Throughout the region, colleges are openly talking about the possibility of delaying the fall semester for weeks or even months as the coronavirus continues to take a deadly toll.

On task forces and in committees, they’re exploring starting classes online and then pivoting to in-class instruction when it’s safe.

Some are preparing for a hybrid of online and in-person classes, recognizing that not all students will want to return to campus without a virus vaccine available.

And what if a second virus wave hits in the fall?

“Essentially, we are planning for every contingency, and waiting to learn more about what is going to be possible,” said Julie E. Wollman, president of Widener University in Chester.

Julie E. Wollman, president of Widener University
ED HILLE / Staff Photographer
Julie E. Wollman, president of Widener University

The conversations are fast and furious because, in a matter of weeks or months, colleges must tell students, faculty, and sports teams what to expect, so they can plan. Some students are already pondering taking a semester off if they can’t return to campus.

“We need as clear a signal as possible what the timeline is going to be for making the decision,” said Steve Newman, president of the faculty union at Temple University.

The unpredictable path of the virus and the impact it’s having on the economy and families with college-age children will affect schools in ways that are unknown.

“Rutgers will weather this storm, but our university — and indeed all of higher education — confronts perhaps the greatest academic and operational challenge in its history,” said its president, Robert L. Barchi, who announced staggering revenue losses and pay cuts for top administrators Friday.

And even once colleges make a decision, circumstances could shift, as could parents’ thinking about sending their child to live in a dorm, which some have likened to a landlocked cruise ship, ripe for infection spread.

“What we’re looking at is an extraordinarily high level of uncertainty,” said Terry W. Hartle, a senior vice president with the American Council on Education. “The preferable option is that everybody hopes they can open on time and as scheduled, but nobody would want to assume that. So you do some war-gaming.”

Earlier this month, Boston University said it was planning for the possibility of delaying the fall semester until January. Beloit College in Wisconsin announced it would break its semester into two modules, with the hope that students could be on campus for at least one.

Purdue University, meanwhile, signaled it would bring students back in August if government authorities allow it. The Indiana university, said president Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., is “sober about the certain problems that the COVID-19 virus represents, but determined not to surrender helplessly to those difficulties.”

Local schools said they had not made a decision about the fall, though they hope for full dorms, on-campus classes, and bustling quads.

“There just isn’t enough clarity regarding the current public health issues to announce any firm plans,” said Dory Devlin, a Rutgers spokesperson.

At Temple, faculty want input on the decision and time to plan their courses, whether in-person, online, or a hybrid, Newman said. Faculty also want to be sure Temple has proper protective equipment, adequate cleaning and disinfecting, and plans to accommodate those with underlying health conditions.

Temple spokesperson Ray Betzner said plans would be guided by a commitment to everyone’s safety, as well as high-quality education. Temple expects to decide by the end of May, he said.

Health, safety, and well-being also will be the primary guiding factor at St. Joseph’s University, said Mark Reed, president.

“Everything else cascades from there,” he said.

Some decisions will need to be made soon, he said, noting that many fall athletes return to campus for training as early as July. Sports teams are exploring alternative models, he said.

A range of issues must be addressed, from residential life to classroom instruction to research activities.

Princeton said allowing students to return to campus would depend on testing, public health guidance regarding social distancing, state rules on public gatherings, and the availability of quarantine and self-isolation places on campus.

A man walks across the nearly empty Temple University campus in North Philadelphia last month. The university has transitioned its courses online due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
TIM TAI / Staff Photographer
A man walks across the nearly empty Temple University campus in North Philadelphia last month. The university has transitioned its courses online due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Restructuring class schedules is on the table, too. Schools are looking at spreading them over more days and times to reduce size.

“Do we have classes of less than 10 people or 15 people?” asked Neumann University president Chris Domes, envisioning one possibility.

Ursinus College, a small liberal arts campus in Collegeville, is planning for various scenarios, but wants to hold classes in person if at all possible, and is even considering delaying the semester by a couple of months, said Mark Schneider, vice president for academic affairs and dean. All freshmen take a common course, and discussions ensue in classrooms and residence halls to foster a closer living experience.

“To not have that kind of cohort-building would provide a serious challenge, one we simply will meet,” he said.

Students and parents also are grappling with uncertainty.

Karina Sotnik’s daughter Polina, a senior at Friends Select in Philadelphia, was accepted to the New School in New York City, where the epidemic has hit hardest. Her daughter has her heart set on going in the fall, having made friends with future classmates over Facebook, Sotnik said.

But she also sees how her sister, a freshman at a Philadelphia-area college, is struggling with classes that were forced online, with little support from the institution, Sotnik said. That daughter, she said, is contemplating taking next semester off.

“She definitely doesn’t want to repeat an online experience,” Sotnik said. “It’s been really, really tough.”

Neither daughter wants to talk about it much now, she said, but will have to decide by June or July. What’s most important, she said, is that they can make a decision and be at peace with it.

Some experts have predicted that more students will take a “gap year” — time off from studies — rather than deal with potential chaos in the fall. But students usually travel, work, or volunteer during gap years, and all those could be more difficult this year. And for students from families strapped for cash, that could mean giving up a year’s earning potential.

Isaac Toub, a senior at William Penn Charter School, said he already had planned on a gap year to travel long before the coronavirus. The virus left no doubt.

“I can confidently say I would probably definitely be taking a gap year after all of this,” said Toub, a Cheltenham resident who has been accepted to Drexel University.

And a close friend, determined not to lose that on-campus freshman experience, is talking about it, too, he said.

For colleges, families’ uncertainty could mean a further blow to budgets. The American Council on Education estimates fall enrollments could decline 15%, including a 25% drop in international students.

Pennsylvania State University this week said it plans to freeze tuition next year (currently $17,416 annually for in-state residents) and cut pay for some workers. The school faces a $160 million hole in its education and general fund budget next year, in part because it anticipates an enrollment drop.

Delaware Valley University said it froze tuition and fees, currently about $40,620, for next year to help families.

“At present, our deposits for new freshmen and registrations for returning undergraduate students are running on pace to achieve our fall revenue goals,” president Maria Gallo said. “We believe that the decision to freeze undergraduate tuition and fees will help us in this regard although that was not the reason for doing so.”

Students who show up may need more financial aid at a time when philanthropic giving and endowment returns are down.

“We’ve already had families come to us and say, ‘I lost my job, my spouse lost their job,’ ” and seek more aid, said Annette Parker, vice president for finance and administration at Ursinus.