The coronavirus is upending many of the hallmarks of the American university experience. And this may be only the beginning of what is to come. 

In-person classes had been canceled at close to 100 universities by mid-afternoon Wednesday, according to a list maintained by Georgetown scholar Bryan Alexander. Across the country, dorms were emptying. Fans were being banned from sporting events. Graduation plans were up in the air.

Even campuses that don’t yet have active cases of the virus have started to shut down their in-person offerings as the virus continues to spread rapidly across the country. 

On Wednesday alone, Duke University in North Carolina, Georgetown and George Washington universities in Washington, D.C., the University of Virginia, Pepperdine University in California, Notre Dame in Indiana and others announced they would be moving 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. 

Students walk past the Academic Building at Texas A&M University in College Station in 2018. The school on Tuesday announced it would not resume classes until Wednesday, March 18, out of concerns for the coronavirus. [JAY JANNER/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

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 are leaving for or about to return from their spring break. Administrators have said they feared students might return with the virus after traveling.  

‘Remote teaching’: Will it work?

The swift actions by universities brought mixed reactions as parents and students frantically texted to arrange trips home, figure out housing and navigate new 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 with health conditions were especially relieved. 

But others questioned the quality of teaching that comes with a sudden shift to online courses. They wondered if their students were getting the college experience they had paid tens of thousands of dollars to have. 

Lisa Mittleman lives in California, but her son attends the University of Washington. That university, located in Seattle, an area hard hit by the virus, was the first to shift all its course offerings online until the end of the winter quarter in a couple of weeks. 

Her son is still living in the dorms — an option left open for students at many universities. So any benefit from canceling classes, she said, would be negated by the closing living quarters. 

Mittleman said she was fine with the current quarter finishing without physical classes. But she does hope the university will reduce tuition if it is still only offering 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.

The online courses being offered at these universities aren’t what a student would typically expect from a high-quality online education. As with an in-person class, it can take months to plan an effective online class.

What many universities will be offering 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 earlier 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 like Zoom, a tool that provides video conferencing, 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 are feeling stressed. 

Graduation? Only if it is ‘prudent and appropriate’

Even though May is still a few months out, graduation ceremonies are top of mind for both seniors and their families. Families and friends often travel and book hotels months in advance to attend these celebrations.

University leaders so far have been cautious about announcing cancellations, with many saying the events were still too far out to say definitively one way or another. 

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 yet. Notre Dame, a university that has often welcomed the sitting president as its commencement speaker, said Wednesday its commencement was still scheduled to proceed. Harvard also asked its students not 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 earlier 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.” 


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