On Academics and Pandemics

This spring, college students were sent home with urgency because college leaders understood science. Now, they are planning to welcome students back to campus before a vaccine is ready. So as you plan for fall, let me share my thinking, which is drawn from recent college news and information sessions with industry leaders:

  • Read the fine print. College officials are using the word “hope” with great frequency and giving a nod to normalcy when nothing is normal. Everyone hopes to have students back on campus because that is how college works best. But in the fine print, there are conditions for reopening that will be difficult, if not, impossible to meet:
    • There must be sufficient medical testing, contact tracing, protective gear, and quarantine facilities to confirm, track and slow the virus.
    • Everyone must wear masks and protective gear while practicing social distancing in residence halls, classrooms, performance halls, athletic facilities, dining halls, etc.
    • Large lectures and other courses must be converted to online or small group sessions to limit crowd sizes.
    • Faculty, staff, area businesses and college town residents must be willing to interact with students and others returning to campus.
  • Prepare for distance learning not because it is best but because we are able to continue learning via technology while in a pandemic. The onset of COVID-19 found most faculty and students unprepared for the transition to distance learning and both were largely disappointed with the spring term. Most faculty and students love education as a contact sport but, during the pandemic, we have to engage in the sport without the contact. Be flexible about ways to get academic content online, which can be done well with sufficient training and planning.
  • Pay what is reasonable for tuition and fees. With students possibly remaining at home, families will be spared campus room and board charges. Faculty, with the benefit of summer training and planning, can deliver online learning at higher quality. Students will have online access to professors and administrators for support, guidance, tutoring, and other services. The personal attention of prize-winning faculty members who are essential for securing lessons, research opportunities, and recommendations for graduate school or jobs is not free. Think of distance learning as getting meals from your favorite restaurant without the dine-in experience. Give professors a chance to improve their lessons and save your wrath for those who had the opportunity to limit the pandemic’s impact but did not.
  • Don’t delay enrollment or take a Gap Year unless you have a good reason. Be sure you have a plan or program so that your time is productive. Many programs, internships, and travel opportunities have been cancelled and students who take time off may find themselves further behind on their goals without benefiting from their time off.
  • Expect financial uncertainty. Colleges may be facing decreased government funding, enrollment revenues, foundation grants, alumni gifts, and societal support. This situation will likely force budget cuts and staffing reductions. The effects of the pandemic, economic depression, and racial unrest will be felt for years to come. As colleges and universities adapt, we do not know how these institutions will look 2 years from now. Let’s raise our voices on the future of higher education, how it is funded, ways that it can serve more people better. Let’s raise our voices on the value of learning for STEM and beyond; we should promote education’s worth beyond its ability to prepare students for just jobs. Debates about the future of higher education are not just about online versus on-campus when the whole industry is on fire!
  • Search for scholarships. Identify scholarship funds as a new cycle opens. Prepare to write essays, complete applications, and conduct interviews to secure money for college tuition or other educational expenses.
  • Register and verify your voter registration. Whether by absentee, mail-in, or in-person ballot, participate to solve our country’s biggest problems. Educational investments and other resources are allocated by legislators we elect. Become a regular voter and stay engaged even when a chosen candidate or issue loses. Better one lost race than a steady erosion of our society’s best values, institutions, and goals.
  • Achieve something important during this time. Students who may face the near future without their beloved campus-based activities should use this time productively. Deeply explore an interest or place, produce a new work of beauty or engage a long-term project that has been on your heart. Imagine that you have been awarded a prize to strengthen your community or the world, then use this time to be better and improve life for others.

Let me know how I can assist your family, school, college or organization so that students don’t miss critical steps in college readiness.

Special thanks to Joelle Robinson (Laurel School ‘19, Case Western Reserve University ‘23) for valuable insights and edits in preparing this post.