Campus closures due to COVID-19 impact students' ability to succeed. With colleges closed, students and schools grapple with logistics and the digital divide.

COVID-19 Updates

Coronavirus Impacts on Students and Online Learning


  • College students continue to grapple with the educational fallout of the pandemic.
  • More and more students report feeling stressed and anxious due to the coronavirus.
  • COVID-19 has deepened the digital divide for students and forced some into homelessness.
  • Spring brings more of the same, but a vaccine could see more students returning to campus.

Before places of worship, restaurants, and shops began to close in response to the coronavirus pandemic, college campuses sent students home. The dominoes started to fall the second week of March.

On March 6, the University of Washington in Seattle became the first major American college to shut down campus operations. Ten days later, over 250 U.S. colleges and universities followed suit.

Colleges and students were not prepared for prolonged campus closures. Both face a variety of challenges going forward.

Many schools held out hope of resuming at least some on-campus classes and operations this fall. But over the summer, a growing number of colleges adopted primarily online or hybrid learning models. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, out of nearly 3,000 colleges, just 4% are fully in-person, as of October 2020.

Colleges and students were not prepared for prolonged campus closures. Both face a variety of challenges going forward. Due to smaller coronavirus outbreaks, some institutions have already been forced to close a second time.

Several universities concluded their fall terms — or at least their in-person components — by Thanksgiving break. After learning from both the successes and failures of the fall, colleges are starting to feel more confident in their spring plans and methods of containing the virus.

COVID-19's Impact on College Students

Coronavirus and Campus Closures Pose Threat to Students

Most campus closures were enacted out of an abundance of caution rather than in response to confirmed cases. Now, many colleges have set a hard limit for how many positive cases their campuses can support before pulling the plug.

Before any students even tested positive for COVID-19, models showed that college campuses could be hotbeds for virus transmission. Schools' diverse and active populations number in the thousands, and these students all live in close proximity to one another. As the surge in college disciplinary action suggests, social distancing measures are difficult to enforce.

Models have shown that college campuses can be hotbeds for coronavirus transmission.

But the coronavirus more actively threatens nontraditional students and older faculty and staff. Excepting immunodeficient individuals, college students — most of whom are under 29 years of age — are among the least vulnerable to the virus. The China Center for Disease Control found that the COVID-19 fatality rate for the 10-39 age bracket is just 0.2%.

For the majority of college students, concerns revolve less around getting sick and more around grades, credits, and lost income from financial aid and on-campus work.

Student surveys also reveal a worrisome upward trend in stress and anxiety. College students, who are already a vulnerable group in regard to mental health, have been profoundly destabilized by the pandemic and general intensity of 2020, and are now experiencing depression and anxiety in alarming numbers.

Students Anxious About Internet Access and Housing

For students figuring out where to go and how to get there, campus closures were like an eviction notice. The forced migration from in-person to online learning has also deepened the digital divide. The digital divide describes the gap between those who have access to the internet and technology at home, and those who do not.

While over 88% of Americans are internet users, the share of Americans with computers hovers around 74%, according to Statista. Smartphones can get you online, but they aren't machine enough to allow you to join video conferences, take online quizzes, and write essays.

Learners who depend on campus operations for their livelihood and resources dealt with extra repercussions when campuses closed. Many students who work on campus struggled with loss of income. And those who call on-campus housing their permanent address were forced to patch together new plans, with many now facing homelessness.

Out-of-state students without a local support network had to reckon with these challenges all by themselves. International students remain particularly vulnerable. First travel bans compounded the difficulties of campus closures, and then came the news that international students would not be able to stay in the U.S. to take online college courses.

The Shift to Online Education Has Been Accelerated

The coronavirus pandemic has spurred the adoption of distance learning at all education levels. In addition to thousands of colleges and universities, hundreds of thousands of K-12 institutions closed nationwide. The mass transition will be a proving ground for online education.

Until this year, colleges' shift online had been steady but slow. According to the Online Learning Consortium, student enrollment in online education increased for the 14th straight year. However, in BestColleges' Online Education Trends Report, more than half of the two- and four-year colleges surveyed in 2019 said they did not plan to raise their online education budgets.

Now, schools are rushing to fill gaps in their online learning infrastructures. Melissa Venable, Ph.D., an online education advisor for BestColleges, commented on this phenomenon: "There aren't enough instructional designers and other learning support specialists to go around right now. These offices have not been a priority at all colleges and universities."

“There aren’t enough instructional designers and other learning support specialists to go around right now. These offices have not been a priority at all colleges and universities.”

Melissa Venable, Ph.D., Online Education Advisor for BestColleges

If ad hoc digital solutions don't work for students and teachers, the experience could stymie online education's future growth. "This quick and mandatory shift may reinforce the most challenging aspects, leading some instructors to be less likely to adopt online education in the future," Venable said.

Ramping up online education under these circumstances may not be ideal, but as Venable notes, "The focus is not about experimenting with technology, but an emergency response." This underscores the importance of "supporting students in a wide range of ways, academic and nonacademic, at a distance."

Institutions are now building digital systems to support students. These tools will outlast the coronavirus and inform a digital approach to higher education going forward. Successes could even galvanize colleges to expand online offerings.

For schools less able to weather the financial loss associated with sending students home — and, in some cases, refunding room and board — sticking with the online model, at least for the short term, could help them reduce overhead.

Colleges Remain Sensitive to Student Needs

The pandemic has revealed weak spots in every system it tested, from government agencies to school districts. Colleges and universities scrambled to provide student services and bootstrap distance-learning strategies. In an effort to address unequal access to online education, some schools lent out laptops and mobile hot spots.

Students can still reach out to their school for help, even if the campus is closed.

In many cases, students just need to reach out to their school's administration to be directed to appropriate aid. Even at colleges with little on-campus activity, offices are functionally open. If administrators aren't at their usual desks, they're working from home to provide equivalent services to students.

In addition to reaching out to the school, Venable advises students to stay in close contact with their professors. After all, succeeding in online and hybrid courses requires active, ongoing engagement.

"For those new to online teaching and learning, this may well be a very challenging time," said Venable. "Patience and prioritization will be key to making the best of the situation."

What Will Spring 2021 Look Like?

There are no national standards for how colleges should respond to COVID-19. The learning models, safety protocols, and calendars that institutions follow this year look different from university to university — even from campus to campus within a university. Still, certain decisions, like the initial choice to close up in early March, reverberate throughout the country.

As for spring 2021, dozens of colleges have already announced a marked change: no spring break. Much like this year's Thanksgiving break, spring break has been deemed too risky, potentially launching campus-bred infections out into the world and opening up campuses to infections once students return.

Most of the colleges that will remove spring break from their academic calendars plan to start the winter term in late January or early February. Students who went home at Thanksgiving can therefore look forward to a two-month-long winter break.

Few institutions plan to change their approach next term, but some, including Princeton University and UC San Diego, will bring even more students back to campus.

Beyond shifting start and end dates, few institutions plan to change their approach next term. In other words, most colleges that selected face-to-face, remote, or hybrid learning this fall will stick to that same plan in the spring. This includes the large California State University system, whose 23 campuses will remain virtual for the rest of the academic year.

That said, a handful of institutions, including Princeton University and UC San Diego, plan to bring even more students back to campus this spring, with the intent to increase mandatory COVID-19 testing among residents. These schools insist they've learned their lessons from the fall and are now better prepared to handle and prevent the spread of the virus.

With the FDA's recent approval of a COVID-19 vaccine, colleges will likely begin to adapt their spring and summer terms to allow more students on campus.

But a vaccine alone isn't enough — college students must be willing to get vaccinated for campuses to become safe havens again. At present, a whopping one-third of young adults in the U.S. do not plan to get the shot, but this could change as more people receive it and report on its efficacy.


Feature Image: Klaus Vedfelt / DigitalVision / Getty Images