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'Time will only tell' Area colleges, universities plan for what fall learning will look like

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As colleges and universities plan for a return to campus this fall, a central question is just what instruction will look like.

College of DuPage President Brian Caputo is one of many administrators weighing the benefits of in-person instruction, with the risk of the spread of COVID-19.

COD is planning to offer instruction online and in a hybrid mode, hybrid meaning courses are a mixture of virtual and face-to-face instruction, allowing for flexibility that if environmental conditions allow the college will follow through with the hybrid model. If not, the hybrid would flip to online-only for the fall, Caputo said.

While Caputo said that many students prefer face-to-face instruction, the thought of bringing close to 53,000 credit and non-credit students in close proximity to each other without a vaccine was just too big a risk.

"There is no way we could socially distance all those people. It's just too much," Caputo said. "That's why we went with the model we're talking about."

Many schools are unveiling, or are in the process of unveiling plans for the fall. In a survey of more than 800 schools by the Chronicle for Higher Education, about two-thirds said they plan for an in-person fall semester, with 27 percent still deciding or planning the hybrid model.

Elmhurst College made the decision a month ago to prepare for two scenarios: in-person campus-based learning and a hybrid model, when the school begins its first academic year as Elmhurst University in August.

The school, with an enrollment last school year of 3,500 students, 1,000 of which live on campus, and a student-to-faculty ratio of 13-to-1, believes it is better-positioned than larger institutions to practice physical distancing policies.

"We are planning for both scenarios; our preference is for it to be in-person," Elmhurst College President Troy D. VanAken said. "That is because we believe the best educational experience for our students is on campus and that is our goal. But the safety of our students, faculty and staff is a top concern. We are developing scenarios both on how the virus plays out regionally, but also with individual circumstances."

Wheaton College, likewise, has announced that it intends to bring students back to the campus in August.

Benedictine University, with 4,400 students – 503 living on the Lisle campus – has convened a post-pandemic task force to address how the school will return in the fall.

Karen L. Campana, chief enrollment and retention officer, said the school expects to unveil its plans before July 1. The school is hopeful that its small class sizes, an average of 14 students, will allow for adequate social distancing to realize its intention to return to traditional classes, but is also exploring hybrid or high-flex options that could have students in class one day, online the next.

"Everything is hinging on the governor and what phase of the approach we're in," Campana said. "As we look to his phased approach, higher education is part of phase five. That's where our small class size comes into play, where you can maximize that classroom space from a social distancing aspect."

"We need to plan for all options possible, to give us more time to see where the state is going, and have more plans in place, to having some faculty sessions and embracing technology," Campana added.

Campana also noted that the school is exploring procedures should a student or family member be unable to attend classes for reasons related to the coronavirus.

"You have to have the opportunity for students who might be quarantined to continue on with their learning," Campana said. "If someone in their family has the virus, you don't want them to go on a leave of absence. We are exploring all options to continue learning even if they are quarantined."

Midwestern University, a private graduate medical and professional school with about 3,000 students at its main campus in Downers Grove, is planning to begin its summer quarter with online courses with the option of bringing students back to campus for small group, hands-on experiences. It anticipates lectures this fall in a video format with small groups of fewer than 10 students in labs.

"By the fall, we are anticipating that we will be able to transition even more so to a hybrid model," said Karen Johnson, vice president of university relations. "We are making all the plans for social distancing, requiring they wear masks, revising schedules to deliver in small groups. As a health care university we are very attuned to the health concerns."

With some students weighing their options, potentially holding off on pursuing a degree or taking a "gap year" because of family finances or health concerns, many schools have given high school seniors an extra month to make a decision.

Wheaton and Benedictine are among the schools that extended their confirmation deadline to June 1.

"We're still accepting applications for the fall semester and there are still scholarships available," said Campana, who noted that Benedictine is actually seeing an increase in applications from students contemplating staying closer to home. "The vast majority here are commuter students, which might help us."

Regardless of what model schools go with, all are working to prepare their campuses to prevent a virus spread.

At COD, which is bringing back essential workers such as maintenance workers, groundskeepers, painters and carpenters June 1, social distancing will be practiced this fall with smaller class sizes. Masks will be required, increased hand sanitizers, and more frequent cleaning of rooms with daily deep cleanings are other measures being planned.

Benedictine plans to require facial coverings and enhancing cleaning opportunities. Midwestern is finalizing a wellness check that all faculty and students will undergo that includes temperature checks and a questionnaire to make sure they do not have virus symptoms. The school is also converting all student housing into single units with private bathrooms.

Elmhurst is planning deep cleanings, purchasing masks branded with the school name for all students and employees, and is hopeful to get some testing set aside for Elmhurst students. The school is also looking to the state for housing guidelines, such as will single rooms be required and will shared bathrooms be allowed.

While some schools are preparing for a potential decline in enrollment with the uncertainty of what learning will look like, steps are being taken to further assist students financially. Midwestern is giving 100 percent of its funding from the CARES Act directly to students and instituted a tuition freeze for the upcoming school year.

"We have decided to give it all to students, being sensitive to their financial situations," Johnson said.

ElmhurstCollege raised more than $103,000 for the Bluejay Nest Fund, the college's student emergency fund.

VanAken said that Elmhurst benefits from three years of record enrollment before the pandemic. He projects that the school could see an enrollment decline from 10 to 15 percent, to potentially 20 percent, but that it heads into it from a position of relative strength.

"We're doing the type of financial planning to be prepared for it," VanAken said. "We think our small class size will actually be an advantage when you think of the type of social distancing that will be required. We will see how it plays out. Time will only tell."

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