Will College Campuses Return to Normal in Fall 2021?

Will College Campuses Return to Normal in Fall 2021?
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on April 27, 2021

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Experts say any return to normal life is still a couple of years off. For colleges, however, that timeline is significantly shorter. Institutions are racing to announce plans to bring students back for on-campus learning this fall, with a growing number stipulating that students must be vaccinated for COVID-19 before their arrival.

Universities' earliest announcements of fall reopening plans coincided with the sending of acceptance letters. Schools need students back, and given the flood of student petitions and lawsuits after charging full price for an online spring, many worry that students won't return for anything less than in-person.

After charging full price for an online spring, colleges worry that students won’t return for anything less than in-person this fall.

Studies from the past year suggest that the switch to online learning damaged students' focus and motivation — a loss that may be counteracted by living on or near campus. Students of all ages have performed worse academically since the transition to remote learning. In addition, rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide have risen sharply.

Residential colleges provide value to students, even with COVID-19 rules in place. Those social distancing and mask requirements are likely to stay put, even as dozens of colleges move to require COVID-19 vaccines for on-campus students.

When it comes to enforcing social distancing rules and pushing students to get vaccinated, some colleges are offering incentives, rather than issuing mandates or meting out punishments. Paying students to get the vaccine, however, raises ethical questions.

Colleges Promise "More Normal" Fall Through Vaccination

Colleges across the country, from Purdue University to Portland State University, plan to reopen this fall. Calendars and learning models at all schools may continue to shift in response to local data, but the intent is for in-person education. While some institutions will stay at least partially online for the 2021-22 academic year, others plan to drop their all-virtual options altogether.

University leaders are optimistic about the gradual return to normal, but hedge that it's not going to be like pre-pandemic college life anytime soon. Progress toward normal, according to many leaders, hinges on achieving high vaccination rates.

Over 80 colleges so far say that students who plan on attending in person this fall must get one of the new COVID-19 vaccines. Private colleges were among the first to make the announcement, but large public universities, including both the University of California system and the California State University system, are following suit.

The three COVID-19 vaccines available in the U.S. are still approved for emergency use only by the Food and Drug Administration. While most colleges require vaccinations for viral diseases like measles and mumps, the new vaccines' emergency classification leaves the requirement up for legal debate.

Consequences for Students Who Break COVID-19 Rules

Thousands of college students faced suspension in the past year for breaking COVID-19 rules. Calling those who attend parties or gather in dorm rooms "an immediate health risk to other residents," the University of Massachusetts Amherst, among many other institutions, punished offending students by sending them home.

In some cases, students were allowed to return to campus after a set period of time; others were expelled. Less egregious violations have resulted in students being moved to remote learning or getting assigned community service activities by a jury of their peers.

College Campus COVID-19 Rules

Wear a mask indoors (and sometimes outdoors, too) Limit social gatherings Don't congregate at large parties Get tested for COVID-19 frequently (up to three times per week) Get the flu vaccine Get a COVID-19 vaccine (required by a growing number of colleges)

Many students and their families, as well as civil rights lawyers, say the punishments for breaking the rules are too harsh. Will Creeley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education believes college students are "being held to an impossible standard."

Noncompliance with COVID-19 rules can significantly impact students' degree progression and financial situations, as those who get the boot for breaking rules are ineligible for tuition refunds. Despite the strictures on campus life — and the high cost associated with dodging these rules — many students are willing to take the risk to be with their peers.


Feature Image: MediaNews Group / Boston Herald via Getty Images / Contributor

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