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With campuses in flux, incoming college students ask whether online-only classes are worth it

Tyngsborough's Cate Barton has decided to take a gap year to move to France due to the coronavirus's impacts on colleges. She was planning to attend a university there as part of a dual bachelor of arts program through Columbia University.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

College life will be markedly different this fall, and many students are wondering whether a downscaled semester that falls far short of the classic campus experience is worth it.

After widely shutting down in March, many colleges are still in flux for the fall term as they weigh how best to combat the coronavirus. Some are inviting a limited number of students back to campus, many are offering only remote learning, and still others are planning a combination of the two scenarios.

For soon-to-be freshman Jaiden Edelman of Vineyard Haven, the pros and cons of attending Harvard University has been weighing heavily on his mind as the starting date for fall semester closes in. On Monday, Harvard announced that it is inviting first-year students to live on campus in the fall, but all classes will be online and most buildings beyond single-occupancy dorms will be off limits.

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“You can literally take Harvard classes for free if you want, you just don’t have any peers or anything,” said the 17-year-old. “I really think the heart of the matter is that people don’t want to lose the typical [college] experience — the residency, the traditions, the clubs.”

While Edelman has been considering taking a gap year, he worries that he will feel as though he is falling behind if his friends continue on in the fall. He also noted that with coronavirus still prominent, it would be difficult to plan what to he could do with his gap year or semester.

“I think a lot of people take gap years because they’re not quite sure what they want to study so they want to find their passions,” said Edelman, who is interested in math and physics. “Maybe I’m mistaken, but I think I have a pretty decent grasp on what I’d like to study. So, the frustrating part is that if I take a gap year, I feel like I’m missing out on a year of academic growth.”

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Tension between students and colleges has flared at this fraught juncture.

Dartmouth College faced a backlash from students after announcing last week that admitted students who opted not to enroll for the fall semester would be required to reapply next year. Dartmouth reversed the decision two days later, allowing students to request postponement or a personal leave if needed.

Before the pandemic hit, Cate Barton, an 18-year-old from Tyngsborough, was considering taking a gap year before attending college in Paris as part of a dual bachelor of arts program through Columbia University.

“I just didn’t feel comfortable [attending college in the fall] because I didn’t have a lot of money saved up and I wasn’t working because of the pandemic and I felt like I would be starting college with no money in my bank account,” said Barton.

After deciding that she was not interested in entering college virtually, Barton opted to move to France at the end of August to spend a year learning French and working as an au pair for a family until she feels ready to attend Sciences Po university in Paris.

“Maybe I’ll even be able to learn French before I start school, which is going to be really helpful,” said Barton.

Educational consultant Todd Weaver said that while only one of the 40 students he has worked with is taking a gap year so far, many are considering the implication of taking one or deferring college admission.

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“I think one of the big challenges is that there really aren’t many traditional or formal gap programs available for students like there have been in years past,” said Weaver, senior vice president of Strategies for College, a coaching and counseling service in Norwood. “A lot of the students just don’t know what the future holds.”

Even some second-year students have concerns. Meghan DeRoche, a rising sophomore at the Boston Conservatory at the Berklee College of Music, is hesitant to return in the fall without a concrete plan or a COVID-19 vaccine to ensure safety.

“I think everyone just feels this enormous amount of stress and pressure to make a good decision,” said DeRoche, a Wisconsin native. “I feel incredible anxiety about regretting whatever decision I make, whether I go, whether I stay, I worry if I’m making the right decision, I worry how this will impact me years down the line.”

She was frustrated after her spring semester of taking vocal ensemble and contemporary theater classes virtually. And although the conservatory announced that all fall artistic training will be taught in person, DeRoche was hoping for more specific information outlining how to keep students who train together safe. (She fears that if one of the students in her group becomes sick, she will be forced online again.)

“Even with my very generous scholarship, I pay a hefty amount of money and by having an online education, I’m missing out on performance opportunities. I’m missing out on the college experience; I’m missing out on a lot,” she said.

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DeRoche said that if Boston Conservatory classes were being held exclusively online in the fall, she would have deferred or taken a leave of absence immediately. She refuses to become a full-time online student again.

Although the conservatory seems to be optimistic about the fall semester, she has concerns. “Is Boston even safe to be in?”