Boston College intends to resume classes on campus this fall, school officials said Tuesday, becoming one of the larger universities in the area to announce plans to bring students back amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The news came as Boston University disclosed that it faces a budget shortfall of between $70 million and $150 million and will suspend contributions to employee retirement accounts for the next year. It is also considering furloughs and layoffs, president Bob Brown told the school.
Higher education officials across the country are struggling with how to conduct classes, and are asking faculty to prepare for multiple scenarios and sweating over predictions that the COVID-19 crisis could decimate their finances.
“This is painful," Brown wrote to BU faculty and staff. "It is not my desire to balance the budget by reducing the workforce, but it may well have to be part of the plan we put in place to protect the university’s future.”
The financial toll on universities is expected to be significant during the next academic year, even if they are able to bring most of their students back to campus. Money-making conferences and events have been canceled, and institutions must invest in coronavirus testing kits and safety equipment and increase the cleaning of dormitories and classrooms. If some or all of their students study from home this fall, colleges will lose money on room and board.
Brown said canceling retirement contributions will save the university $84 million in the upcoming fiscal year.
BU is developing plans for both in-person and online classes but hasn’t made a decision yet on how undergraduates, specifically, will start the fall semester. The university is uncertain about how many students will enroll, which is adding to its budgetary worries.
“We are a tuition-dependent institution; our ability to maintain our financial health will depend on the number of students who actually enroll in the fall and spring,” Brown said.
Boston College president William Leahy, meanwhile, couched his announcement about the reopening in caution, saying that administrators will continue to review the situation in coming months, but that the plan is for classes to resume on campus on Aug. 31.
“In its long history, Boston College has had to deal with a range of serious issues, including the Great Depression, two World Wars, and the attacks of September 11. Our university has already responded to the coronavirus with grace, generosity, and commitment; and I remain confident that it will continue to do so in the months and year ahead,” Leahy wrote.
Boston College had about 400 students remain on campus this spring after most others returned home in mid-March, according to college spokesman Jack Dunn. Many were international students who could not return home due to travel restrictions. That situation became an unexpected exercise in how to operate a campus safely during the pandemic, he said. Administrators learned how to create social distancing in the dining facilities, sanitize bathrooms and common areas in dorms, and use technology for meetings, Dunn said.
Leahy said the college’s health services department has already developed testing and isolation procedures in response to the virus and officials plan to continue to refine plans and policies as the fall draws near, particularly around contact tracing and treatment. The school has about 14,600 undergraduate and graduate students.
Michael Serazio, a communications professor at BC, greeted the news with relief.
“I’m desperately clinging to that hope that we can have the students back on campus in fall,” he said Tuesday.
Serazio said the unprecedented switch to online education reminded him how much is lost when people are far apart.
“The energy, the conversation, the inspiration that takes place in a room together is essential, I think, to teaching and learning,” he said.
Marilynn Johnson, a history professor, said she is gearing up for a long summer of planning, because the college has asked its faculty to be prepared to teach online or in person. There is also a possibility, she said, that the semester would begin in person but end online, if cases of the virus spike again.
“Like most of the faculty, we’re concerned about what that planning involves,” Johnson said, adding that she expects more guidance from the administration over the summer.
One big question is Thanksgiving break, when students normally return home and, even in good times, often bring germs back to campus. Notre Dame University announced this week that it will open its campus this fall but start two weeks early so that students will not need to return after Thanksgiving.
In the fall, Johnson is teaching two classes of about 15 students each, one on violence in American history and the other about the history of social movements. She hopes they can meet in classrooms that hold twice that many people, so everyone can spread out.
“That wouldn’t be something that I would be terribly worried about, unless the virus really takes off again,” Johnson said.
Some of her colleagues plan to continue to teach online, she said, due to health concerns for them or their families.
Across the country universities are developing plans for the fall, though few have announced definitive decisions about whether students will be able to return on campus.
The California state university announced earlier this month that it would hold fall classes online.
University of Massachusetts Amherst chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy told students on Tuesday that he expected the classes to be a combination of online and in-person.
The campus, which enrolls more than 28,000 students, is trying to figure out how many students can safely be housed in the dorms and attend classes in person, while meeting the public health requirements, Subbaswamy said.
The university is looking at a variety of options, including whether to bring freshmen and seniors back — or perhaps those students who need to take laboratory or studio classes and must have access to equipment. The campus will likely have to be transformed and dining services may be offered outside in the early fall or students will have to manage with bagged meals to avoid congregating inside, Subbaswamy said.
Some UMass Amherst officials are working on proposals for how to ensure that students socialize safely at night and on the weekends, while other departments are ordering plexiglass to curtail the spread of germs, he said.
Among other area schools, the president of Northeastern is planning for students to return to campus in the fall, but the school will enact a range of new policies to help protect students and faculty from the virus, he has said.
Other schools have tentatively come to different conclusions. For instance, Cape Cod Community College has said its entire fall semester will be online. Others are still wrestling with the decision.
Will Holmes, a parent of an incoming freshman at Boston College, said Tuesday’s announcement was good news.
His son has spent the final weeks of his senior year of high school online and the prospect of starting college that way was daunting, said Holmes, who grew up in the Boston area, but now lives in California.
Holmes said he does not think BC would announce a plan to bring students to campus in the fall if it were not possible, but also understands that the situation might change by August.
"Fingers crossed that it ends up working out and it’s the smart thing to do," Holmes said.
But Timmy Facciola, who graduated this month from the college, said he is skeptical that BC can safely reopen.
Facciola said he is watching Harvard, a trend-setter in higher education, which has said it is preparing for many, if not all, of its classes to be delivered remotely in the fall.
“I think maybe BC was trying to just chime in and make an update and they know they can’t make a decision now,” he said. “I don’t think it’s the last call.”
Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.