Colleges across the U.S. have announced plans to return to in-person instruction this fall, but strict COVID-19 campus guidelines will remain in place.

Will College Campuses Return to Normal in Fall 2021?


  • With vaccination rates rising, more colleges are preparing for a fully in-person fall term.
  • Colleges aim to entice students after facing backlash over remote learning tuition costs.
  • Strict COVID-19 rules — and punishments for disobeying them — will remain in place.

Some experts say any return to normal life is still a couple of years off. For colleges, however, that timeline is significantly shorter, with a growing number of U.S. institutions announcing plans for resuming in-person instruction and bringing more students back to campus this fall.

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, while colleges must contend with the loss of campus and tuition income.

Universities' announcements to reopen this fall coincide with the sending of acceptance letters. Schools need students, and given the flood of student petitions and lawsuits after charging full price for an online spring, colleges worry that students won't return for anything less than in-person.

But what will in-person learning look like? What about dorm life? Football games?

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

College COVID-19 rules will remain in place this spring and beyond. So while students may head into lecture halls instead of logging into Zoom, they'll still be expected to wear masks and abide by social distancing guidelines.

In fact, campus guidelines are more likely to expand than they are to contract with the introduction of heightened testing requirements, more sophisticated contact tracing, and even a potential vaccine requirement. Most college students say they are following the rules but remain skeptical of whether their peers are doing the same.

Still, many call the punishments for breaking the rules too harsh. Will Creeley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education believes college students are "being held to an impossible standard."

Rather than punishing students, some universities are following the advice of behavioral psychologists and rewarding good behavior. The University of California, Davis, for example, said it would pay students $75 to stay on campus during spring break.

Colleges Promise Swift Return to Normal This Fall

Some colleges will stay at least partially online next year. At all schools, calendars and learning models will likely continue to shift in response to local data. Nevertheless, colleges across the country — from Purdue University to Portland State University — say they are reopening. Some campuses even plan on dropping their all-virtual options.

With vaccination rates increasing, college leaders are optimistic about returning to normal.

With COVID-19 counts on the decline, and vaccination rates increasing, university leaders are optimistic about returning to normal. Like K-12 school reopening plans, many college reopening plans include offering vaccinations to all faculty and staff.

But while most states' vaccine phases prioritize educators as frontline workers, many exclude higher education employees, focusing instead on K-12 or K-8 teachers.

Healthy college students stand at the very back of the line for COVID-19 inoculations. Vaccines for individuals younger than 18, meanwhile, are still in the early testing stages.

Consequences Stay for Students Who Flout COVID-19 Rules

Thousands of college students have faced suspension or expulsion for breaking COVID-19 rules, which forbid attending parties or even gathering in dorm rooms. Less egregious violations may result in students being moved to remote learning or getting assigned community service activities by a jury of their peers.

Calling offending students "an immediate health risk to other residents," the University of Massachusetts Amherst, along with many other institutions, has suspended students, allowing them to return to campus after a set period of time, while expelling others.

Noncompliance with colleges' 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.

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

Despite the Health Risks, Being on Campus Helps Students

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. According to H. David Porter, a professional in food service strategic planning, students who live and dine on campus are more likely to stay enrolled and graduate.

The reality is that residential colleges provide value to students, even with COVID-19 rules in place — even when learning takes place mostly or fully online. A survey by American Campus Communities found positive academic and social outcomes for students living in college housing last fall.

Ninety-five percent of the 42,569 college students surveyed were taking classes partly or entirely online. While most students view online learning as more difficult, on-campus students are far less likely to struggle with finding internet connectivity and a quiet place to study.


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