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Six big decisions colleges are wrestling with as they weigh whether to bring back students this fall

Boston University's campus, as pictured on April 17.
Boston University's campus, as pictured on April 17.Blake Nissen for The Boston Globe

With the school year winding down or ended for many students, high school seniors and college underclassmen — as well as their families — are likely feeling desperate for information about what to expect for the fall semester.

Colleges in Boston and beyond are in the midst of drafting plans and contingencies in a world now beset by the coronavirus. Leaders from five large Massachusetts institutions, including BU, Northeastern, and UMass, spoke about their visions on a panel on Wednesday.

In addition to mask wearing and social distancing, a variety of other options have come to light in recent weeks, both here in Boston and nationwide. Here’s a look at what college officials are discussing, and what a fall semester amid the COVID-19 pandemic could look like.

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Only certain majors or classes could come back to campus

A student on the Harvard Medical School campus in October 2018.
A student on the Harvard Medical School campus in October 2018. Kayana Szymczak/NYT

Harvard Medical School made waves last week when officials announced that courses for its new incoming class of future doctors and dentists would be held remotely, while returning students would likely still have access to on-site research and clinical facilities.

The move underscores one tack schools in Boston and nationwide might take: Inviting just those who require more hands-on experience — such as in labs and research facilities — back to campus, while others take classes online.

UMass Amherst is also considering whether to bring back students who need to take laboratory or studio classes and must have access to equipment, chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy told students on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, some schools’ reopening plans line up with the state’s road map to recovery, in which research labs and medical/dental/veterinary clinical education and services can begin to reopen under the first opening phase, which is now underway.

At Northeastern University, president Joseph E. Aoun said earlier this month that administrative offices and research labs are likely to open before the fall, beginning with the return of faculty and staff who need campus facilities to do their work. They will return to campus gradually “and in accordance with public health guidance,” he said.

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Another option of who gets to come back to campus has also taken shape. At the University of Kentucky, officials are considering only allowing freshmen (or both freshmen and sophomores) on campus, since underclassmen would benefit the most from an in-person learning experience, administrators said, according to The New York Times.

“Freshmen have already had a terrible end to their senior year of high school, and are hungry for an on-campus experience,” said Sue Roberts, an associate provost, according to the Times. “This would set them up for success.” She also noted that underclassmen make up the highest portion of those who live on campus and eat in the dining halls, which bring in money for the school.

UMass Amherst is also considering whether to bring just freshmen and seniors back, the chancellor said Tuesday.

The semester timeline may be rethought — and Thanksgiving break could be eliminated

Some schools are looking at rethinking traditional semester timelines and breaks to cut back on students traveling home and returning to campus laden with germs.

The University of Notre Dame 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.

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“Bringing our students back is in effect assembling a small city of people from many parts of the nation and the world, who may bring with them pathogens to which they have been exposed,” Notre Dame’s president said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the University of South Carolina is planning to reopen its campus for three months, but will shift to remote learning after Thanksgiving, according to the Times.

Rice and Creighton are also trying to find a way to shorten the semester, the Times reported, in an effort to further cut back on a predicted “second wave.”

“We don’t know if the second wave will be weaker or stronger, but there’s a significant risk that this will resurge in the winter,” said Rice University’s president, according to the Times.

Lecture halls and big class sizes are likely toast

An empty lecture hall.
An empty lecture hall.Janos Vajda/Associated Press

A staple of learning at big universities — the giant, “101”-style lecture classes — could look much different this fall. Instead of cramming hundreds of students into one behemoth lecture hall, some schools are looking at only having some students physically in the classroom, or by rethinking the course’s approach entirely.

At UMass Medical School, some classes may divide up their in-person classes by having half students in the classroom, and the other half watching online, said Dr. Anne Larkin, senior associate dean for educational affairs. Large lecture courses could also be scaled down to allow students to socially distance, she said.

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“We know we’re not going to be able to have our entire class of 162 students together at one time,” Larkin previously told the Globe.

Meanwhile, at UMass Amherst, chancellor Subbaswamy said Tuesday that he expected classes to be a combination of online and in-person.

Northeastern plans to both record large lectures as well as offer them live, with some classes allowing for students outside the classroom to participate remotely, Aoun said.

Boston University is also setting its sights on resuming “a residential learning community in September,” according to a reopening guidebook the school posted online, although that could be changed depending on health trends. BU didn’t list many specifics, but did note the school’s plan “will involve testing, contact tracing, quarantine strategies, and a teaching model that is flexible for all students and teachers, allowing for in-person and remote education.”

“We are going to have to be more flexible than we’ve ever been in the way that we offer education,” said Boston University President Robert Brown during a virtual panel on Wednesday.

Even more intimate class sizes could be reimagined to accommodate social distancing. At Boston College, one professor who is teaching much more smaller classes — with about 15 students in each — says she hopes her classes can meet in rooms that hold twice that many people, so everyone can spread out.

The University of Kentucky is also considering breaking large lecture classes broken into smaller sections, and blocking seats off in classrooms to make sure students can stay six feet apart from each other, according to the Times.

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Dorms may have strict rules — or be closed altogether

Boston University dorm rooms and apartments at 10 Buick Street, as pictured on March 24.
Boston University dorm rooms and apartments at 10 Buick Street, as pictured on March 24.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The stereotypical notion of the freshman dorm — with free-flowing bathrooms and doors open all up and down the hall — could also be a relic of the past in this new Coronaverse.

Still, having students in the dorms is important to many colleges, as room and board can be a key source of revenue. When students were sent home in March, the UMass system reimbursed a total of $65 million in room and board, according to a statement from the school.

Northeastern University has raised the prospect of housing students them in apartments or hotels so students have more distance between them, and space may be set aside for students “who will need to safely self-isolate,” Aoun said.

In fact, Aoun said on Wednesday that Northeastern has already secured 2,000 extra beds in a plan to reduce the density of spaces on campus, such as dormitories.

Meanwhile, Suffolk University is still planning to convert the 114-room Ames Hotel into a new dorm in time for September.

Some UMass Amherst officials are working on proposals for how to ensure that students socialize safely at night and on the weekends, and other departments are ordering plexiglass to curtail the spread of germs, Subbaswamy said.

As for BU, president Brown said Wednesday that students would likely live in small residential groups that would decrease the amount of mixing between them. (Brown had said in April that he envisioned students being able to live in some dorms, even if they are taking classes online.)

“There is a tremendous amount of uncertainty that we have,” he said Wednesday. “It’s very hard to be very precise.”

Meanwhile, the president of Scion Group, a national student housing business that works with the University of Florida and Purdue University, among others, said schools are looking to narrow occupancy rates from doubles and triples to single-person rooms, as well as leave some buildings empty in case they are needed for isolation, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Even dining halls might change drastically

The gluten-free zone at Northeastern University's International Village dining hall, as pictured in 2013.
The gluten-free zone at Northeastern University's International Village dining hall, as pictured in 2013. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Cruise lines aren’t the only ones thinking about doing away with buffet-style eating.

Although Boston-area schools have yet to release more decisive information on what communal dining halls would look like under the pandemic, the University of Kentucky has had some conversations. Under the school’s potential “pod” dorm model, different student groups would take turns going to the dining hall.

The buffet would also likely be out, according to the Times, although details on what exactly would replace it were not provided.

The international student population could be lower

Colleges might take a big financial hit as the populations of international students is expected to decline due to travel restrictions during the pandemic.

Close to 90 percent of US colleges and universities are preparing for a drop in international enrollment this year, and nearly a third of those expect the decline to be substantial, according to a survey from the Institute of International Education earlier this month.

Welcoming international students helps colleges two-fold, leaders say: They bring diverse views and experiences to campus, and graduate students help research teams stay competitive.

About 71,100 students from abroad study in Massachusetts, with the largest shares attending Northeastern University (16,000 students), Boston University (10,600 students), Harvard University (6,220 students), and MIT (5,070 students).

“International enrollment is going to plummet like a rock,” Ben Waxman, the chief executive officer of International Education Advantage, a Boston-area marketing firm, previously told the Globe. “The financial impact is huge, and absolutely devastating.”

Globe correspondent Jeremy C. Fox and Deirdre Fernandes and Laura Krantz of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JaclynReiss