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The college fall semester begins as another pandemic chapter unfolds

Universities will have to help students who suffered pandemic-related trauma. They’ll also have more students than usual experiencing on-campus college life for the first time.

Students on Polett Walk at 13th Street during Temple University's move-in earlier this month.
Students on Polett Walk at 13th Street during Temple University's move-in earlier this month.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

College freshman Claire Shutack was excited: It was move-in day at West Chester University, the school she chose because she liked its proximity to her home in Malvern and its strong reputation for training teachers — she wants to be one.

But she also was a bit worried about starting college with COVID-19 cases climbing again. She’d been through four prospective roommates until she found one who was vaccinated, like her.

“That was bothersome,” her mother, Leslie, said, outside her daughter’s new residence hall last week.

With mixed emotions, dozens of the region’s colleges are welcoming students back this month and preparing to start the semester with classes largely in person for the first time since the pandemic began and residence halls at or near capacity. With many students — and in the case of some campuses almost all — vaccinated, college officials were hoping for a better fall than last year.

» READ MORE: Vaccinated vs. unvaccinated roommates: As college starts, some parents and students have concerns

But what was supposed to be a near return to normal has become another chapter in a pandemic that already has stretched for 18 months and threatens to continue with the more transmissible delta variant. And challenges for colleges run deeper than mask mandates and COVID-19 testing. Universities will have to be ready to help students with greater mental health needs. They’ll also have more students than usual transitioning to regular campus life for the first time, given that many attended classes remotely last year.

“We have to be really ready for this to be crazy,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a Temple University professor who runs the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.

But colleges also have learned a lot about navigating in a pandemic, and they’ll look to incorporate those lessons to improve the student experience and their operations. Colleges again are rolling out online coronavirus dashboards to keep the public aware of case numbers on their campuses and preparing for a possible pivot to more online instruction, as they have learned to do. They also have the benefit of vaccines — and many are requiring them — and less expensive testing. At the University of Pennsylvania, where 88% of students are fully vaccinated, the school announced Wednesday that it would test all students enrolled in an on-campus program for COVID-19 twice a month, regardless of vaccination status.

“When the pandemic began, a lot of us envisioned a world that, when it was over, it would be COVID-free,” said Dr. Marla Gold, an infectious-disease specialist and chief wellness officer at Drexel University. “And it’s become apparent throughout this year that’s not what is going to happen here.”

Still, campus leaders and students said they hope the focus can stay on learning and enjoying a vibrant campus life so integral to the college experience.

“I want to meet new people and learn what Philly has to offer me,” said James Marquez, 19, a freshman from Carlisle, who moved into his Temple University residence hall earlier this month.

More students in distress

Colleges are welcoming two new groups of students, freshmen and sophomores, since last year’s freshmen had anything but a typical first year, some students never having set foot on campus. Universities for the first time are holding special orientations for sophomores to engage them with campus life, a key to success. Penn plans to offer programs for its sophomore all year.

“We are very sensitive to the particular needs of our second-year students,” said Leo Charney, a Penn spokesperson.

While colleges for years have seen increasing numbers of students with mental health needs, this year they also will be faced with students who may have suffered severe illness or death of loved ones, job loss, social isolation, or other pandemic-related difficulties.

» READ MORE: Despite federal funding for college students during the pandemic, many are still in need

Penn has “substantially increased staff and resources for both counseling and wellness and will continue to be responsive ... as we learn more about their needs in the aftermath of the unprecedented past year,” Charney said.

Temple is offering faculty and staff training on how to recognize students in distress, make it comfortable for them to reach out, and guide them toward help, said Stephanie Ives, associate vice president and dean of students.

“It may have been pre-pandemic that a faculty member in a class of 20 had three or five students who during the course of a semester disclosed something that was troubling in some way,” she said. “We anticipate that it could be over half, maybe three-quarters of students who come to faculty and now make those kinds of disclosures.”

Students may return to campus having already had the virus and in some cases are COVID-19 long-haulers, said Temple’s Goldrick-Rab. Her center recently released a report that found almost 7% of 100,000 undergraduates surveyed in 42 states reported having had COVID-19. Rates were higher among Latino, Black, or African American and Indigenous students, as well as those from lower-income families and those who have children, work, or are student athletes, the center’s report said.

Ives said Temple anticipates long-haulers will ask for classroom accommodations and is ready to help.

Lessons learned and kept

Though Pennsylvania State University expects to conduct 95% of classes in person, it’s keeping much of its virtual programming for tours, tutoring, career fairs, and academic advising, having found that it extended the school’s reach in ways not expected. The university saw a 30% increase in students using its tutoring once it was available remotely, and fewer sessions were canceled.

“We’ll try the experiment to offer both [online and in-person tutoring] in the fall and see what happens,” said president Eric J. Barron.

The university also had more than 2,800 people registered for summer online tours of campus and saw a large jump in students outside University Park who registered for online career fairs.

Universities even found that while in-person meetings are still valuable, it was easier to bring people in various locations together on Zoom.

“We’ve seen attendance at meetings improve because it’s more convenient,” said Christopher Fiorentino, West Chester’s president.

Before the pandemic, he hosted dinners at his home for alumni. Last year, he started sending them baskets of cheese and wine and holding Zooms. He’ll continue to do that.

“I already have eight or 10 of these set up with people all over the country,” he said.

Professors also plan to keep some pandemic-inspired approaches. The chat function on Zoom created a whole other stream of classroom dialogue that gave professors new insight into what students thought.

Julie Hill, an assistant professor of psychology at La Salle University, adopted a new grading system in which assignments are pass/fail, with pass representing a B. Students got multiple opportunities to pass, but after the first try, they had to use tokens for each attempt; they received tokens at the beginning of the semester and could earn more.

The method, called specifications grading, changed the focus from letter grades to learning the material, she said, and also relieved stress. Students still received a letter grade for the course. Her grade distribution, she found, was about the same as other years.

“It’s very much about adding compassion and flexibility for students,” she said.

Brian DeHaven, an associate professor of biology at La Salle, found that students took advantage of office hours much more when they could just Zoom in.

Now, he’ll offer both online and in-person hours, but more online.

Long considered slow to change, colleges learned they could pivot quickly. At Drexel, employees stepped out of their department silos and worked together to deal with COVID-19, said Gold, Drexel’s chief wellness officer. She thought she knew what employees in the student life office did; now she said she really knows. They came to understand each other’s jobs much better.

“The way in which we approach problems collectively is changed forever,” she said.

A semester underway

As the Shutacks unloaded Claire’s belongings into a large bin in the university parking lot, Fiorentino, the president, greeted them.

“Great to see you in West Chester,” Fiorentino said. “How do you feel about being here?”

“I feel good,” Claire said.

» READ MORE: Pennsylvania's state colleges say they can't require COVID-19 vaccines

Her mother, though, said she wished West Chester could mandate the COVID-19 vaccine, like Lehigh University, where Claire’s twin brother goes. West Chester is part of the Pennsylvania state university system, which has said it doesn’t have the legal authority. West Chester requires masks indoors and random testing for unvaccinated residential students. It’s also asked unvaccinated commuters to do random testing.

“I do hope people understand,” Fiorentino told the family, “that we are opening up now because we believe we are going to be able to keep everybody safe under these circumstances.”