Boston University acknowledges reality: real potential for a delayed fall semester

Let’s admit the obvious: 2020 hasn’t been kind to the world. No matter the continent on which we live, our personal and professional lives have been altered because of coronavirus.

I’m a department head and associate professor at Robert Morris University, so how higher education handles (and eventually comes through) this pandemic is of critical interest to me. You feel the same about the industry in which you work.

On March 11, our university president correctly chose to move our spring semester online; the rapid increase in diagnosed coronavirus cases in the U.S. made it impossible for RMU to continue operating with a business-as-usual mindset. A host of decisions have followed over the subsequent weeks, including the eventual, and correct, choice to move more and more of our summer classes to remote delivery.

RMU is no different from any other U.S. institution; it operates right now in unpredictable times because of coronavirus. In the U.K, “tsunami” is being used to describe the turmoil in higher education in that country. One of the uncertainties here, there and everywhere: what to do with the fall semester, which at many institutions begins in late August?

A couple days ago, Boston University made a critical announcement.  The university might remain closed during the fall.

The university’s Recovery Plan

…recognizes the possibility that the beginning of the fall term may have to be delayed, and that a January reopening may be necessary …  It also accepts the possibility that international students are likely to face unique burdens, such as travel restrictions and interruptions in the processing of visas, and it suggests that some popular master’s programs may have to be offered remotely. The University does plan to offer remote learning courses this summer and to continue providing the minimal housing and dining services that are currently available.

“A January reopening may be necessary.”

Those are six scary words. And the leadership teams at every U.S. college and university are planning for that painful possibility. Denying the reality that coronavirus might disrupt the fall term would be an absence of leadership.

Be optimistic about a “normal” fall semester? Absolutely.

Be prepared for another major disruption? Absolutely.

Boston University’s reputation ensures it will survive what would be nine months of suspended operations if it had to reopen in January 2021.

The same can’t be said for smaller, regional institutions; these schools require tuition dollars to fund almost everything they do (including paying salaries), and they’re also less likely to have a healthy endowment to tap into to bridge any financial gap.

The overarching question: How much of a threat will coronavirus be later this year? That question has no clear answer.

Make no mistake, coronavirus WILL be a threat until a proven vaccine is identified. That could take 12-18 months. In the interim, coronavirus outbreaks remain possible, and the so-called second wave could hit in August, just when many of America’s colleges and universities welcome their new and returning students to campus. But even if that second wave arrived in, say, October, we’d again be dealing with mid-semester closing of campuses and the rush to move courses to remote delivery.

I’m not advocating that every college and university right now make public its plans, as Boston University’s leaders have. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to ignore that coronavirus might require another semester with faculty and students not on campus, and teaching and learning online. Preparations are being made, and the best all of us can do is hope the plans that develop aren’t needed.

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