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Colleges Begin New Academic Years As Pandemic Continues


So this week, college students - many of them, at least - are going to start making their way to campus. But, of course, there is still a whole lot of uncertainty about this upcoming semester. Many schools are offering remote classes or a mix of in-person, but the picture seems to be changing every day. And NPR's Elissa Nadworny has been following all of those changes. Elissa, thanks for being here.


GREENE: I mean, there's no easy answer to this question, but I'll ask it anyway - what is college going to look like this fall?

NADWORNY: So right now about 30% of four-year colleges have gone all or mostly online, but that means there's still a lot of institutions that plan to open in person. In some cases, that means face-to-face classes; in other cases, that means opening up dorms on campus. Some schools are having students take pledges to adhere to social distancing and mask-wearing. We've also seen schools ask students to sign waivers, saying if they get sick, it's not the school's fault.

One big component that's going to be there for in-person college experience is this coronavirus testing. So there's a study published last week that said, in addition to requiring social distancing and masks, colleges should be testing everybody on campus for the coronavirus about every two days. Here's David Paltiel. He studies public health at Yale, and he's the author of the study - one of the authors.

DAVID PALTIEL: We are talking about mass testing of the entire student population on a very frequent basis, like every two days, using a rapid, inexpensive test. Any school that thinks it can get away with nothing more than symptomatic monitoring is a fire department responding only to calls once houses have already burned down. You need to do more.

NADWORNY: Of course, doing this might not be feasible for a lot of schools. This is a huge cost. There's also the availability of rapid tests. In that case, Paltiel says colleges shouldn't be reopening.

GREENE: I mean, I just think about what this all will be like for campuses that are actually trying to hold in-person classes and have a lot of students there. I mean, what - can you say more about what it's going to feel like, what it's going to look like on campuses like this?

NADWORNY: Well, I'll tell you about one example. So Vassar College, a small liberal arts college in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. - where community spread is actually pretty low - students will begin moving into dorms on Saturday, tomorrow. Their testing strategy is that they require students to take a COVID test before they come to campus. Then they'll test everybody on campus the day they arrive and then again five days later. And if people test positive, they'll isolate. Here's Vassar's president, Elizabeth Bradley.

ELIZABETH BRADLEY: We will have students not able to leave campus, and we're providing all kinds of services on the campus for them. And because we're on a thousand acres and we're not located directly in a city, we can kind of contain ourselves as a campus.

NADWORNY: So students won't be able to leave. You know, staff and faculty are going to have to fill out a health survey each day. Masks and social distancing will be required everywhere. There will be in-person classes. Bradley is actually going to be teaching one of those in-person classes; it's called strategic thinking in global health. So it's a pretty timely class.

GREENE: It's a pretty timely subject, yeah.

NADWORNY: Yeah (laughter).

GREENE: So the expectation is that students are not going to leave campus. I mean, are they going to, like, lock down the campus and physically prevent students from leaving, or is it just trusting college students to follow these rules?

NADWORNY: So Bradley gets the question of, like, can this work? Can we trust college students all the time? And she says yes, you know, she trusts the student body to follow the rules. She says colleges are uniquely positioned to change culture among young adults and then, ultimately, influence larger societies. You know, of course, not all schools are as small or as isolated as Vassar, and many of them are still opening.

GREENE: What about college towns looking at the prospect of a lot of people coming from elsewhere and moving in as classes start?

NADWORNY: Yeah, absolutely (laughter). These places are bracing, and a lot of health commissioners in these locations don't want colleges to reopen because of this influx of students. You know, even for schools where their classes are remote or online, a lot of students are moving in 'cause they're stuck in leases they signed when they thought fall would be in-person.

That's what happened to Maydha Devarajan. She's a junior at the University of North Carolina. She's moving into her off-campus apartment in Chapel Hill. Even though nearly all of her classes are online, she's really nervous for what being in a college town is going to be like.

MAYDHA DEVARAJAN: Like, I've received invitations to a birthday party the first weekend, and I already know I'm not going to be going because I know that's not - it's not going to be a good idea, obviously, to mix large group settings and young people. So I think I'll end up spending a lot of time in my house.

NADWORNY: Student behavior is going to be the big wildcard here for those campuses opening up - honestly, even just for students moving into college towns. You know, Syracuse University suspended students this week after they violated quarantine rules. So, you know, that's going to be a challenge. It's still unclear for many schools what the threshold is going to be for positive cases, you know, in order to shut down. So it's going to be a very different start to the semester.

GREENE: Elissa Nadworny. Thanks a lot.

NADWORNY: Yep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.