Colleges and universities in Massachusetts and across the country have begun planning for what was once an unthinkable scenario but now may be a real possibility: a fall semester without students on campus.
Boston University, Brown University, the University of Massachusetts system, MIT, and Harvard University are among those discussing potential scenarios for a dramatically different start to the upcoming school year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
University officials say they hope to welcome students back on campus in late August, but much will depend on the public health outlook, the availability of COVID-19 testing, and state rules about large public gatherings. And even if students are allowed to return, international students may be blocked from entering the United States or have trouble getting their visas on time.
“If the virus is still around and we don’t have testing capacity, reopening becomes very, very difficult,” said Brown president Christina Paxson. “You always hope for the best and plan for the worst. It’s irresponsible not to plan for it.”
While September is still months away, universities with thousands of students, hundreds of faculty, and tens of millions of dollars in contracts have to get organized soon. In the coming weeks, they will have to start making budget plans and informing students and staff who have to make their own decisions about travel, renting apartments, and other logistics.
In the Boston area, where higher education is a key economic engine, the decision by universities is likely to have a ripple effect for myriad businesses from restaurants to apartment rental companies.
University officials said they are trying to figure out how to re-open safely, how much public health testing is needed for students and staff to be on campus even if there’s no coronavirus cure, whether large lecture classes should be held, how many staff to employ, whether to augment their online capabilities, even what to charge students for online classes.
“We’ve got to be prepared for 100 percent online and virtual and 100 percent on campus and everything in between," said University of Massachusetts president Martin Meehan. The UMass system lost more than $100 million this school year due to COVID-19 and the refunding of student room and board fees.
The public university system is trying to figure out how many students will be enrolled in the fall and whether it will need to lay off or furlough employees, Meehan said.
“There will be nothing easy about this,” Meehan said. “Everything is going to be on the table.”
But just like everybody else, universities are hampered from making long-term decisions because they don’t know what the public health situation will be in the fall.
Harvard on Monday said that it had moved its summer programs online and that it was freezing salaries, foregoing new hires, and looking to delay some capital projects to deal with the current financial impact. But president Lawrence Bacow in a letter to the community acknowledged that questions abound about the fall.
In an interview with Harvard Magazine, a publication aimed at the university’s employees and alumni, Bacow explained his concerns about timing decisions for the fall.
“My fear is that at the point at which we have to make the choice, there will still be a tremendous amount of uncertainty," Bacow told the magazine.
BU hopes to have plans in place and an answer for the fall for students and parents before July 1, said its president Robert A. Brown on Monday.
BU is developing scenarios and budgets for a range of options, from opening the residential campus in August, to delaying it until January 2021, Brown said.
Brown said he anticipates that the research enterprise and labs at BU will be the first to restart on campus, since they involve smaller groups, and social distancing is less of a problem. The university will also be able to test its safety procedures on this group to make sure they can be applied to larger groups of students and employees returning, Brown said.
But even if universities bring undergraduates back to campus, the experience may be entirely different from what students are familiar with, Brown said.
Students may be able to live in some dorms, but they may have to take lecture classes online, he said.
“It will not be business as usual,” Brown said.
Still, universities are eager to bring students back because empty campuses are a financial drain. For some smaller private colleges and regional public universities that are already floundering financially, being unable to open in the fall could threaten their very existence, higher education experts said.
“For some institutions, if they can’t get students back on campus in the fall, it will become an existential crisis for them,” said Craig Goebel, a principal with Art & Science Group, a consulting firm that works with higher education institutions.
Universities said they expect the next school year will be a costly one for them. Just how expensive will depend on when and how they will be able to open.
Already, many institutions, including BU, Brown, UMass, and Harvard, said they anticipate that they will have to offer students more financial aid for the next school year, cutting into their endowments and budgets. Parents have lost jobs or been put on furlough, and students who are expected to contribute several thousand dollars to their tuition costs, mostly by getting summer jobs, likely won’t be able to earn that money, university officials said.
It also remains unclear whether colleges and universities can charge students the same tuition if they take classes remotely instead of in-person, higher education experts said.
While students grumbled about paying the same tuition for online classes this spring, there may be a full-on revolt if colleges have not developed robust offerings or addressed the problem, Goebel said.
Elite institutions may be able to justify the tuition costs, and students may be more willing to pay it, he said.
But for institutions without the same brand recognition, that calculation for families may be far different. If they reconsider attending, that adds a further strain on college budgets, he said.
The question is, “how much are students and families willing to pay for that markedly different experience,” Goebel said.
Even if they are able to reopen and have coronavirus plans in place, many colleges said they are uncertain how many students will show up this fall. Traditional enrollment models that colleges rely on to develop budgets and course offerings are less useful in this new, coronavirus environment.
More students than usual are seeking advice about taking a gap year or semester off, and potential freshmen are weighing whether to attend a college closer to home or one where they don’t have to live on campus, said Claire Dennison, the chief program officer at uAspire, a Boston organization that helps high school and college students with financial aid.
Every year, some students weigh these questions, but now, "everything is ratcheted up,” said Dennison.
Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.