Colleges across the country are finalizing plans to welcome students back. Some are bringing students fully back on campus, while others are going completely digital. Regardless of what colleges decide, many students are still planning to live on or near campus.
"We've come up, we think, with a plan that provides a lot of flexibility in options and recognizes the difficulties and strengths that our students, faculty and staff are faced with in light of COVID-19," said Lisa Lynch, the Provost at Brandeis University just outside of Boston.
Brandeis, like Harvard, Princeton, Georgetown and all California State universities, will be offering online classes to students in the fall to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. There will still be in-person classes at a majority of universities offering online courses.
Harvard is allowing minimal in-person classes, while Princeton is only allowing first- and third-year students on campus for the first semester and second- and fourth-year students for the second semester.
Brandeis is offering some hybrid classes that are half online and half in person with small groups, but class sizes will be dramatically reduced.
"A mix of taking some lectures that perhaps have been pre-recorded or even listening in through Zoom on a live lecture, but then having opportunities to have small, in-person meetings with other students and professors and teaching assistants," said Lynch.
All in-person classes will have a maximum of 28 students. Despite the online offerings and class restrictions, university officials say most students are still making the decision to live at school, not take classes online while living at home. This begs the question – will the online classes even make a difference amid the current COVID-19 pandemic?
"I think the real hard thing is where you share a dorm room. Two people in the same room is hard to social distance in any real respect, in that case. But if a lot of people are online and you only have one person per room, then you have an ability to have a little more social distancing," said Dr. Kenny Banh, an emergency physician and Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Medical Education at UCSF-Fresno.
Brandeis is only allowing one person per dorm room and even reserving extra housing for students who may test positive for COVID-19 and need to quarantine while at school. It's one of numerous brand-new health and safety procedures being implemented at the school, which also include twice weekly free coronavirus tests for all students and staff.
"The testing - asymptomatic testing - is mandatory. We'll also have everyone when they come to campus do a daily health gestation test. It's a very quick online tool that goes through and asks about fever, how they're feeling, if they're a student. And if they answer a question and it raises a flag, they’ll be immediately directed to our health center," said Lynch.
With all the precautions universities are taking, it'll still be tough to prevent the social interactions that students want and need.
"There's no control with off-campus living, obviously, and students unfortunately tend to congregate together because it's a cheaper cost of living, right? I was a poor college student, so you often share a space because that’s what you could afford and you're trying to tend for the lowest cost possible. Unfortunately, we’ve showed our ability to socially distance and self-isolate in the younger generation is not as good," said Banh.
While colleges won't be able to prevent off-campus social gatherings, many acknowledge that most healthy students aren't at the highest risk for COVID-19 complications and that any forced isolation at this critical age of their emotional and social development could do more harm than good.
"Recognizing in surveys, we saw with our students, in particular with our students in the spring, the process of being at home and trying to continue with studies contributed to a significant increase in stress, depression and sense of isolation," said Lynch.
"I think universities are doing the best they can do to be responsible. I think having an online option and having a significant part of people online will actually mitigate the risk for those there in person. So, if you take half the people and half of them are not there, then social distancing and all that stuff becomes much safer, especially for those people that are physically there," said Banh.
Brandeis is also using advanced contact tracing technology so that if and when a student or staff member tests positive for COVID-19, they're able to immediately determine all classmates, residential halls and more, that are affected. They’re hoping to quickly mitigate any spread of virus in an academic environment that thrives on social interaction.