Published 6:27 PM EDT Mar 11, 2020
The coronavirus is upending many of the hallmarks of the American university experience. This may be only the beginning of what is to come.
In-person classes were canceled or postponed at more than 100 universities by late afternoon Wednesday, according to a list maintained by Georgetown scholar Bryan Alexander. Across the country, dorms were emptying. Fans were banned from sporting events. Graduation plans were up in the air.
Even campuses that don’t have active cases of the virus shut down their in-person offerings as the virus spreads rapidly across the country.
On Wednesday, Duke University in North Carolina, plus the University of North Carolina; Georgetown and George Washington universities in Washington; the University of Virginia; the University of Michigan; the University of Notre Dame in Indiana; and others announced they would move to online instruction.
Also moving to online courses Wednesday: the state and city universities of New York, which have huge student bodies. SUNY enrolled roughly 415,000 students in fall 2019, and the CUNY system enrolled 275,000 students in fall 2018.
And the state university system of Florida instructed its universities Wednesday to move to remote instruction as soon as possible. As of fall 2018, it enrolled roughly 271,000 students across 12 institutions.
The list: U.S. colleges moving online due to coronavirus
Universities are particularly vulnerable to the spread of the disease because of the close proximity of those who live and work on campus for weeks at a time.
Colleges had already made an effort to limit the spread of the virus through bans on international travel, which included many study-abroad experiences.
They’re taking more extreme steps as students leave for spring break or return from it. Administrators have said they feared students might return with the virus after traveling.
Remote teaching: Will it work?
A month ago, the current flurry of activity on Harvard University’s campus didn’t seem possible to freshman Jaxson Hill, 18. His days are spent rushing to finish his coursework, packing his dorm room and trying to sneak in a few moments of fun with his friends before he has to leave campus at the end of the week. The college is holding courses online after spring break.
Hill said he is open to online classes, though it depends on the course. He doesn’t anticipate issues with his German class; however, it will be hard to replicate the experience of his introduction to mechanical engineering course, which requires the use of specialized tools such as laser cutters that most people don’t have at home.
At the University of Cincinnati, where in-person classes also will be suspended as of Saturday, third-year student Lilly Knopp was wondering how she’ll continue a lab-based class where she learns hands-on about concepts like how acids and bases interact in a chemical equation.
“I’m a very visual learner,” Knopp said. “I don’t know how we’re supposed to video-chat a lab.”
The swift actions by universities brought similarly mixed reactions as parents and students frantically texted to arrange trips home, figure out housing and navigate online courseloads.
On a parents’ Facebook group geared toward paying for college, some lauded universities for avoiding the risk of needlessly spreading the disease. Those with students who have health conditions were especially relieved.
Others questioned the quality of teaching that comes with a sudden online shift. They wondered if their students would get the college experience they paid tens of thousands of dollars to have.
Lisa Mittleman lives in California, but her son attends the University of Washington in Seattle, an area hit hard by the virus. That university was the first to shift all its courses online until the end of the winter quarter in a couple of weeks.
Her son still lives in the dorms – an option left open for students at many universities. Any health benefit from canceling classes, she said, would be negated by the close living quarters.
Mittleman said she was fine finishing the current quarter without in-person classes, but she hopes the university will reduce tuition if it still offers only online courses in the spring. Mittleman’s son pays expensive out-of-state tuition.
“It just doesn’t seem as valuable to me,” she told USA TODAY.
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The online courses offered at these universities aren’t what a student would typically expect from a high-quality online education. Like an in-person class, it can take months to plan an effective online class.
What many universities will offer may be Band-Aid solutions, but that’s better than nothing, said Matthew Rascoff, who leads digital education and innovation at Duke University.
“This is first aid,” he said. “We’re calling this remote teaching, not online learning. This is not how you would normally do it.”
He and his team had to respond quickly this year when Duke Kunshan University, a partnership the university runs with a college in China, had to suddenly pivot to online learning. That campus offered a lot of hands-on learning such as work studies or in-person projects, the sort of experience that doesn’t necessarily translate necessarily to online coursework.
Faculty have been able to use technology such as Zoom, a tool that provides videoconferencing, to continue classes. Professors can use polls, for example, to engage students in real-time as though it was a classroom, Rascoff said.
Students were satisfied with the instruction, he said, but they missed their extracurricular activities. There were workarounds. The university provided students with fitness trackers for a physical fitness class. Exercise, Rascoff said, is important when people feel stressed.
There are also infrastructure concerns. Not every student will have reliable access to a solid internet connection. Some students will be in different time zones than their professors.
Graduation? Only if it is ‘prudent and appropriate’
Even though May is a couple of months away, graduation ceremonies are top of mind for seniors and their families. Families and friends often travel and book hotels months in advance to attend these celebrations.
University leaders have been cautious about announcing cancellations, saying those events are too far off to make a decision. Many public colleges in New York are likely to skip graduation ceremonies, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office.
Ohio State University President Michael Drake said the institution would host the event if it was “prudent and appropriate.” A spokesman with Arizona State University, one of the first universities to have a confirmed case of the virus, said the college hadn’t made a decision. Notre Dame, a university that has often welcomed the sitting president as its commencement speaker, said Wednesday its commencement was scheduled to proceed. Harvard asked its students not to return to campus after its spring break and said it “was too soon to make a decision about Commencement.”
Berea College in Kentucky canceled its classes this week and asked that students return home if they were able. In a news release, the college said the graduation ceremony would “be cancelled, or at least postponed to a date when such a gathering can be conducted safely.”
Contributing: Max Londberg and Erin Glynn of The Cincinnati Enquirer
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.
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