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Colleges reverse course on reopening as pandemic continues

LIke numerous colleges and universities across the country, Berklee College of Music has reversed course, deciding to hold courses online this fall.
LIke numerous colleges and universities across the country, Berklee College of Music has reversed course, deciding to hold courses online this fall.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

With the fall semester fast approaching and coronavirus infections still rampant, numerous colleges and universities nationwide are reversing course and abandoning plans to bring students back to campus.

Last week George Washington University, Georgetown University, and American University, all in the Washington, D.C., area, announced that they would be almost entirely online in the fall, backing away from previously announced plans to offer in-person classes. Two weeks ago, three historically Black universities in the Atlanta area — Spelman College, Clark Atlanta University, and Morehouse College — announced they would start the semester online, after previously saying they would bring a portion of their students back to campus and teach both in-person and online.

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Other universities that have switched gears include the University of California Berkeley and Miami University in Ohio, which both recently announced their fall semesters will start with all classes online. Both had previously planned to teach some classes in-person.

Since mid-July, the University of Delaware, Pepperdine University in California, and Dickinson College in Pennsylvania have all moved their fall semester online with only a small number of students allowed to live on campus, after initially announcing plans for on-campus classes.

In the Boston area, only Berklee College of Music has announced plans to change course and offer classes exclusively online, after preparing for a hybrid model in June.

Some of the largest higher education institutions in the region, including Boston University, Northeastern University, and Tufts University, said they have testing and public health precautions in place and are sticking with their plans to bring students back to campus and provide both online and in-person instruction.

“We are moving cautiously and carefully ahead with the plans we announced in June,” said Renata Nyul, a spokeswoman for Northeastern. “Northeastern has undertaken countless extraordinary measures to plan for a safe fall semester. This includes launching a large-scale testing program, strict protocols around masking and healthy distancing, and completely reimagined approaches to dining and residential life.”

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Harvard University, which plans to bring about 40 percent of its undergraduates back to campus, including most first-year students, will be “staying the course,” a spokeswoman said.

But many colleges are unprepared to open their campuses safely and are starting to recognize the gaps, said A. David Paltiel, a Yale University public health professor who has been advising higher education leaders.

In a study published Friday, Paltiel and researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, found that frequent testing was key and universities likely need to screen students every two or three days, along with requiring a strict adherence to masking, social distancing, and other preventative measures.

“Very few colleges and universities have the financial resources and logistical plans in place to reopen their doors safely,” Paltiel said. “I think it is a good sign that many schools are coming to this realization and are reconsidering their decision to welcome students back to campus.”

Colleges and universities have been trying to preserve as much of the residential experience as possible in the pandemic. Many students want to return to campus after months of isolation and many are skeptical about the online learning experience. Colleges are also loath to lose out on the room and board revenue from students.

But with much of the country still in the throes of the pandemic, states implementing stricter quarantine measures for out-of-state visitors, and growing resistance from faculty and staff, along with neighbors, colleges are being forced to reconsider their plans.

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More than 154,000 people in the United States have died from coronavirus, and in some parts of the country the number of infections is trending upward. Last week, Massachusetts required visitors from high-risk states, including college students, to quarantine for 14 days.

Some town and city officials and residents who live near campuses or close to apartments rented by students have urged Massachusetts institutions to reconsider their reopening plans. More than 1,000 Amherst residents have signed on to a petition asking the University of Massachusetts Amherst to keep students away. UMass Amherst plans to bring a smaller number of students back to campus, although most classes will be online.

Georgetown in early July had planned to bring 2,000 undergraduates, including first-year students, back, but by the end of the month decided the plan was no longer feasible.

Georgetown president John J. DeGioia cited quarantine restrictions as one of several factors that forced the school to teach online.

“Due to the acceleration of the spread of the virus and increasing restrictions on interstate travel, we cannot proceed with our original plans for returning to campus this fall,” DeGioia wrote in a letter to families.

The decision to change course was “excruciating” said Roger Brown, president of Berklee College.

But with many of Berklee’s students coming from California, where the number of infections are spiking, and increasing reluctance by faculty to teach in-person, planning to bring students back in the fall became increasingly challenging.

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And due to the likely spread of the coronavirus through aerosol particles, it would have been much more difficult for vocalists and musicians who play wind instruments to perform together, Brown said.

“We were not sure we can guarantee the safety of our students, our staff, and our faculty, and we’re also not sure we can ensure the safety of the people in the community,” Brown said.

The college was planning to spend $8 million to $10 million on testing and safety equipment and now will put that money toward $2,500 grants for all students to upgrade their technology and other needs since they will be staying at home, Brown said.

Other universities that have switched to exclusively online are offering students small tuition discounts.

Brown acknowledged that Berklee will be forgoing millions in room and board fees.

“I‘m confident that we will come out of this in good shape, but we will definitely take a financial hit from this decision,” he said. “I’m very comfortable with the decision, but I’ll be the first to say, I don’t know if it’s right or not. And we won’t know until October, November.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.