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Higher Ed Reopen Strategies: Flexing Space on Campus

Flexible, hybrid (online and in-person) learning environments. Early start dates, no holiday travel, and at-home exams. With summer starting and fall semester just weeks away, the national conversation surrounding COVID-19 and colleges is heating up.

Inside Higher Ed reports that a May survey of college presidents by the American Council of Education showed 53% of the 230 respondents predicted their institutions would reopen in the fall.  Designating residential space on campus to quarantine students and requiring masks to be worn on campus are among the risk mitigation measures cited by survey respondents.

Plans to reopen vary by college and county, and differ among institutions in the same state. That’s because so many variables—student population, building occupancy and residential units—are all part of the equation.

College campuses present obvious, unique challenges: a mix of young adult students with older (and more at risk) faculty plus shared living and dining spaces. And just about everything students and parents expect from a college experience –from sports to sororities to concerts and ceremonies—are shoulder-to-shoulder gatherings.  So, in the week following Memorial Day, what should you know about the current plans for college campuses?


For starters, some schools have leaned way in—and have publicly expressed confidence they will be ready to go. At Notre Dame, the plan is for an adjusted academic calendar, with classes resuming Aug. 10. “We recognize the challenge, but we believe it is one we can meet,” wrote university president Rev. John I. Jenkins C.S.C.  Officials in the Texas A&M University System have said students will be welcomed back in the fall—and yes, Texas A&M reportedly is planning on a football season. Officials in that system offered up creative spacing solutions—including Saturday and evening classes, and removing furniture in common areas to discourage gathering.

Across the country, some campus leaders are striving to deliver a message of confidence, one balanced with caution. But many schools are still in the research phase. Amherst College President Biddy Martin told students in her Memorial Day weekend update; “Between now and next Friday’s (or Saturday’s) letter, we will continue to make progress toward a plan for how we might safely re-open the campus.” The Washington Post reports that some schools, like Montgomery College, with more than 21,000 commuter students, have already decided they won’t reopen in September. To move on with distance learning, a decision had to made sooner rather than later.

Boston College is among those schools that had a chance to do sort of a dry run when it comes to reopening—because  400 students have remained on campus. In a statement released last week, BC said the last two months “provided valuable lessons about how to implement physical distancing and food distribution protocols in dining facilities, increase sanitizing for buildings (particularly residence halls), and use technology for meetings and events.”


For schools that do choose to provide in-person learning in the fall, the focus is on sanitation, testing and understanding campus spaces—from dormitories to cafeterias and libraries.

The American College Health Association published a 20-page report in May outlining several areas for schools to focus on, including Facilities:

  • Maintain at least 6 feet between workstations/workers.
  • Place plexiglass or other barriers in workspaces where people must face each other or unable to be 6 feet apart.
  • Consider installing plexiglass barriers at high-visited areas such as reception desks and check-in points.
  • Place appropriate signage at entrances indicating how to proceed.
  • Remove chairs and desks to ensure proper physical distancing in conference and waiting rooms.
  • Identify allowable occupancy in order to control workflow and/or establish maximum attendance

For administrators trying to plan in-person classes, the ACHA report suggested limiting all in-person courses/sections to “fewer than 30 participants. Consider creating multiple sections/shifts to reduce numbers.”   The report also noted that a “careful risk assessment and staged approach is needed to balance the benefits and potential harms of adjusting these measures, so as not to trigger a resurgence of COVID-19 cases and jeopardize the health and safety of the campus community.”

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