Once each institution established their plan, as the fall got closer and closer, it became time for them to begin to put their plans into action. While administrators had gone through countless hours of brainstorming and planning in preparation for the upcoming semester, it was time to see if they could successfully implement their plans. As the first major colleges and universities were beginning to bring students back to campus, a large portion of the country was holding their breath, waiting to see if they could be successful, or if those who chose to remain online had taken the right path. Around mid August, the stories began to enter the news cycle. Despite their best efforts, institutions were having to give up on their hopes for an in person semester due to Covid-19 outbreaks on their campuses.
Most notably was the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, which experienced an outbreak large enough to cause them to cancel all in person classes just two weeks after their first move in day. On August 17th, the University released a statement which said “Just two weeks ago, we began the process of welcoming students back into our residence halls; just one week ago, we held our first day of class. We knew this would be a Carolina fall like no other, and with our residence halls at less than 60% capacity and less than 30% of our total classroom seats taught in-person, we certainly began with a very different feel. In just the past week (Aug. 10-16), we have seen COVID-19 positivity rate rise from 2.8% to 13.6% at Campus Health. As of this morning, we have tested 954 students and have 177 in isolation and 349 in quarantine, both on and off campus.” North Carolina students were extremely upset with the non compliance of their peers, but they did not think that it was solely the fault of the students. In an editorial written in the student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, a student blames the University for not putting the correct precautions into place. She writes, “But University leadership should have expected students, many of whom are now living on their own for the first time, to be reckless. Reports of parties throughout the weekend come as no surprise. Though these students are not faultless, it was the University’s responsibility to disincentivize such gatherings by reconsidering its plans to operate in-person earlier on. The administration continues to prove they have no shame, and the bar for basic decency keeps getting lower. They chose to ignore the Orange County Health Department, which recommended that the University restrict on-campus housing to at-risk students and implement online-only instruction for the first five weeks of the semester. They chose to ignore the guidance of the CDC, which placed the University’s housing plan in the “highest-risk” category.” This strongly opinionated piece was written the day before the university announced the plan to move to remote learning for the rest of the semester.
Some universities had previously planned to reopen, but after seeing spikes of cases in their areas and no end in sight with the pandemic, decided to switch to online learning. One notable example of this is Michigan State, a university that in a typical year enrolls approximately 40,000 undergraduates. Just days before students were scheduled to begin to return to campus, the president of the university released this letter, stating that, “given the current status of the virus in our country — particularly what we are seeing at other institutions as they re-populate their campus communities — it has become evident to me that, despite our best efforts and strong planning, it is unlikely we can prevent widespread transmission of COVID-19 between students if our undergraduates return to campus.” He later goes on to say, “So, effective immediately, we are asking undergraduate students who planned to live in our residence halls this fall to stay home and continue their education with MSU remotely.” While this led to widespread disappointment among students who were looking forward to being back on campus, the university saw the failures of other similar institutions such as the University of North Carolina, and made a decision about what was best for the health and safety of the community.
Overall, higher education institutions were faced with an incredibly difficult task when it comes to attempting to reopen their campuses in the midst of a global pandemic. While they all put large rounds of thought into creating their new policies and plans, some of them simply were not equipped to give students an in person learning experience while avoiding the spread of Covid-19 on their campuses.