Coronavirus Surge Is Changing Colleges' Fall Reopening Plans More colleges are rolling back their optimistic proclamations of an in-person or hybrid fall. Plans are now more likely to include hefty virtual options, be mostly remote or even entirely online.

Colleges Spent Months Planning For Fall, But A COVID-19 Surge Is Changing Everything

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Colleges and universities are also having to make the same difficult decisions as school districts. And many of them are also opting for a mostly online fall. NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been speaking with college students about this change.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Back in mid-June, Irem Ozturk, a student at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, got an email from her school saying they intended to bring all students back to campus in the fall.

IREM OZTURK: I felt happy. I felt like I had something to look forward to.

NADWORNY: She's originally from Turkey but decided to stay in the U.S. over the summer, afraid she wouldn't be able to come back for classes. Her happiness, it lasted a little more than a month. Last week, Dickinson announced a new decision. The fall semester will be remote.

OZTURK: It's heartbreaking for me. But I can't necessarily be mad at them.

NADWORNY: Ozturk, a biology major, says she understands the reasoning to go remote. The testing capacity isn't there. There isn't a hospital on campus. And the virus is spreading. But she's frustrated by the uncertainty.

OZTURK: Four weeks from now, we're supposed to have our first classes. And, you know, I have only four weeks to come up with a plan.

NADWORNY: She's gotten permission as an international student to stay on campus but expects it to be pretty lonely. As more colleges roll back those earlier, more optimistic plans, they're replacing them with a semester mostly or even entirely online. Spelman College, an elite historically Black college in Atlanta, is among the reversals. After lots of planning, they announced in early July they'd have a mix of in-person and online. And they'd allow freshmen to move into the dorms. But with cases rising in Georgia and the politicizing of that state's response to the spread, Spelman President Mary Schmidt Campbell told me it was irresponsible to bring students back.

MARY SCHMIDT CAMPBELL: We felt very comfortable about what the protocols and practices we were putting into place on our campuses. But once our students walked outside of those gates, once they went into the city of Atlanta, they were in an environment that we felt was virtually unregulated.

NADWORNY: Spelman will now be entirely online for the fall. With the virus spread, colleges are worried about bringing hundreds or thousands of students back to campus. Here's Carol Christ, the chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, speaking at a Chronicle of Higher Education event this week.


CAROL CHRIST: We decided after we had a serious fraternity outbreak that it was just too risky to teach face to face.

NADWORNY: For students, this back-and-forth is exhausting. Garrett Pittman, a student at Occidental College in Los Angeles, says the question mark on fall has consumed him.

GARRETT PITTMAN: That's all I've been thinking and talking about for the last couple weeks. I've been kind of, like, going crazy over the whole thing.

NADWORNY: When the summer first started, he was hopeful, constantly checking his email for updates. Like most college students, his classes in the spring had ended online. And he'd struggled.

PITTMAN: Going in and getting work done in the library is, like, a different kind of work than working from my kitchen countertop while my dad's watching tv down the hall and my mom's, like, on the phone in the other room.

NADWORNY: When Occidental announced last week it was going to be online in the fall due to a surge of COVID cases in LA, Pittman started thinking it might be better to keep working at his summer job, a roofing company, and take a break from school.

PITTMAN: If college was always all online, I probably would have not went to college.

NADWORNY: For others, postponing school isn't really an option.

REAGAN GRIFFIN JR: I've had class of 2023 in the back of my mind for a while now.

NADWORNY: Reagan Griffin Jr. is a sophomore at the University of Southern California, another school that's reversed their decision to have in-person classes.

GRIFFIN: I do feel short-changed because, you know, you only get four years of college, right?

NADWORNY: He is a journalism major at USC Annenberg. He went there for their state-of-the-art media center and the culture around sports and community. As a sophomore, he's now had about the same amount of time in-person as online.

GRIFFIN: From my shoes, it's extremely frustrating because you got a taste of it, right? You had this hope of what your college experience would be. And for me, it was everything that I thought it would be and more. And then after one semester, that just gets stripped away.

NADWORNY: Despite the fact that all his classes will be online, Griffin is moving to an LA apartment in a few weeks. So he'll be close to campus. That proximity gives him some hope yet for the semester.

GRIFFIN: If the coronavirus clears up a little bit, I'll be right there ready to pounce on every opportunity that there will be.

GREEN: And NPR's Elissa Nadworny is still with us. Wow. Elissa, that voice - just moving near campus just to psychologically feel better about all this. I guess I just wonder, is this the situation facing all college students? Are there some colleges that are saying, let's at least keep plans going to try and reopen in person?

NADWORNY: Yeah. There are about 500 colleges that have said they'll still be fully in-person or majority in-person. You know, we see single dorms as an option there and lots of testing. But the other thing we're seeing is there are still hundreds of schools that have yet to announce any plans for the fall. That's leaving a lot of students in limbo. And classes are starting in just a couple weeks.

GREEN: Yeah. All that uncertainty and the time is coming really soon to make a decision. NPR's Elissa Nadworny. Thanks for bringing us all these voices this morning reporting on this. We appreciate it.

NADWORNY: You bet.


Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.