A teacher conducting an online college course at North Central College.

COVID-19 and College: What does a virtual fall semester look like?

Lauren Ford

Aug 20, 2020

COVID-19 and College: What does a virtual fall semester look like?

It’s one of the biggest questions on the minds of college and graduate students: Will fall semester be online?

The California State University system, with its 23 institutions, has already answered that question with a resounding YES – most courses will be online this fall.

Many other colleges have announced that they’re planning to open for in-person, on-campus classes but they’re also careful to say that those plans could change, depending on the course the COVID-19 pandemic takes over the next few months (and beyond).

The truth is, most schools face the very real possibility that at least part of the fall semester will take place in a virtual setting.

Is fall semester cancelled?

Just a couple of months ago, the question on everyone’s mind was, “Will fall semester be cancelled?”  Barbara Mistick, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges & Universities (NAIC&U), told CNN that some higher education institutions were considering closing campuses to college students in the fall semester: "There is concern about bringing students back to campus too soon and perhaps having an outbreak," she said.

Retired New Jersey high school guidance director Scott White put the situation in a slightly different context when he told Bloomberg that fall classes were unlikely to be held in-person in September. “You’re not going to get 65-year-old college professors going in,” he said.

And Northwestern University’s president, Morton Schapiro, wrote in a community letter on April 16, “our return to on-campus instruction in the summer or fall is not guaranteed.”

But in most cases fall semester isn’t cancelled – not by a long shot.

Colleges desperately want to open in-person in the fall – and research shows that’s what most undergraduate students want as well.

For many colleges, opening up campus is crucial to fulfilling their mission and maintaining their financial health. They’ve lost substantial sums through lost room and board in the spring 2020 semester, and through cancelled summer semester classes and programs. Many schools can’t afford large numbers of students to defer enrollment, withdraw, or work from home (thereby avoiding room and board fees).

Universities are finding ways to adapt. Just as SAT Coronavirus measures were put in place for high school students, the same needs to be done to protect college students.

So, institutions are working feverishly to find ways to make an in-person fall semester safe for college students, faculty, and staff. Still, no amount of wishful thinking will change the realities that a second COVID surge could bring, and most colleges and universities are simultaneously preparing for the possibility of a virtual (or partially virtual) semester. They know they must be willing and able to pivot to effective online learning.


Find out more about North Central College.

What does “virtual semester” mean, anyway?

A virtual semester means different things to different schools. For the California State University system, it means going almost entirely online, with little offered on campus.

But there are other, less dramatic variants of a virtual semester as well, and most involve a combination of in-person and online classes. Colleges that expect a second COVID-19 surge to come with the winter flu season are considering changing their academic calendar, resetting the first day of the fall semester to early or mid-August, and limiting the number of breaks and long weekends (which can encourage student travel). These schools aim to finish most fall classes by Thanksgiving break and then conduct virtual classes and/or finals between Thanksgiving and winter break.

Alternatively, some colleges may delay opening as late as January. “In that case, the spring semester would become the fall semester, and potentially students could stay on campus through next summer to make up the spring semester,” reports NPR.

Other colleges are considering reducing the number of students on campus in order to make social distancing easier not only in classrooms but also in dining halls and residence halls (and other campus housing), in hallways and on walking paths, and in communal restrooms. These schools might bring freshmen and seniors back in the fall and ask sophomores and juniors to study remotely from home. Or they could invite half of the students to campus for the first part of the semester while the others take online courses, then flip the halves for the second part of the semester.

The virtual academic experience

Most experts agree that effective remote instruction is less about loading up on high-tech bells and whistles, and more about thoughtfully adjusting teaching styles -- introducing combinations of live and offline discussions, and implementing concepts like “flipped classrooms” (in which students might watch a lecture as homework, and then focus on one-on-one or small group work with a teacher during class time). (For more information on how to make the most of remote learning and remote classes, see Tips for Online Classes.

Impromptu hallway conversations and late-night dinner conversations are hallmarks of academic life that in some ways are harder to replicate than undergraduate classes. But opt-in discussion boards can supplement remote instruction and foster additional connections among students.

What about academic programs that aren’t held in traditional classroom settings? Those will require even more creative thinking. North Central College, for instance, has been exploring ways for its music students to perform online, as when its concert choir and women’s chorale delivered an alma mater performance as part of the college’s commencement webcast in May.

Living on campus

As we all know, going to college isn’t just about attending classes. How will colleges handle the day-to-day realities of that social existence?

Virtually all institutions are working to obtain sufficient face coverings, hand sanitizer, and PPE; they’re also developing new protocols for everything from cleaning campus spaces to handling positive cases. Some institutions are discussing testing and/or temperature monitoring every person who enters campus each day, while others are considering testing every student and staff member daily or weekly. (Of course, those approaches are only feasible on fairly self-contained campuses, and they rely both on compliance and on the availability of COVID-19 tests.)

For those who may have incurred extra expenses or lost money, some schools are issuing Coronavirus student loans and other financial aid options. These can go toward students’ technology if needed and are intended to help during this crisis.

Athletic contests, if they’re held at all, might not welcome fans to the stands. Study abroad programs, international student events, and service trips may be a thing of the past. Residence halls may be emptier than usual. Dining halls may extend their hours, halt buffet service, encourage to-go options, and change seating arrangements.

As our understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, and state and regional guidelines change, colleges will likely need to adjust their plans periodically. But every college and university in the country is taking extraordinary measures to try to keep their campus communities safe while also delivering on their mission to educate students.

Lauren Ford works with North Central College’s marketing and communications office. An award-winning writer, she also runs her own communications firm, which serves a variety of not-for-profit organizations across the United States. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Connecticut College and her master’s from the University of Chicago.