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What to Expect This Fall for American Colleges and Universities

July 2, 2020

Four Scenarios That Colleges are Considering

College scenarios
Becky touring Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island last summer

While the full scope of the COVID-19 pandemic is yet to be known, one thing is for certain: The Fall 2020 semester at American colleges and universities, and possibly foreign education institutions, will look drastically different than every semester that has come before. Plans are fluid as coronavirus numbers and recommendations are changing frequently, but we want to share with you what we’ve learned so far. 

The most important thing to note is that each institution of higher education will be making decisions about the fall semester based on a multitude of criteria that varies from campus to campus. University officials are weighing many options to determine how to aid students in completing their degree programs while also keeping the physical health of students, faculty, and staff at the forefront of their decision making. 

Some of the factors influencing these decisions are federal, state, and local guidelines, campus size and distancing abilities, COVID-19 testing capabilities, the availability of healthcare facilities, and a number of other influences. To learn about the operating plans and status of your school, we urge you to click here or visit your school’s website. If your school has not yet released a final decision, we anticipate that you will receive a definitive answer in the coming weeks. 

Four Possible Scenarios

There are a number of different scenarios that American colleges and universities are considering. 

  1. Entirely remote instruction

Some colleges have already made the decision to bring instruction entirely online for the fall semester. As of this writing, the majority of these institutions are community colleges where students commute to campus daily to complete their coursework or are located in cities or states with heavy restrictions, like Alaska, California, and Hawaii. Other institutions located in cities or that have a high commuter population, like the University of Massachusetts, Boston, have made this list, as well. 

  1. On-campus instruction

Other institutions have planned to resume face-to-face learning operations with new restrictions put into place to allow for social distancing and crowd control. Of course, if federal or local government officials require schools to close, this will change. Some schools, like Auburn University in Alabama, are requiring instructors to create a “Syllabus B,” in the event of a coronavirus resurgence that forces the school to take all instruction online. 

  1. A hybrid of remote and face-to-face instruction

From what we can see, the majority of colleges and universities will be implementing a hybrid model of both virtual and face-to-face learning. The University of Michigan and Massachusetts Institute of Technology fall into this category. Both of these institutions have released plans to bring large lectures online to prevent crowded classrooms, while holding smaller classes that allow for the physical distancing of students in-person. Some course decisions will be made based on the ease of remote instruction of the subject matter at hand. Furthermore, some institutions may allow students to decide whether they would like to return to campus or complete classes remotely in order to protect vulnerable populations within the student body. 

  1. Academic calendar changes

In addition to changes to methods of instruction, some institutions have chosen to alter their academic calendar. Many universities in Kansas, including the University of Kansas, have altered their calendars to begin classes a week earlier than scheduled, end on-campus instruction after Thanksgiving break, and close out the semester remotely. Since travel off-campus and back to students’ hometowns will increase coronavirus exposure, precautionary measures are being taken to decrease the risk in a spike of COVID-19 carriers on campus. If your school calendar usually includes a fall break, it is likely that it will be traded in favor of a longer Thanksgiving recess or winter break. 

Regardless of the decided method of instruction and academic calendar alterations, while on campus, students can expect to find a number of changes, such as enhanced health and safety protocols and physical distancing from others.


It’s likely that students will be required to get tested for COVID-19 before returning to campus in the fall and students can expect to see regular testing throughout the semester. Additionally, campuses may mandate some type of contact tracing to get ahead of the curve and control outbreaks as best as possible. Most campuses will require students, faculty, and staff to wear face coverings. MIT has even mentioned the need for daily self-reporting of health information on an app or website. Like many other public places, campuses have committed to increasing and enhancing cleaning protocols, but the specifics have yet to be released. 

College scenarios
Becky at Barnard College in New York City

To aid in physical distancing, campuses will need to make many changes to operations. Classrooms will need to be rearranged and study lounges and libraries may limit capacities. Dining halls may need to expand their hours and stagger admission, and/or increase the availability of take out options to reduce large crowds. Campus move-in days and other events may be staggered, as well, to reduce the number of people on campus and in residence halls at any given time. 

While student life will look different this semester, institutions are working diligently to do everything they can to safely serve their students. As we learn more about the plans that American colleges and universities are implementing, we will share that information with you here on our blog or on our social media platforms. If you have specific questions or need help locating information about your student’s school, please let us know. We’re always happy to help!


If you want to know what the fall may bring for boarding schools and therapeutic programs, click here.

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