As colleges struggle to keep students safe from COVID-19 amid fall campus reopenings, parents question whether in-person instruction is worth the risk.

Parents React to Colleges' Fall Reopening Plans


  • UNC-Chapel Hill and other colleges have sent students home amid spikes in COVID-19 cases.
  • These events have prompted some colleges to reassess their reopening plans for the fall.
  • Parents are justifiably concerned about their students' health and safety.

Over the course of more than 30 years in higher education, I've been a student, faculty member, senior administrator, and alumni volunteer. Recently, I assumed another role within that portfolio: parent. Having kids in college can be stressful enough, and adding the uncertainty associated with the COVID-19 pandemic makes this fall term a nerve-racking experience for all.

Even as students begin returning to campuses, institutional plans and responses remain a moving target. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, more than a quarter of colleges will conduct instruction primarily online, and another 15% will offer a hybrid mix of online and in-person classes.

One-fifth of colleges will conduct classes primarily in person, and just 2.5% plan to resume "normal" classroom activities, with social distancing and other health protocols in place.

James Madison University — where my tuition dollars are headed — falls into the "primarily in person" category. Here, students are returning to campus and will experience both face-to-face and online instruction.

Administrators and faculty hope students will adhere to the strict health guidelines. Masks are mandatory, social gatherings are limited to 10 people, and students must submit a daily wellness check-in using an app called LiveSafe. The university is placing considerable trust in these young adults.

“[Students’ decisions] are not only going to impact them — they’re going to impact their peers, their faculty, the community at large.”

Caitlyn Read, JMU Spokesperson

"Students are going to be responsible for policing themselves," JMU spokesperson Caitlyn Read told The Harrisonburg Citizen. "We need students to make really good decisions, recognizing the decisions they make are not only going to impact them — they're going to impact their peers, their faculty, the community at large, and could potentially put them in a situation where we again have to pivot to online learning."

Deviations from these protocols could result in a situation similar to what occurred at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Mere days after welcoming back students, the institution shifted all undergraduate instruction to remote learning and sent students home.

An early spike in COVID-19 cases — with 130 students and five staff members testing positive for the virus — caused the about-face.

"As much as we believe we have worked diligently to help create a healthy and safe campus living and learning environment, we believe the current data presents an untenable situation," the university said in a statement.

The University of Notre Dame experienced a similar spike early in its fall term but has decided to keep students on campus as it shifts to online instruction for two weeks.

More Universities Backtrack Amid COVID-19 Concerns

The U.S. leads the world in coronavirus cases, both in raw numbers and as a percentage of the population, causing concern for university administrators as students prepare to return to campus.

A number of schools, including Smith College and Michigan State University, reversed course after initially telling families they would be welcoming students back to campus this fall. Other schools, such as Winthrop University and the University of Maryland, are delaying move-in and in-person instruction for a couple of weeks and beginning the academic year remotely.

In mid-August, the University of Pennsylvania announced "with an enormous sense of sadness" that fall instruction would be held online and that most undergraduates would not be permitted to live in dorms.

Penn also rescinded its 3.9% proposed tuition hike, reduced fees by 10%, and credited room and board costs in full.

University officials claim that the "educational experience that students will receive this fall will be among the finest available in the world," but "deeply regret that these changes represent a significant disappointment to families and students."

“[I]t has become evident to me that, despite our best efforts and strong planning, it is unlikely we can prevent widespread transmission of COVID-19 … if our undergraduates return to campus.”

Elsewhere in the Ivy League, responses vary. Joining Penn in going fully remote are Harvard, Princeton, and Columbia. Harvard students evidently aren't thrilled with the decision: More than 20% of incoming freshmen have deferred enrollment for a year. That's 340 students, up from the typical 80-110 who take a gap year.

Meanwhile, Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth are exploring hybrid models. Like Winthrop and UMD, Brown has opted to delay residential living through a "phased approach" that will keep instruction online until students return to campus in early October.

Cornell remains a bit of an outlier and will be bringing students back to campus. Curiously enough, the university claims having students on campus will reduce the public health threat.

"Residential instruction, when coupled with a robust virus screening program of the form we intend to implement, is a better option for protecting the public health of our community than a purely online semester," Cornell President Martha Pollack said in June.

The university based its analysis on a survey, which found that a large percentage of students planned to return to off-campus housing, even if instruction stayed online. This scenario would allow Cornell to more easily oversee students and ensure they follow public health guidelines and comply with a rigorous COVID-19 testing program.

Cornell is by no means alone in its attempts to safely bring students back to campus. Hampden-Sydney College, Allegheny College, and High Point University are equally optimistic about being able to maintain healthy on-campus student populations.

Parents Voice Their Angst Regarding Colleges' Plans

Like the colleges that plan to reopen, I remain optimistic that my daughters will have a "normal" semester on campus, stay healthy, and avoid being sent home with their classmates shortly after the fall term begins.

Still, as UCLA Fielding School of Public Health professor Deborah Glik tells The New York Times, "There's going to be outbreaks."

The article also mentions a woman with two college-aged children who recently returned to their off-campus apartments. "The hardest part for me, and for them being back at school," she said, "is helping them at a distance process all of this day-to-day uncertainty and anxiety."

Parents around the U.S. are voicing concerns about their children going back to campus. "This is the worst epidemic in a century, and it's not such a big deal to study online for a year," wrote one commenter in response to the Times article.

Another opined, "It is absolutely mind-boggling that the universities and parents think the students will be 'safe' while in college. They are lying to themselves and putting money over lives."

“This is a situation where you have to pray for the best and be ready for the worst.”

One evidently impatient mother added, "My daughter is going back to her single-occupancy dorm room to take all her classes online. I can't wait till she leaves."

The pandemic has caused many parents to revise their students' educational plans. According to a recent survey, just over half of parents say their child will attend a college closer to home, delay enrollment, or choose a less expensive institution because of financial constraints.

This range of emotions plays out in real time on the Facebook page for JMU parents, which I review daily for commiserations, helpful tips, and the inevitable comic relief. A mom recently posted that her daughter has experienced coronavirus-type symptoms and must wait up to 10 days for lab results due to testing backlogs.

"Getting a rapid test wasn't possible," she wrote. "I hope this changes in the next two weeks as thousands of students arrive in Harrisonburg. Otherwise, we are in big trouble."

It's a sobering and rather scary thought, to be sure. We parents maintain a trusting relationship with colleges that assumes through in loco parentis that our children will be cared for and kept safe. Universities can do only so much, though, and students — who are young adults by this point — must share that responsibility equally.

Stories and photos of students crowding bars, attending parties en masse, and generally flouting the reimagined conventions of public health provide more than enough cause for concern. Here's hoping common sense prevails.


Feature Image: ktaylorg/E+/Getty Images