Residential colleges are scrambling to get and provide clarity as to how the COVID-19 pandemic might alter their educational offerings. This guesswork involves questions such as whether campuses will even be allowed to reopen in the fall — and if so, what sorts of changes ought to be implemented to ensure they can operate regardless of how the virus pans out. 

None can say for sure whether in-person learning will resume in the fall. For one, the novel coronavirus is far more unpredictable than, say, the flu. Although the body of research on COVID-19 is growing, it remains slippery; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is regularly tweaking its advisories amid the steady trickle of new findings. The virus’s uneven trajectory across the U.S. further complicates matters. Come fall, the best practices — and stipulations — in one state or locale might look vastly different from those in another. Plus, residential colleges may face unique restrictions given how many people they house in confined spaces.

“There’s a great deal of speculation about everything,” said Terry Hartle, the American Council on Education’s senior vice president of government and public affairs. “When you’re in the middle of a hurricane, it’s hard to see what things are going to look like” after it passes. 

Despite the uncertainty, most residential colleges say they intend to reopen their campuses in a few months. They face immense pressure to assure their constituents that some semblance of normalcy will resume even as they extend deposit deadlinesforfeit auxiliary revenue and brace for potential tuition refunds, among other demands. 

In an effort to set expectations, college leaders are developing open-ended contingency plans, convening task forces focused on areas ranging from building security to personal protective equipment. As a Plan B, many are adapting at least a portion of students’ coursework — and elements of campus life, such as clubs and events — to remote platforms. Others are restructuring the academic term. Some are experimenting with a combination of these strategies. 

“Every institution I talk to is planning for multiple scenarios while hoping for the best,” Hartle said. 

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