With open wounds left by the spring semester’s quick changes, colleges across New York State are scrambling to figure out what their fall semesters will look like.
Information is hard to come by, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) maintains that it is still too early to make a determination about the fall semester for K-12 schools and colleges.
“We will issue guidelines in the beginning of June on what schools would need to do to come up with a plan to prepare to open,” Cuomo said at a May 21 briefing. “As the facts keep changing, prudence dictates that you don’t make a decision until it’s timely so you have the most recent facts to make a decision.”
Still, the answer is pressing as schools nationwide face extraordinary financial pressure to reopen their campuses. But opening poses challenges as institutions figure out how to house and teach students safely with no clear end in sight for the pandemic.
Largely, though, uncertainty prevails as most colleges — including Cornell — wait to sort out the situations, run task forces to evaluate all options and await recommendations from the State of New York and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC last made recommendations on May 21, providing definitions of the lowest risk scenarios: keeping residence halls closed and having only virtual learning options. The guidance further offered various suggestions for reducing spread of the virus.
Ultimately, the CDC did not indicate the safest ways to resume classes, but rather provided a list of considerations for colleges as they reopen their campuses, which included promoting behaviors that reduce spread, maintaining healthy environments and preparing for when someone gets sick.
Despite vague guidelines and unknown futures, some New York schools are trying to provide anxious students with some information and rolling out hopeful plans — which diverge wildly in approach.
Some students may return to Ithaca, as Ithaca College plans to resume in-person instruction on Oct. 5 — a month later than originally scheduled.
“By putting a stake in the ground for a [fall] start, we are giving our returning and new students the space they need to get ready for the upcoming year,” said Ithaca College President Shirley Collado in a May 18 message to students. “This carefully thought-out time frame provides our faculty with the opportunity to fully prepare to deliver the strongest educational experience.”
But just an hour away, Syracuse University is taking the opposite approach, opening earlier than usual.
Students will start on Aug. 24 instead of Aug. 31 and function on an “unorthodox” accelerated schedule, Chancellor Kent Syverud explained in a May 20 email. After Thanksgiving break, students will not return and will take exams online. Syverud also said that the university will likely hold additional Friday and weekend classes, and all in-person classes will have an optional online format.
Syracuse’s plan follows other colleges’ plans across the country to respond to “second surge” predictions. Some modeling predicts a spike in COVID-19 cases at the beginning of December, which would likely coincide with the flu season.
While Cornell has not made any announcement regarding its fall plans, the Teaching Reactivation Committee released a list of 2020-21 calendar options to source ideas and input on the decision.
“Chances are, the chosen calendar will likely involve some mix of the ideas that are portrayed across the library of options below,” the page reads.
Five of the committee’s six options include a switch to online after Thanksgiving, mirroring Syracuse’s announcement.
Still, other universities around the state are holding to their expected schedules, like Binghamton University and Fordham University, who both plan to start Aug. 26.
Binghamton President Harvey Stenger promised a “fully workable and detailed plan” by June 15 which would get students on campus by the first day of fall classes, in a May 18 email to the campus community.
Fordham anticipates to be fully in person and on campus for the fall, barring further disruptions from the public health situation.
To accommodate this, Fordham is adopting a “flexible hybrid learning environment” for nearly every course. Fordham’s solution intends to combine asynchronous and synchronous learning methods to limit classroom sizes and ensure flexibility in pivoting to remote instruction, if necessary. This might look like having lectures virtual and pre-recorded and small, in-person discussion sections.
Fordham’s plan contrasts from its neighbor New York University, as both schools grapple with opening back in the pandemic’s epicenter.
While NYU administrators plan to be on-campus come fall, they are considering mixed virtual and in-person modes for classes and restructuring courses to be completed over a longer period of time.
“In short, during the coming academic year we plan to offer you significant additional flexibility as to how you study, where you study and when you study (that is, the time span over which you spread your classes),” wrote NYU Provost Katherine Fleming in a May 19 email to the campus community, promising further information by early July.
But largely, most schools’ plans remain unknown, including Cornell.
In the latest Cornell update, President Martha E. Pollack announced the formation of the Committee on Teaching Reactivation Options, which is to make recommendations to her by June 15.
The committee was set to “identify various options for reactivating our campuses for in-person teaching,” including bringing back all students in late August, reopening campuses gradually over a period of weeks and having only a subset of students return.
The University declined to comment on if local schools’ reopening will play a role in its decision. A University spokesperson referred to month-old emails from Pollack and Provost Michael Kotlikoff as “what we have on this topic for now.”
Ivy League peer Columbia University has also not yet announced when they plan to have students return to campus, but has committed to using the three upcoming terms — fall 2020, spring 2021 and summer 2021 — to give the most flexibility in organizing the upcoming academic year around in-person classes.
“We all wish to return to in-person instruction and campus life, and our intent is to make that possible as soon as it is safe to do so,” Columbia President Lee Bollinger wrote on May 14. “The hard fact is, however, that we just cannot predict now when that moment will arrive.”
Columbia’s three-term solution comes in the hope of having students experience as much of their coursework in person: “By leveraging a longer period of time, we will be able to de-densify our campus,” Bollinger wrote.
Fellow New York schools Colgate University, the State University of New York system, the University of Rochester, Union College and Vassar College, also hope to resume on-campus learning for students, but they have not made concrete announcements yet.
But the consequences may be more dire than a lost semester on campus.
Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 said that the city’s economy faces dire consequences if local colleges do not hold in-person classes this fall due to the coronavirus. Further, Wells College President Jonathan Gibralter said in early May that it may have to close its doors permanently if they cannot reopen the campus.