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Six scenarios: Which one will your U.S. college or university experience this fall?

The following list examines how America’s colleges and universities might operate in the fall. Two variables are in play: delivery of instruction and the arrival of the feared second wave of coronavirus. (To the degree my opinion matters, I think there will be a second wave, and it will disrupt America’s higher education institutions much like the first wave did in the spring. But when it arrives and how virulent it will be are unknowns.)

Not discussed here is how remote delivery of instruction affects students lacking the critical technologies needed to succeed in such an environment. Let’s agree such limitations make academic success more challenging for those students.

As you read through these options, keep in what happens in the northern/western part of your state might not reflect what happens in the southern/eastern part; we’d be foolish to think every college and university in a certain state will operate the same way this fall.

Remember, too, the many institutions that have announced plans for on ground teaching this fall are basing that premise on health conditions allowing for it. Optimism now might be met by cold reality later.

Finally, stop any talk about a vaccine being available anytime soon. If we’re lucky, we’ll see one in 2021; and we really can’t return to normal, with confidence, until there is one.

Option 1: Shut down for fall

The nightmare scenario: the pandemic becomes especially virulent over the summer because your county or state reopened too soon. Most of your state basically goes from pandemic to second wave with no time to heal. At least in the initial stages of this second wave, only the most essential institutions (police, fire, etc.) must operate. In effect, your part of the state resembles what we saw in Wuhan, China, where the coronavirus outbreak became so deadly that few people were allowed to leave their homes for an extended period of time. Rather than operate under such conditions, your institution shuts down for the fall. Relax, option 1 is highly unlikely; only the most financial endowed colleges or universities would be able to withstand a true campus closure.

Option 2: Start on ground, finish online

This option plays out at many institutions. The pressure to open your campus in the fall is matched by businesses and other institutions pressing the state governor to approve the resumption of normal operations; the factors weighing on reopening include the number of coronavirus cases in a particular state declining and the unemployment situation becoming more precarious by the day. (We’re already seeing this in parts of the country.) Faculty and students, perhaps tentatively, return to campus for face-to-face instruction (and there ought to be provisions to ensure vulnerable faculty and students have the option to teach or learn via remote delivery at the beginning of the academic year). However, the expected second wave rolls in at some point, and the fall term resembles what we experienced in the spring. Once faculty and students leave campus, they do so for the remainder of the term.

Option 3: Start on line, finish on ground

For the optimists, this is one of your dreams. The need to remain cautious throughout the summer carries over into the early fall, and your governor made the right call when reopening the state. The coronavirus curve has flattened and there’s no second wave. If this scenario plays out, we see the reverse of option 2: We eventually are allowed to return to campus, and we remain there for the whole of the fall term. Caution demands that the aforementioned vulnerable faculty and students may complete the term off campus if that’s their preference.

Option 4: Start on ground, finish on ground

If optimists loved option 3, well, option 4 is really for them. Caution over the spring and summer worked so well that your college and university can open on time and under normal operations. And to add to the enthusiasm, no second wave rolls in. Let’s be honest: This is the option all of us want, and this is also the option a majority of us see as highly unlikely.

Option 5: Start online, finish online

For every optimist, there is a pessimist (or perhaps they’re the realists?). The California State University system already has adopted this option for the fall. This option accepts that a second wave is inevitable, and it acknowledges it’s simply not wise and not safe to bring thousands of faculty and students back to campus. The particular challenge to this option is how to handle programs that require studios and labs, and what to do with programs such as nursing, which demand high-touch instruction. I defer to others to discuss how the “I want to pay lower tuition because I’m not on campus” plays out.

Option 6: Multiple on ground and online periods

This option is the most disruptive and least enjoyable for all parties. Like an on-off switch, there are times instruction is face-to-face with some on campus activity, and other times that instruction goes remote. Health and safety conditions fluctuate so dramatically in the fall that we can be on campus at certain times but not at others. No one likes this scenario; there’s no routine or pace to the quarter/semester.


These scenarios omit two critical components of the campus: the many men and women who can’t work from home and extracurricular activities.

Layoffs and furloughs must be the last option; pay cuts/freezes and other cost-saving opportunities must be exhausted before even one person is laid off this fall.

Extracurricular activities must be undertaken with an abundance of caution. Only those activities that are essential and can’t take place virtually must be held. Social distancing must be practiced, no matter the health conditions that exist at the particular time.

As for intercollegiate athletics, go ahead and argue that one among yourselves.