, according to Diane Saunders, associate vice president for communications and public affairs.

Oregon Tech currently has only a few essential personnel at each campus. The rest — including Saunders — are working and learning from home while the administration decides how to proceed. Their goal is to host classes on campus by summer, but any plans are subject to change depending on the public health outlook.

At schools like Oregon Tech, where practical training is standard procedure, the need to return to campus is critical, but it's unclear when that will happen.

"We're an institution that provides professional practice, so it has been a challenge for the faculty to come up with lab-based experiments through remote learning," Saunders said. "But they've done neat, creative things, like sending lab kits to students at home. We're trying to make it similar to what they would have gotten in class, but there are changes and adaptations students have to make."