Spring semester, we will hardly know you

As America races closer to 150,000 coronavirus cases each day, a bitter reality descends over America’s colleges and universities: The spring semester is in deep trouble.

Yes, the semester will begin in January. But it seems impossible to believe that even if it starts with a solid number of on-ground classes that such classes will last long.

We need to prepare for many weeks of remote delivery of instruction, with faculty and students at home and our campuses largely empty. For too many students, home is a less-than-perfect place to learn. And, yes, for too many faculty, home is a less-than-perfect place to teach.

It was roughly mid-March when America’s colleges and universities abandoned face-to-face instruction last spring, a policy that lasted for the entirety of the term. Only the most naive of us would accept that our nation’s higher education institutions will make it that far in 2021.

The data are scary: Spikes in coronavirus cases in almost every U.S. state. The federal response is scarier: The outgoing Trump administration is doing nothing to address the pandemic. The calendar is scariest: Flu season has arrived, and the combination of coronavirus and flu numbers will ensure hospital beds all across the country are filled to capacity, stretching health care workers to the breaking point.

America’s college and university leaders will need to make decisions in the coming weeks about the spring term knowing that Washington will offer no meaningful assistance. In addition, state leaders will be under pressure to not shut down businesses or K-12 schools, a decision that was wise in the spring but met with vociferous protest in too many places.

America is heading for a deadly few months. One has to hope that the news from earlier in the week about a coronavirus vaccine is joined with an unexpectedly temperate couple of months from flu.

Hope — however much it brings a sense of optimism — isn’t a policy.

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