The Slatest

How Universities Are Planning to Reopen Amid the Pandemic

Two women push a cart full of belongings out of a dorm.
University of Michigan students move out of their dorm in March. The school plans to reopen dorms in the fall. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

In March, when colleges began to shutter as the coronavirus spread, most students—myself included—thought they’d be back on campus sooner rather than later. Worst case scenario, they’d reunite with friends and professors in the fall. After all, in April, the Chronicle of Higher Education projected that over 60 percent of schools were preparing for in-person instruction in September. But as states begin to shut down once again, that worst-case scenario now looks like a pipe dream.


As fall semester nears, more and more schools are announcing their plans, and no two are the same. Some institutions are planning for a fully on-campus semester, while others are opting to stay remote for the foreseeable future. Below is a sampling of the different strategies that colleges across the country are piecing together for the start of the 2020–21 academic year. [Note: Many colleges are revising their plans as the number of cases rises, so plans may have changed after publication of this piece.]


Most four-year colleges and universities have acknowledged the necessity of face coverings if and when their students return to campus. The Catholic University of America in D.C. plans on mandating face coverings “where appropriate,” and Boise State is asking that its students wear masks when physical distancing isn’t possible. The 12 schools of the Florida State University System will also require students to wear masks. While Georgia Tech will encourage students to wear masks, doing so will be optional (and you’d be correct to assume that people are not happy).


Most schools have also confirmed their plans to integrate contact tracing and extensive COVID-19 testing into campus reopenings. UC–San Diego hopes to test around 70 to 75 percent of its 30,000 students on a monthly basis. This ambitious goal is possible thanks to UC–San Diego’s own laboratory, hospital, and test procurement team. In Michigan, Calvin University is getting 5,000 tests from a commercial laboratory, Helix Diagnostics, in order to open its 3,500-person campus for the fall semester. And down south, the University of Kentucky will ask its staff and students to check and report any COVID-19 symptoms through a “technology-based application” on a daily basis.

And while the vast majority of colleges and universities are working to make social distancing possible in the fall, not everyone is following CDC guidelines. UNC–Chapel Hill originally planned on implementing a 3-feet-apart social distancing policy, though amid rising numbers in the state, the school is now encouraging people to remain at least 6 feet apart.

Entirely Remote Instruction

To the chagrin of Zoom haters, some schools have indicated that they plan on entirely remote instruction until the end of the 2021 school year. In May, California State University announced that its 23 campuses will remain closed due to its fear of a second COVID-19 wave. Harvard University will also be completely online in the fall. Several community colleges including Sierra CollegeSan Mateo County Community College, and Northern Virginia Community College will continue to offer predominately remote courses as well.


But plans are seldom set in stone. Due to the resurgence of coronavirus cases in California, the University of Southern California has gone back on its original reopening plan, which would have allowed students back on campus in August for a mixture of online and in-person classes. As of July 2, undergraduate students will mostly take remote classes this fall. Hampton University in Virginia backpedaled too, announcing that classes would remain online next semester despite initially indicating that it would reopen its campus for in-person instruction.

Entirely In-Person Instruction

A few schools, many of which are religious institutions, have chosen to return to in-person instruction as soon as late August. The Central Christian College of the Bible in Missouri reasoned that it has enough space on campus to “allow‌ ‌us‌ ‌to‌ ‌accomplish‌ ‌social‌ ‌distancing‌ ‌and‌ ‌other‌ ‌safety‌ ‌precautions‌ ‌as‌ ‌needed.‌‌” Boston College is likewise planning on welcoming people back for in-person classes this fall, though it promises to accommodate students and faculty who cannot return to campus with remote learning options.

Hybrid Learning

The overwhelming majority of four-year colleges and universities are opting for hybrid learning—some classes will remain online and others will be in-person this fall. These institutions range from large public universities to small private schools and community colleges, and everyone in between.


The decision of what will be taught online often comes down to class size or the department. Since remote learning is difficult (or even impossible) for certain subjects, Washtenaw Community College in Michigan will hold lab and studio art courses on campus with in-person instruction, with most other classes staying online. Other schools are basing whether a class happens in person or online on size. At the University of Washington, classes with 50 students or more will be taught remotely, and small classes will meet in large rooms.

To reduce crowding and lines in hallways, UW will limit its number of back-to-back classes. At the risk of infringing upon students’ partying hours, Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University will extend classroom hours past 5 p.m. on weekdays to reduce campus traffic during typically busy times. The Catholic University of America will offer classes on Saturdays for the same reason.


Letting Students Decide

Some institutions are leaving the decision up to their students. At Arizona State University, students can choose between three different options: “ASU Immersion,” where classes will be in person and on campus; “ASU Sync,” which will allow students to learn remotely; and “iCourses,” where pre-recorded lectures will be available on-demand through an online database. Other schools, like Boston University, are giving students the option to attend class in person or online. Tuition will be the same, regardless of their choice.

Tweaking Schedules

Bracing for another wave of the coronavirus, a handful of colleges and universities are splitting their semesters into two parts. That way, if the school has to close partway through, it will only disrupt half of a student’s course load. Other schools will welcome students back to earlier than usual, ranging from a week early to two weeks or more.

Several schools, including the University of Pennsylvania and Michigan State University, have canceled fall breaks for fear that students will contract the coronavirus while they travel. In addition to canceling its fall break, East Carolina University has already announced that there will be no spring break in 2021.

Almost universally, institutions plan on returning to remote instruction after Thanksgiving. Most schools are following a plan similar to that of the University of Texas at Austin, which will have students move out of dorms before they leave for Thanksgiving break and institute remote classes and finals after Thanksgiving.

Reduced Capacity and New Rules in Campus Dorms

Most colleges and universities seem to be on the same page when it comes to on-campus housing and are reducing dorm room capacities. The University of Maryland is reducing quads and triples to doubles, Colorado Mountain College will provide mostly singles in its residence halls, and students at Oregon State University will either live alone or have one roommate.


Communal bathrooms are one of the many concerns about returning to dorms. At Florida A&M, students will take scheduled showers to enforce social distancing in bathrooms. At Boston University, only three or four people will be scheduled to use bathrooms in larger residential halls at a time.

Not surprisingly, some schools are also banning visitors from dorms. Hamilton College in New York and the University of New Mexico are among the schools prohibiting guests from entering residence halls.

And all schools are worried about what to do if any of their students fall ill while in the dorms. CU–Boulder will reserve some residence halls for quarantine so that sick students can self-isolate. Syracuse University plans on transporting students who test positive for COVID-19 to isolation housing, where they will have their own bathrooms.

New Off-Campus Housing Options

Wellesley College, where almost all students live in college-owned housing, is hoping to provide some upperclassmen housing in local hotels so that they can socialize with one another even while learning remotely. According to USA Today, Duke University is taking a similar approach, offering students with off-campus housing options like hotel rooms and apartments. Northwestern and the University of Pittsburgh are among the schools also reportedly looking at hotel options.

50-50 Approach

A few schools will only allow select class years to live on campus at a time, and most of these schools are giving preference to freshmen. In D.C., American University will only offer on-campus housing to 2,300 freshmen and select sophomores. At Bowdoin College, only some students—mostly transfer students and first years—will be allowed to live on campus in the fall. Dartmouth College will allow over half of students to return to campus per term through the summer of 2021.

Dining Halls

Changing the way students dine on campus will be a must this fall. Some schools are implementing contactless payment methods and extended dining hall hours and disposable paperware. Many are expanding grab-and-go options. Kansas State University is reducing the number of seats in its dining halls to encourage students to practice social distancing while eating. The University of Illinois will extend its dining hall hours and plans on serving similar menus at all dining locations to prevent students from gathering at one facility over another.

Effects on Tuition

The economic ramifications of the coronavirus pandemic have devastated families across the United States, and the Department of Education hasn’t made it easy for either colleges or students to adjust. While universities are not exempt from financial hardship, some are recognizing new realities through reduced tuition and fees.


Southern New Hampshire University is accelerating its plan to reduce tuition by 61 percent by 2021. SNHU is waiving tuition for all incoming freshmen next year, citing its new “Innovation Scholarship.” From that point onward, they will only pay $10,000 per year. New students at Franciscan University in Ohio won’t have to pay a cent this fall either. Students at Davidson College in North Carolina will have the option to defer payment for the fall 2020 semester for up to a year. And although both William & Mary and Kansas City University had adopted 3 percent tuition increases for fall 2020, they have since rescinded these plans.*

Not everyone is choosing to—or can—follow suit. Most schools are keeping fees the same, regardless of plans, and some are keeping the extra fees—for computer labs, rec centers, and the like—in place. But at the University of the Pacific and Brown University, students enrolled in online or hybrid programs will be exempt from recreation fees. My colleague Jordan Weissmann noted earlier this week that Harvard’s move to charge full tuition in the fall might be a good move for all schools—not just the wealthy Ivy. Others are going ahead with raises as planned. In June, Oregon’s Klamath Community College announced that it will up tuition by 2 percent, starting this fall. Back in May, the Board of Visitors at Virginia’s George Mason University approved a tuition increase of $450.

Correction, July 10, 2020: This piece originally misspelled William & Mary.

Update, July 14, 2020: This post has been updated to clarify which California university system has announced all 23 campuses will remain closed.