Navigating the Pandemic: Higher Education’s Quest for Normalcy

At 17 years old, I headed to college. My best friend and I moved into our residence hall with unlimited excitement for what was ahead. While I wasn’t yet officially an adult, I was responsible for my sustained existence, like eating and doing laundry. I remember my first year, filled with late nights hanging out with friends from down the hall, having dinner with classmates, attending football games, and even going to parties. Looking back, I can say that some of my decisions then were far better than others. But, I was young, learning how to navigate the world on my own, and truly embracing the timeless rite of passage — going to college.

Fast forward nearly 30 years later, and I am on the other side as a college faculty member. My insight doesn’t just stem from my sheer presence in higher education, although it has been instructive. My background and education revolve around studying college students. And, while much has changed, some things just simply haven’t. Most traditional-aged students are encountering their first major adult or near-adult experience in going to college, both leveraging the freedom to make their own choices while looking to institutions to provide support and guidance as they try to figure things out.

The Quest for Normalcy

So, here we are in the midst of a pandemic, and the fall semester is just beginning. Our lives have been upended in more ways than we can count. While we likely all agree that this is not a normal time, it’s also not the new normal. It is a scary, unnerving, stressful, isolating, lonely time for many that we can only hope eventually subsides. I believe that the new normal has yet to come.

But, perhaps out of fear, uncertainty, or loss, the desire for normalcy looks like a quest to return to the way things were. As we have come to find out, though, going back to many of these ways is not necessarily safe during a pandemic. And, frankly, some things weren’t all that great to begin with. So, the nostalgia, while comforting, is also stifling. Instead, this is a time to explore innovative and creative approaches to generations-long problems, for example, making temporary remote work permanent in an effort to reduce costs for office space and carbon emissions from unnecessary commutes. I’m confident that some of these stop-gaps will actually result in some permanency as we learn that there are other and better ways to go about life.

There is no place more drawn to this notion of returning to normalcy than higher education. Normalcy means enrollment. Moving courses online, closing housing facilities, and shuttering campus events might increase the risk of losing enrollment. In a time when many institutions are having fiscal crises, finding a way to maintain enrollment may seem like the only ticket to sustenance in what has already become a more competitive higher education landscape. But, this return to normalcy is not just about keeping enrollment; for some institutions, it’s about expanding it. For example, Boise State University has had an increase in enrollment by 1% for the fall semester, which President, Dr. Marlene Tromp, attributes to offering more in-person classes, resulting in “a more normal college experience than those other schools.”

But, it seems questionable that some institutional leaders didn’t foresee when deciding to reopen for the fall semester that, even with the most robust plans in place, the pandemic could quickly spread out of control on their campuses. For example, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill closed up after only one week into the school year due to COVID cases on campus, which resulted in immediately moving courses online and sending students home from the residence halls. The Charlotte Observer notes that the institution’s reopening “was a plan as ambitious as it was naive.” But, ambition and naivete aside, one could ask if there was a lack of transparency on the institution’s part in confirming students’ enrollment and collecting tuition dollars with the promise of an in-person experience, all while knowing that there was a good chance that the institution could move to remote learning and close up. If students knew ahead of time that they would not be able to come to campus, would they have even enrolled there?

Given the notion that colleges are supposed to serve the public good, being forthcoming about money being the driving force for reopening would not sit well. And, while many hardworking and dedicated employees want students to have an exceptional college experience, the messaging of “we care” coming from campus administrations seems hollow. A study by the American College Health Association found that only 29% of college students believe that campus administrators have been very supportive during the pandemic.

This isn’t surprising in that institutional messaging is coming from administrators. For instance, there are countless examples of emails being sent to students that essentially say, “We really want you to have an amazing college experience (even in a pandemic). We will have residence halls open, dining facilities for you to enjoy, and in-person classes. We care about your safety, and we are doing everything we can to protect you and provide you with an unparalleled campus experience. We look forward to seeing you in the fall. [Enter some type of school motto]!” These messages serve as both an effort to quell student fears as well as keep enrollment strong. Scott Galloway, a New York University professor, told the Intelligencer, that while universities espouse the notion of being in this together with their students, what they really mean is that it’s all about not losing money. And, we know that it is not just an effort to bring in tuition dollars; it’s retaining housing costs, revenue from athletics, parking fees, bookstore sales, dining plans, and much more.

The reality is that for those campuses that do open in an attempt to offer a semblance of normalcy, the student experience will be far from normal. Campuses will be like barren deserts, a shell of the life force that once occupied them. There will be no in-person institutional events, sports, plays, or even dining where students can sit together. The positive aspects of normalcy are reduced to an unidentifiable image of the college experience, all to preserve the college experience. The paradox is stunning.

Why Reopen?

Why then reopen and put so many lives at risk when transitioning to remote learning could be far safer? As of 2018, 35.3% of college students were enrolled in online courses. So, offering remote learning does not necessitate higher education to move into uncharted waters. A variety of apps and platforms have been used for years by institutions to successfully deliver content remotely.

So, why didn’t most colleges and universities make the decision earlier to shift entirely to remote learning, rather than reserving it for a just-in-case scenario? Some institutions were likely holding out, waiting to see if there would be a decrease in infections and didn’t want to lock themselves into a scenario that would prove to be unnecessary.

And, then there are the logistical components of getting faculty on board and up-to-speed with technology, redesigning classes for online delivery, grappling with how to move active learning classes online, and setting up the technical infrastructure needed to transition. Many institutions did expand online offerings, and many faculty members did retool their courses for remote delivery. But, these efforts weren’t universal. Instead, many campuses were buying PPE, putting social distancing and arrow stickers on hallway floors, and roping off seats in lecture halls.

What if institutions had simply embraced universal remote learning early on and then shared with students their efforts to prepare for it?

Imagine students receiving a message from their college or university that said, “We know most institutions are going online and that the college experience will be different, but let us tell you how we are prepared to offer you an amazing experience. We have spent all summer engaging our faculty in professional development to design and deliver interactive and cutting-edge remote courses. We have moved campus life online and have a calendar of events and activities that will enhance your school spirit. We have made campus offices accessible without requiring you or our valued employees to leave home, and we have created online social spaces to gather with others in your organizations and classes, or just to hang out with friends.”

Instead, institutions have inadvertently positioned remote learning as a negative alternative to real college, thus putting pressure on campuses to open before it is safe. This negative portrayal has led institutions to be “ready to pivot” only if infection rates reach a certain threshold. How many students, faculty, and staff have to get sick before institutions switch to a proven, robust, effective, and safe modality of teaching online?

And, this negativity around remote learning is not unnoticed by students. Who wants to pay for college but not get all they paid for? If institutions developed robust campus experiences and amazing remote learning opportunities, countering the argument that online classes are inferior, perhaps there wouldn’t be so much student pushback. Certainly, it’s important not to charge fees for services students aren’t able to get remotely (like parking or campus WiFi). But, this battle for value is something that can be addressed if institutions invest in a worthy remote experience and not as a fallback to in-person opening plans.

This “ready to pivot” mentality has also created a great deal of ambiguity and stress for students. Not just in the lack of certainty around semester start dates, class modalities, and access to campus resources, but institutions not making the decision to offer fall semester remotely until late in the game has made it nearly impossible for students to switch institutions or get out of off-campus leases.

There is also a strong argument that opening campuses offer access to students who might not otherwise have resources like computers or WiFi to engage in remote learning. But, wouldn’t it be far more cost-effective and safer to provide students with laptops to check out and WiFi cards than to buy PPE, increase janitorial service, reduce in-person class sizes to meet social distancing requirements, among other things? Plus, providing devices and WiFi to students off campus is far more inclusive. It means that everybody will have the opportunity to learn safely from home without having to come to campus.

Anxiety About Reopening

Despite the back-to-school images of young people partying, not all students want campuses to reopen. For instance, at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, students are concerned. According to Raleigh Cury, a senior serving on student government, “There was a consensus among all student leaders who were involved in those meetings that remote learning was the best and only option.” She added that exceptions should only be considered for those who had barriers to being successful academically from home. Sarah Emily Baum, in an article for Teen Vogue, wrote, “Are we going back because it’s safe? Or are we going back because it’s profitable?” She goes on to say, “This school year, Generation Z is effectively cannon fodder. We are lab rats for some great experiment in the fatal potential of viral disease.”

While there are certainly faculty and staff who might also be ready to head back to campus, it is not a universal desire by any means. For example, Appalachian State University’s Faculty Senate voted no-confidence in their Chancellor in part for her approach to campus reopening, and faculty and staff from the 16 campuses of the University of North Carolina system initiated a lawsuit to stop the opening of their campuses.

There are even widespread collective efforts to voice concerns. A petition, circulated through social media, garnered more than 400 signatures not just from students but also alumni and former faculty at Willamette University to take a stand against resuming in-person classes and opening residence halls.

And scholars who study education are voicing their concerns. “Gathering students on campus is a gamble that could generate outsize risks for society and only modest benefits for students,” said Susan Dynarski, a professor of education, public policy, and economics at the University of Michigan.

Whether through petitions, no-confidence votes, or even lawsuits, it is clear that many do not believe it is safe enough to reopen campuses. But, then again, if you have to put your kids in daycare during a pandemic to work from home, the message that was initially communicated to faculty and staff at Florida State University, it’s not clear which is the worse situation, at least for employees.

Reopening Plans

So many institutions have gone to great lengths to develop very detailed and thoughtful plans and protocols for a safe opening. Some even have catchy names like The University of Arizona’s Test, Trace, Treat or the University of California, San Diego’s Return to Learn. While noble in their efforts and likely, if implemented well, could reduce infection, all of these plans lack one basic thing: anticipating the realistic behavior of college students. Going away to college offers an open invitation to stay out as long as you would like, hang out with whoever you want, and do whatever you feel like. That is the beauty of coming of age and experiencing freedom and independence. But, we have seen too many reports of packed beaches and bars, out of control parties, and overflowing sporting events… only to be followed by a story of someone who got COVID from attending. We know that gatherings can be such hotbeds for infection that the CDC recommends staying at home, if possible. The state of Arizona’s motto is even dubbed, Safer at Home. So, it’s good news to find that a College Reaction/Axios poll found that 79 percent of college students said they wouldn’t attend parties. Sounds great, right? The vast majority won’t attend parties. With a virus that knows no bounds, all it takes is one, just one, student to attend a party or bar or family gathering or work event, get COVID, and bring it back to campus. So, while it is encouraging that there are 79 percent who said they won’t attend parties, even if all of them actually stayed true to their survey response, 21 percent might. And, this isn’t speculation; it’s already happening at colleges in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Iowa, Tennessee, and Ohio. Even small liberal arts schools like one in New York are havens for college student partying. But, don’t blame young people for doing what young people do. Stephen M. Gavazzi wrote in Forbes, “There should be no doubt in anyone’s minds that some students are going to party, regardless of what university officials say or demand.”

The rest of us haven’t been doing a good job collectively following health and safety guidelines either. Dan Casey, writing for The Roanoke Times, pointed out in reference to the Stop the Spread plan from James Madison University, “The plan sounds pretty good, right? If all those protocols had been followed across America since mid-February, the United States probably wouldn’t own the dubious distinction of more than 5 million COVID-19 cases.”

But, it’s not just going to bars or parties that could spread COVID. Simply the small community of a college campus can create a space for transmission. For instance, being in tight quarters like residence halls, fraternity and sorority houses, and dining halls could increase the chance of infection. According to the CDC, “In general, the more closely you interact with others and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread.” A study by EAB found that 72 percent of college and university leaders surveyed about plans for social distancing on campus expressed their greatest concern being that students will not follow social distancing guidelines in campus housing.

In addition, spending time in the library, campus offices, and classrooms could pose a risk. A study published in the The New England Journal of Medicine found that COVID particles can remain airborne for three hours and have the ability to recirculate even if there is not a great deal of airflow.

It’s also important to remember that students’ existence does not end at the edge of campus. Even with the best social distancing practices, cleaning protocols, and mask ordinances in place on campus, students move freely and frequently across institutional boundaries without the assurance that those efforts are either in place or being exercised by students when off campus.

All it takes is one student making a choice that puts others at risk for infection. So, a real plan would take into account that about 20 percent of the student body won’t follow the rules (based on the findings from the College Reaction/Axios poll simply on party attendance). Perhaps some colleges have taken that into account in that they have designated a number of residence hall rooms as the quarantine living spaces for those who get COVID. Cassandra Aska, Dean of Students, from Arizona State University said, “We do have locations where students will be able to quarantine and if they do test positive, at that point those individuals will work closely with our health services to make informed decisions moving forward from there.” At Boise State University, upon hearing there were 100 beds designated in residence halls for isolation, first-year student, Mason Standal, noted that 100 beds would not be enough. He said, “It should be fine if everyone follows the rules, but I’m a little worried.” Despite having quarantine spaces available, if a campus is already planning that students will contract the disease, maybe they should rethink opening.

Ensuring Compliance

With plans in place, institutions must grapple with how to hold individuals responsible for not complying with campus rules and protocols. There are two ways to look at this issue: the moral imperative and the policy imperative. On the one hand, some may believe that mitigating the spread of COVID is a moral imperative in which public health should be on the shoulders of each individual…essentially, it is all of our duty to keep all of us safe. But, is it realistic or even fair to put the health and welfare of the campus and local community in the hands of college students? Perhaps educational campaigns asserting the importance of social distancing and wearing a mask can curb the potential impact of the massive influx of out-of-towners as they descend on their college communities. Given what we have seen, though, especially with the politicization of mask-wearing, it would be safe to assume that each person has their own perspectives of morality, individual freedom, collective welfare, and risk, which will guide their behaviors. Why then would colleges and universities believe that students will adhere to the guidance provided in a phone call outlining reopening guidelines, uphold the pledge they signed when they returned to campus, or wear the “I’ve been tested” wristband issued to them?

On the other hand, some may believe that mitigating the spread of COVID is more of a policy imperative in which the consequences for violating health and safety protocols are enough to ensure compliance. If that is the case, will the fear of consequences drive the behavior of college students? As a former campus housing professional, I can tell you the answer is no. People will break the rules. Not just students…if people always behaved in ways that were “ethically acceptable” all the time, we wouldn’t need laws, law enforcement, or judges. What would make students any more likely now to follow new campus rules or the updated student code of conduct?

Either way, who would enforce their behavior? If adhering to reopening guidelines is a moral imperative, will students engage in shaming each other as a way to ensure compliance? Or if this is a policy imperative, how will students be held accountable to the campus regulations? At Arizona State University, for example, students who refuse to wear a mask will be referred to the Dean of Students office. Who is supposed to refer them? Will there be a hotline to report students without masks or is this protocol only for instances where students won’t wear a mask in class and a faculty member refers them to the Dean’s office through official channels?

It doesn’t look like campuses want their police involved in ensuring students engage in social distancing or wear masks. For instance, at the University of Texas at Austin, staff are responsible for enforcing the rules. If the situation escalates to criminal behavior, then the campus police can be called in. So, in addition to caring for their own wellbeing and safety, likely working far more hours than they are being compensated for, subsuming duties for furloughed or laid off co-workers, staff are now supposed to enforce pandemic compliance measures with students.

And, what about off campus violations? Boston College has hired officers from the Boston Police Department to patrol nearby neighborhoods to break up large gatherings. Is cracking down with police intervention at the outset the best course of action, especially in a time of heightened awareness of police misconduct?

Post-Pandemic Shifts

While the last six months have created a challenging landscape for higher education, and many of the questions and thoughts posed in this article do not have easy answers, it is important that the conversation continues around how to do what is in the best interest for the health and wellbeing of students, faculty, staff, and local college communities. Ideas generated through these conversations can offer new ways of doing business that continue even after the pandemic. The following are some ideas that have emerged that may have some sustainable staying power:

Invest in online learning and development. Make online courses and virtual co-curricular experiences engaging, accessible, and robust by using frameworks from programs like Quality Matters and resources for interactive engagement. Provide training for faculty and staff on a diverse array of technology platforms so they are comfortable and adept at using them. Expanding remote options, even after the pandemic subsides, could enable students who may have difficulty coming to campus, busy work schedules, parenting demands, or who prefer online learning to participate in educational and engagement opportunities they may otherwise miss out on.

Offer laptops for checkout and WiFi cards for Internet access. While many campuses already offer these options, consider expanding these initiatives so students can check out devices for an entire semester and get unlimited WiFi access from their homes. These practices are useful for increasing accessibility regardless if the campus is closed or not.

Encourage and support remote work. The pandemic has driven many campus employees to work from home temporarily. However, studies are finding that most people are really productive and happy when working remotely. So, do campuses need to bring everyone back? Some roles inherently require work to take place on campus, but others can be done anytime from anywhere. In addition to enhancing employee morale, offering remote positions at colleges and universities could attract talent from outside the local community, open opportunities for parents who are at home with kids, save in overhead costs associated with an actual office space, as well as reduce commutes and ultimately, our carbon footprint. And, if some positions require limited time on campus, perhaps individuals in those roles can be permitted to work from home at least a few days a week.

Focus on sanitation. Any place that brings in as many people as colleges and universities do are havens for germs. Some efforts undertaken by campuses in the midst of the pandemic could be woven into cleaning protocols to help in the overall cleanliness of campus later on. Consider having touchless hand dryers and hand sanitizer available, offering more boxed meals and less “serve yourself” options in the dining halls, and installing UV sanitizers at phone charging stations.

Offer classes outside, weather permitting. In addition to being in a space with improved airflow, it’s also nice to just get outside and not be cooped up in a classroom that may not even have windows. A study that Dr. Meghan Grace and I conducted on Generation Z college students found that having access to natural light and fresh air helps create a positive learning environment. So, even after the pandemic subsides, it could be beneficial to consider ways to bring learning outside.

End fall classes before Thanksgiving. Some schools have compressed their semesters or started earlier to hold finals week before Thanksgiving. Why haven’t we always done that? Doing so would save on carbon emissions for travel and eliminate the dead learning space between the two breaks. For those institutions that have harvest time or some significant event in August that dictates the start date of the semester, consider shorter semesters with longer class sessions.

Higher education is in a tough situation, already trying to advocate for its relevance during a sustained era of declining college enrollment. But, we have to be creative, innovative, authentic, supportive, and realistic about the college experience. We are at a crossroads where we can choose to be more, stronger, and better than before. Let’s not strive for the old normal…let’s create our new normal.

Dr. Corey Seemiller is an award-winning professor and author of four books on Generation Z, including Generation Z: A Century in the Making.