Colleges across the Boston area are planning for full dormitories, mostly in-person classes, a cappella group performances, football games, and even study abroad programs this fall, a sign of optimism that the pandemic will have subsided and something approaching normal college life can resume.
As the pace of vaccinations quickens, officials at the University of Massachusetts system, Harvard and Northeastern universities, and the Wentworth Institute of Technology said this week that they are planning for a more traditional return of students and faculty next academic year.
The hope is that much of the population will be protected against COVID-19 by summer and the many rituals of campus life that were put on hold during the pandemic, from face-to-face club meetings to sports events and dance recitals, can return.
“We’re expecting to be back,” said UMass president Martin Meehan. “By the end of August, beginning of September, we should be in a better place.”
Some colleges have begun sending buoyant messages to their students in recent days broadly outlining expectations for the fall. They are also trying to reassure high school seniors, who will have to decide in the coming weeks where they plan to attend college, that their campuses will be open and the experience will be worth the high tuition.
“It’s certainly a good signal to send to prospective students, but our primary audience was current students,” said Michael Armini, Northeastern University’s senior vice president of external affairs. “Technology is great, but the past year has really reinforced the power of place. The goal is to have 100 percent students back to campus and 100 percent of teaching in-person.”
Most area college administrators have been pleased, and relieved, that infections have remained relatively low among the tens of thousands of students who come to the region every year. They say that some COVID-19 restrictions are likely to continue this fall, including mask requirements, occasional testing, and some level of social distancing. Some classes may be taught in-person and online if capacity restrictions remain in place.
For many students, the news comes as a great relief after a trying year.
“I’m happy,” said Tracey Do, 19, a Northeastern sophomore from South Boston. Do said she was thinking of staying home if classes this fall were held online. Now, she’s planning to live on campus.
This year, Northeastern offered students opportunities to gather at a distance, putting up tents where they could do their homework with their friends. But Do said she spent much of her time in her dorm room as a precaution.
“It doesn’t feel like I’m fully immersed in college,” Do said. “I miss the casual walk to class and from the library and seeing friends and waving.”
But Do still worries about what returning to regular campus life will entail and whether it might put people who are not vaccinated at risk.
Colleges haven’t provided details about the fall semester and many warn that plans could change depending on the course of the pandemic. Many institutions, for example, are still consulting their attorneys about whether they can require students and employees to be vaccinated before returning to campus in the fall. Some are uncertain about whether new international students will be able to obtain visas.
Harvard, which offered no in-person classes last fall and has significantly reduced its student population on campus, is aiming for a full return of students, faculty, and staff, Claudine Gay, the dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, told the college’s student newspaper last week. But she cautioned that Harvard has to be flexible.
“One of the challenges of the pandemic is its unpredictable course,” Gay told The Crimson.
Still, universities expect that many of the activities that had been curtailed or canceled this school year will begin anew. For example, Northeastern is reviewing what countries will be safe for students interested in studying abroad, Armini said.
The determination will likely depend on how much of their population is vaccinated, what travel restrictions are in place, and how well the government has fared at keeping COVID under control, Armini said. Australia, where new COVID cases are in the single digits, may be a reliable destination for a semester overseas, while Canada, which is still recording 3,000 new cases a day, may be off the table.
But offering students many of the extracurricular activities that they have missed out on, including athletics and in-person club meetings, is a priority, he said.
For many students, the isolation that has come with attending classes by video and having limited direct contact with friends has led to increased mental health problems.
Last year, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that 63 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, a far larger proportion than any other age group. Among that cohort, 25 percent said they had increased their substance use to deal with stress and 25 percent reported they had seriously considered suicide.
Mark Thompson, the president of Wentworth, said most students are eager to return to campus. The university is expecting dorms to be more than 90 percent occupied in the fall, compared to roughly half this semester.
That should help colleges, which have lost millions of dollars with fewer students on campus. It should also give the region’s economy, which relies on students eating at restaurants, buying museum tickets, and renting apartments, a sizable bounce, Thompson said.
But there are also students who are more comfortable with online learning, and colleges will have to reassess their model for the future, he said.
“I don’t think we’re going to look the same as pre-pandemic,” Thompson said. “But we’ll look and feel more normal.”