Will Colleges Be Ready for In-Person Classes This Fall?

Andrew Deichler By Andrew Deichler April 19, 2021
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Will Colleges Be Ready for In-Person Classes This Fall?

​Incoming and transferring college students are hoping for in-person classes this fall, according to new research. But for that to happen safely, COVID-19 vaccinations will need to increase dramatically.

Students Prepare for the Fall

According to a survey of more than 15,600 students and nearly 6,000 parents by consulting firm Maguire Associates, most students favor in-person classes. The survey broke out survey respondents into three distinct personas:

  • Normalcy Seekers (12,246 respondents): The largest group, made up of mostly of prospective students, plans to enroll in colleges regardless of vaccine availability and safety requirements. Sixty-four percent prefer in-person learning, and 83 percent want on-campus housing. This group is also open to vaccination (70 percent), as well as online and hybrid learning.
  • Continuing Carefully (4,720 respondents): This group, comprised of more students than parents and the most diversified, favors the strictest measures for containing the virus, including vaccine, mask and social distancing requirements. This is the only group that slightly prefers virtual or hybrid learning (50 percent) over in-person learning (49 percent). However, the majority (77 percent) still favors on-campus housing.
  • Freedom First (1,430 respondents): The smallest group, which is comprised of more parents than students and is the most homogeneous with 61 percent of respondents being white, is against colleges having any vaccine, mask or social distancing requirements. Ninety-three percent of this group expects face-to-face learning, and 83 percent want on-campus housing.

Overall, the survey found that most prospective, first-year students (69 percent), their parents (73 percent) and a slim majority of transfer students (56 percent) are comfortable with getting the vaccine. Nearly all respondents also said that a mask mandate on a college campus would not deter them from enrollment.

People over 18 in all states will be eligible for the vaccine before the end of April, though it may be months before most adults have received it.

Colleges Make Assessments

Over 85 percent of incoming students said they would enroll in colleges where vaccination is a requirement, compared to 74 percent of transfers. About two dozen schools are requiring students to get the vaccine before they can return to campus. That number appears likely grow as vaccine distribution continues; just last week, Duke University and Boston University both issued vaccine requirements.

However, some Republican governors are preventing colleges from implementing vaccination requirements. Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott signed an executive order barring any colleges that receive state funds from enacting these measures. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has made it illegal for businesses to require proof of vaccination from customers, though there is still a question of whether this applies to colleges and students.

Most colleges appear to still be assessing the situation. For example, Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland, Wash., hasn't made a final decision for the fall and is considering a variety of scenarios that may include a combination of on-campus, hybrid or online classes. For HR classes specifically, the plan is for fall classes to be hybrid, with the faculty reassessing the situation for the winter semester.

Ren'ee A. Mangini, SHRM-SCP, HR professor and department chair for HR, explained that her classes were hybrid even before the pandemic; in a semester, classes were once a week and split between five in-person sessions and five online sessions through the Canvas learning management platform. After the pandemic started, the in-person sessions switched to Zoom while Canvas continued to be used for the others. Going forward, the HR faculty plans to diversify the format again, with a mix of in-person, Zoom and Canvas sessions.

"This will build connections and give personal touchpoints," Mangini said. "This way we can take advantage of technology, reduce commuting and allow out-of-area students."

Boise State University in Boise, Idaho, has also been taking a hybrid approach with both online and in-person classes. In an effort to be as transparent as possible, the college has created a tracking dashboard showing positive cases that emerge on campus. It has also set aside 153 "isolation beds" for students who test positive.

Chi Nguyen, a junior majoring in HR management at Boise State and a SHRM member, feels safe living on campus and is hopeful that life can begin to return to normal next semester. "I think we'll increase the number of in-person classes in fall 2021," she said. "People are pretty hopeful. Boise State is a pretty lively campus, so it's been a little bit sad not seeing people around."

Ngyuen added that Boise State has made it convenient for students to get vaccinated by establishing a vaccination station on campus. And from her perspective, her peers have no qualms about getting the vaccine and continuing social distancing practices. "For my friends and the people I know—if they can get vaccine, they will," she said.

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