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Colleges Tell Students To Prepare To Come Back, But Be Ready To Leave

William Thomas, 18, of Chicago Heights, Illinois, fills out residential housing paperwork at a Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville freshman orientation on Friday, July 28, 2017.
File photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
A student fills out residential housing paperwork at a Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville orientation in July 2017. SIUE and other colleges are making tentative plans to welcome students back on campus this fall.

Colleges and universities in the St. Louis region are starting to piece together plans for how students can return to their campuses for the fall semester, with plenty of emergency escape hatches built into those blueprints.

“We will definitely have a fall semester,” Rob Wild, Washington University’s interim vice chancellor for student affairs, said in a letter to students late last month, adding, “our strong preference is to have an ‘in-person’ experience, where students, faculty, and staff can be together on campus as a full community. However, we may need to make some changes.”

Wash U and other schools quickly sent students packing in March and moved all academics online, a move that was significantly easier in higher education than at the K-12 level. Then they canceled commencement ceremonies and made the decision to keep summer sessions solely online. 

But now, as conversations shift to how to reopen businesses and return people to classrooms and offices, several academic leaders are pledging a return to campus in August, with measures in place to quickly revert to online-only should there be a spike or new outbreak of the coronavirus.

“We are driving toward a face-to-face, on-campus opening, and the primary reason for that is that’s the sort of university we are,” said St. Louis University President Fred Pestello. He’s also telling students and staff that some portion of the next school year will likely take place online, so be prepared.

Other institutions, including St. Charles Community College and Maryville University, are still discussing plans and haven’t made any announcements yet, officials said. California State University last week became the largest university to say the fall semester will be conducted fully online.

Schools that have announced commitments to have students on campus in fall said they’ll have more detailed plans in the coming weeks but want to give students and professors more planning time.

“We feel that we did a good job in terms of the transition this past spring, but we realize that was so unexpected that it’s worthwhile to have a program where faculty can thoughtfully prepare their syllabus and prepare their semester in the event that we need to shift back online,” said Marie Mora, University of Missouri-St. Louis provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs.

A student walks through the University of Missouri-St. Louis' campus Friday afternoon, May 19, 2017.
Credit File photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
A student walks through the University of Missouri-St. Louis campus in May 2017. UMSL shut down its on-campus learning in March and will remain closed through the summer.

Part of the motivation behind putting out the welcome mat is financial. Schools lost out on millions in revenue when they closed dorms and dining halls and had to refund unused room-and-board checks. It cost Washington University $25 million.

A survey of college presidents by the American Council for Education found enrollment to be their main concern of weathering the pandemic in the long term. Enrollment for the fall semester at some schools so far is worryingly slow — down nearly 5% at UMSL, for example, while Lindenwood University President John Porter is predicting a 10-15% decline — as students play a wait-and-see game and many freshmen postpone starting their studies. Administrators are optimistic that course registration will rebound when plans are put in place.

The Illinois Board of Higher Education formed a committee last week to look at the many questions around how to hold classes and protect students’ and teachers’ health. The Southern Illinois University System is planning to welcome students back to its main undergraduate campuses in Edwardwardsville and Carbondale.

A spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Higher Education & Workforce Development said each campus should work with its local health department regarding decisions on reopening.

When students do return, campus life will look and feel different. Harris-Stowe State University, a historically black public institution in St. Louis, has ordered Plexiglas and rope stanchions to cordon off public spaces. St. Louis University’s campus will have “ample” hand sanitizing stations and may require temperature screening and wearing masks. Dining halls may offer only take-out meals.

Lindenwood University, with its main campus in St. Charles and a second in Belleville, said it’s considering a shortened in-person fall semester while front-loading lab components. Students could also conduct some portion of classes online while meeting once a week for small-group discussions or hands-on activities.

Students cross Grand Boulevard on St. Louis University's campus Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018.
Credit File Photo | David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Students cross Grand Boulevard on St. Louis University's campus in November 2018. SLU is working on measures to keep students healthy if they return to campus in August.

While spacing out students in lecture halls and laboratories is relatively easy, preventing any virus outbreak in the close quarters of dormitories would be much more challenging.

“We may be able to return to something close to normal density, or we might have to have a much lower density, perhaps to the state we’re at now, which is just allowing very special populations to be in residence,” such as international students or ones who could otherwise be homeless and stayed on campus this spring, Pestello said. 

And universities will have a challenge preventing large off-campuses gatherings, such as house parties, that could quickly spread illness. Pestello said students will be asked to follow any public health guidance around social distancing and “should an individual vary from that, then I think the individual would have to be asked to leave our community at that time” and complete courses remotely.

In terms of deciding whether to send all students home again, administrators said they’ll be working with health officials and closely watching case numbers. SLU and Southern Illinois University’s leaders have tapped into their medical and public health schools for guidance already and said they will continue to, while Lindenwood is setting aside dorm rooms to use to quarantine students if need be.

SIU’s medical school has helped open testing sites and trained its own contact-tracers and may hire more, said SIU President Dan Mahony. He said the Carbondale campus was able to contain spread when a few students returned from spring break ill.

“If it’s small numbers, we can handle that fairly well,” Mahony said. “We’re making those types of plans again.”

Editor's note: St. Louis Public Radio is a community service of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The station and its newsroom are editorially independent.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.