Arcadia University is working vigorously to redesign about 1,000 courses that could be delivered fully online, but also in person, as well as a mix of the two, simultaneously.

The Glenside university won’t require students to go to campus in the fall but expects that many will, said Jeff Rutenbeck, provost and senior vice president for student affairs.

“We decided about six weeks ago to commit to an all-modes approach,” Rutenbeck said. “It gives us real flexibility, not just for the fall but for the year. We just turn the dial slightly, and we can go from this mixed mode to fully online without missing a beat.”

Such planning is going on at colleges around the region, as they try to develop a safe and educationally sound approach to the fall term, still expected to be heavily affected by the virus. What makes it more challenging are the unseen factors too early to predict: Will there be a fresh surge? Will students sit out the year rather than commit to a semester of uncertainty? Will faculty feel comfortable returning? What will local governments dictate?

Like the 500,000-student California State University system, the Community College of Philadelphia this week announced it will start courses online this fall, calling that the safest option. Delaware County Community College also said it will deliver most classes remotely. Elsewhere, colleges are planning for a hybrid of online and in-person classes and a range of schedules. The University of Notre Dame said it will start the semester two weeks early and end it at Thanksgiving to limit travel. La Salle University this week announced a similar model, while the University of Pennsylvania and St. Joseph’s University are exploring variations of the same.

Temple University had said it would make an announcement about fall plans by the end of May, but a university spokesperson said Friday the school is expecting direction from the governor next week and would wait. Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health also issued guidelines for city colleges in May.

Colleges are drawing up plans to limit the number of students in residence halls, including more single-occupancy rooms and the possibility of allowing just half the student body on campus per semester. They are reconfiguring classrooms; Penn may install Plexiglas barriers between lecturers and students. Others are considering breaking the semester into two terms and having students take a few courses during each.

Athletics remain in limbo, as colleges wait for cues from the NCAA and athletic conferences. What the pandemic will mean for fraternity life also is unknown. As for dining halls, colleges are planning takeout or limited seating.

The conversations are long and fraught, the potential solutions creative and far-reaching, as schools brainstorm scenarios amid great uncertainty.

“We are facing an enormously complex problem on one hand and a rapidly ticking clock on the other," said Steve Newman, president of Temple University’s faculty union.

They’re also wrestling with the implications of having an outbreak if students and staff return.

“This adds a new level of liability concern,” said Terry Hartle, a senior vice president at the American Council on Education. “And I think the liability question is one that will have a lot to do with determining whether or not schools are willing to take a chance.”

The council sent a letter to congressional leaders Thursday asking for liability protection for colleges.

Donald Generals, president of Community College of Philadelphia, announced this week that the college would start the fall semester online.
Michael Bryant / Staff Photographer
Donald Generals, president of Community College of Philadelphia, announced this week that the college would start the fall semester online.

A few things seem certain: Large in-person lectures are an almost certain no for the fall. (Penn has said it doesn’t plan to hold in-person classes of more than 25 students.) Requiring masks is an almost certainty. And choices are likely to vary, depending on whether colleges are in rural or urban areas and the extent of the outbreak locally.

Given that a vaccine isn’t likely by the fall, colleges will have to rely on testing, contact tracing, deep cleaning, and social distancing to mitigate the virus’ impact, Hartle said, and they have full control over only cleaning. They will need to rely on support from local governments for testing and tracing and compliance by students, who like to gather, to social distancing guidelines, he said.

“College students don’t … have a good record in this area, particularly, I suspect if alcohol happens to be involved,” Hartle said.

Testing also could be expensive, he said. A college president recently was quoted a price of $50 to $140 per kit, Hartle said.

At a time of financial stress for many institutions, the additional protocols, like cleaning, will cost colleges more money, while some schools including Pennsylvania’s state universities, Temple, and Pennsylvania State University, have announced they are freezing tuition.

Still, more than half the 310 college presidents who responded to an ACE survey this month said it was “very likely” they would resume in-person classes for some portion of the fall. Nearly two-thirds of presidents with residential housing said they planned to set up quarantine spaces on campus for those who test positive and about a third are planning regular temperature screenings for students and staff.

"We are facing an enormously complex problem on one hand and a rapidly ticking clock on the other," said Steve Newman, president of Temple University's faculty union.
File Photograph
"We are facing an enormously complex problem on one hand and a rapidly ticking clock on the other," said Steve Newman, president of Temple University's faculty union.

About half intend to announce plans after May 31, the survey showed. Penn State said it will announce by June 15, Penn by the end of June, and Haverford by Aug. 1.

But even after a plan is announced, Hartle said, most schools will have “a variety of scenarios in their top desk drawer in case they need to go with another plan.”

Arcadia also has created a new program aimed at students who may feel uncomfortable attending a regular full year at Arcadia — or any college.

They’re calling it the “GAP Year” program, and it will allow students to take two courses per semester — online or in-person if Arcadia offers that — at about half the tuition price. Students will have the option of transferring credits to another college or enrolling at Arcadia the following year.

“The idea has been in the works for a while,” Rutenbeck said. “But the COVID crisis really brought it into focus for us, and made it clear that now was the right time to refine it and launch it.”

Gap years typically are for students who just graduated from high school, and a recent survey showed a third of graduates may defer or opt out of attending college if classes are online this fall. Arcadia’s program also is open to students who have attended some college elsewhere.

College professors are watching developments closely. Many schools have said they would not require faculty with underlying conditions to teach in-person if they were uncomfortable.

“People are going to need a lot of convincing to feel like it’s safe to open," said Mark Rimple, a music professor at the more than 17,000-student West Chester University and president of the faculty union. “I wouldn’t want to go to work if we still are at a place where we are not testing enough and we don’t understand the transmission still.”

With the right classroom configuration and proper protections in place, Kathryne Corbin, an assistant professor of French at the smaller, 1,350-student Haverford College, said she would feel comfortable returning.

“At some point, we’re going to have to take off the Band-Aid," she said.