On March 6, the University of Washington (UW), the flagship institution of the U.S. state with the highest death count from COVID-19, was the first major American college to close. Ten days later, over 250 colleges and universities in the U.S. have followed suit.

Before places of worship, restaurants, and shops began to close in response to the coronavirus pandemic, college campuses were sending students home.

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Despite the swift and appropriate response to the COVID-19 outbreak, colleges and their student bodies were not adequately prepared for campus closures and still face a variety of challenges going forward.

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While some schools, including UW, are hopeful about re-opening at the start of the new term, others, like Harvard, are telling students to not plan on coming back from spring break.

This fact is worrisome for administrators and students alike. Despite the swift and appropriate response to the COVID-19 outbreak, colleges and their student bodies were not adequately prepared for campus closures and still face a variety of challenges going forward.

College seniors stand for photographs on an empty Columbia University campus, which closed most campus operations due to the coronavirus pandemic.

College seniors stand for photographs on an empty Columbia University campus, which closed most campus operations due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Coronavirus’ Threat to College Students

Most campus closures have been enacted out of an “abundance of caution,” rather than in response to confirmed cases. But even where no students have tested positive, college campuses are at a marked risk for virus transmission. Their diverse and active populations number in the thousands and live in close proximity, making any “social distancing” measures difficult to enforce.

Excepting immunodeficient individuals, college students are among the least vulnerable to coronavirus, the majority of whom are under 29, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The China Center for Disease Control found that the fatality rate for the 10-39 age bracket was 0.2%. The disease’s more active threat is posed to nontraditional students and older faculty and staff.

For most college students forced to leave campus, concerns instead revolve around grades, credits, and stalled finals, lost income from financial aid and on-campus work, and, crucially, where they are going to log on for class.

The Shift to Online Education Accelerated

The coronavirus pandemic has spurred adoption of distance learning at all education levels. In addition to the several hundred closed colleges and universities, at least 18,700 K-12 institutions have closed or soon will, Education Week reports. Some primary and secondary schools and most colleges plan to move classes online.

This mass transition will be a proving ground for online education. Until now, colleges’ shift online has been steady, but slow. Student enrollment in online education has increased for the fourteenth straight year, according to the Online Learning Consortium, but in a 2019 BestColleges survey on trends in online education, more than half of the two- and four-year colleges surveyed weren’t planning on increasing their online education budget.

Now schools are now rushing to fill gaps in their online learning infrastructure. Melissa Venable, an online education advisor for BestColleges, says, “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.”

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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.

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If ad hoc digital solutions don’t work for students and teachers, the experience could stymie online education’s future growth. As Venable points out, “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.”

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 non-academic, at a distance.”

Institutions are now building out digital systems to support students, and those tools will outlast the coronavirus and inform a digital approach to higher education going forward. Successes could 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.

But students accustomed to on-campus learning are already expressing concern over the loss of the social, interactive side of education. And while logging on from home isn’t a problem for some students, others have internet access only on the campus they’ve been forced to vacate.

A brightly lit lecture hall sits completely empty.

Student Access to Education and Resources

Digital Divide Broadened by Coronavirus Closures

The forced migration from in-person learning to online learning is not only straining schools’ strategies and technologically capabilities; it’s also deepening the digital divide between students who have access to internet and devices at home and those who rely on school resources.

The digital divide describes the gap between those who have access to the internet and those who do not, but internet access isn’t the whole issue. While over 88% of Americans are internet users, the share of Americans with computers hovers around 74%, according to Statista. Smartphones get you online, but aren’t machine enough to join video conferences, take online quizzes, and write essays.

Student Anxieties Include Income and Housing

There are extra repercussions for students who depend on the campus for their livelihood and resources. Students who work on campus struggle with loss of income, and those whose on-campus housing represents their permanent address are trying to patch together new plans, or face homelessness.

Without the time and money to solve logistical problems, like where to store belongings, campus closure can feel like an eviction notice, as a Harvard student told The New York Times. Out-of-state students without a local support network may be forced to reckon with these challenges all by themselves.

International students are particularly vulnerable. Travel bans have compounded the difficulties of campus closures and have left some students with unclear housing options. And even if students are able to go home, many are operating out of different time zones and face other obstacles. For example, students and administrators are worried that online classes will not satisfy visa requirements for full-time status.

Proactive School Responses

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed weak spots in every system it has tested, from government agencies to local school districts. For their part, universities and colleges are scrambling to provide student services and boot-strap distance-learning strategies. Solutions can be simple: To address unequal access to online education, some schools are lending laptops and mobile hotspots.

In many cases, students just need to reach out to their school’s administration to be directed to appropriate aid. While class is canceled, most school’s aren’t totally closed. In-person classes and group events may be cancelled, but many administrators and faculty are working from home and providing services to students.

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


— Melissa Venable, Ph.D.

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And students who truly have nowhere else to go are generally permitted to remain on campus, though warned about the extreme reduction in student resources.

In addition to contacting the school, Venable advises that students stay in close contact with each of their professors, as expectations for assignments and course completion may shift.

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