Analysis: One Crisis with Varied Responses

Adam C. Powell, Ph.D. / April 9, 2020

As the threat of COVID-19 escalated, colleges and universities had to make quick decisions regarding how to best protect the welfare of their students, faculty, and staff. Institutions with residential learning environments had to decide both how classes should be transitioned to online teaching, and the extent to which people should be removed from the campus and asked to shelter or work elsewhere. Although there was one common pathogen that caused all these actions, responses were quite diverse.

The differing responses of colleges and universities was likely in part a byproduct of the differences in the situations present at their campuses, the nature of residential life on their campuses, and their preparedness to foster online teaching. Campuses in remote parts of the country with few cases of COVID-19 may not have perceived the same sense of threat as urban campuses situated near substantial outbreaks. Residential life likewise plays a different role at different institutions; some house all their students in university-owned housing, some house students in a combination of university-owned and Greek-owned housing, and some have a significant population of students that commute from home or live in non-university housing.

Institutions with a mixture of undergraduates and graduate students have different considerations than those with only undergraduates, as some graduate students may not have living parents or other family members able to shelter them in the event of a campus shutdown. Large populations of international students present their own challenge, as not all can easily return home. Likewise, institutions vary in their familiarity with online content delivery. While some have maintained active online degree programs for years, and have the know-how and infrastructure in place to offer such programming – in some cases with no changes at all, other institutions do not have a background in delivering online programming.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not been evenly spread across the United States. At the time of writing, cases were disproportionately in the State of New York; New York had ten times the cases present in California, although it had only half the population. While New York had experienced nearly 60,000 cases, Wyoming and South Dakota had each experienced under 100 cases. As a result of this variation, the actual and perceived risk that campus leaders faced was not the same on all campuses. Institutions in states and nations with fewer cases have perceived greater potential relative downside to disrupting the lives and educations of their students than institutions in states and nations with greater numbers of cases.

Institutions with a multi-campus model have in some instances taken different approaches in different locations, on the basis of the differences in risk. On March 5th, 2020, Northeastern University moved its Seattle campus to online teaching only, in response to the early cases that had appeared in that city, while keeping its main Boston campus open for live instruction. A series of closures of the other campuses followed, based upon the state guidelines impacting each of the locations. On March 24, over two weeks after the closure of the Seattle campus, the Charlotte campus was closed for live instruction.

Class size was a factor in some closure decisions. As social distancing guidelines focused initially primarily on eliminating large gatherings, large lectures were viewed as posing a different level of risk than small seminars. On March 9, 2020, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced that it would be moving classes with more than 150 students online later in the week. The following day, MIT announced that all classes would be moving online, regardless of class size. As understanding of the danger of COVID-19 evolved, the sense of danger around gatherings broadened to include small gatherings as well as large ones.

Residential life likewise created different sets of issues on different campuses. While undergraduates are often perceived to be between the ages of 18 and 22, the average American undergraduate is in fact 26.4 years old. Teaching colleges often have no graduate students, while research universities have mixtures of undergraduates and graduate students – and in some cases, no undergraduates at all. The differing needs of undergraduates and graduate students has led to differing residential life responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, in some cases, offering different approaches to the needs of undergraduates and graduate students within one institution.

On March 10, 2020, MIT asked undergraduates living in both dormitories and Greek housing to leave campus no later than March 17th, in part due to the dangers posed by the shared facilities within such environments. An exemption process was put in place for international students with potential visa issues or COVID-19 concerns in their home countries, students without other homes, and students whom believe it would be unsafe for them to return home.

Graduate students were not asked to leave their housing due to the more private nature of their housing. The need for an exception process proved significant; MIT had 4,530 undergraduates, of which over 400 received approval to stay in on-campus housing. While roughly 40 students intended to stay on campus for two weeks or shorter, the majority of applicants requested longer stays. Thus, leaving campus can impose a severe hardship on a significant portion of undergraduates, particularly at an institution with a large international student population.

Beyond addressing housing issues, meeting international students’ F-1 visa requirements for on-campus instruction was an initial concern, although it was eased through a temporary waiver by the government. Recognizing the burden of closing its campus to international students at the outset of the crisis, on March 16, 2020, Liberty University announced that it would remain open, but that most of its residential classes would be delivered online. Students were allowed to return to campus after spring break if they wished to do so. On March 29, Liberty University announced that those students who had not returned by midnight that night would be asked to self-quarantine in single rooms for two weeks upon their return, and would have their meals delivered. Dining facilities on campus remain open for takeout, and campus fitness centers remain in operation, although both were limited to occupancy by ten people at one time. While the educational component of the institution was completely virtualized, residential life was maintained for the students that preferred or needed to remain on campus.

The ease of transitioning to completely teaching online additionally varied between institutions. A number of institutions have historically offered online courses to their students using platforms such as Blackboard and Canvas. Institutions with existing licenses for online teaching platforms, instructors familiar with using them, and libraries of prerecorded content were able to make the transition with far greater ease than institutions without such resources. Pre-existing online courses were able to be launched without a hitch or interruption at institutions that had already been planning to deliver them in the spring semester. While institutions of higher education generally transitioned to online instruction in response to COVID-19, many created gaps in their semesters to allow faculty time to prepare.

At some public schools offering primary and secondary education, additional issues were encountered with online instruction. Federal regulations do not require primary and secondary schools to provide online instruction while they are closed. Federal guidance states that schools should not mandate online classes if they cannot accommodate all students, including those in special education and those with technology issues. Offering online classes inequitably would be a violation of the right to free access to public education. As a result, some institutions decided to not offer online classes at all.

Just as institutions varied in their readiness for online education, students varied as well. One survey utilizing a nonrepresentative sample found that a number of students had difficulty maintaining access to technology due to a combination of issues including broken hardware, data limits, and connectivity issues. Likewise, a 2018 survey of rural Americans found that 24% reported that obtaining high-speed Internet access was a major problem in their area. Even suburban and urban Americans were not spared, with 9% and 13% respectively reporting issues with obtaining high-speed Internet access. Thus, lack of pre-existing institutional and student readiness for online instruction may have been a barrier to the rapid transition.

The response of America’s institutions of higher education to COVID-19 was not uniform, for likely legitimate reasons. Namely, some institutions were located in higher-risk geographies than others. Likewise, institutions and their students varied in their abilities to move towards online instruction and to head home. Ensuring that students had safe housing was a particularly serious concern for institutions with substantial international student populations. Nonetheless, by proactively recognizing the issues with residential life, instructor preparedness for online learning, and students’ abilities to access to online materials, institutions of higher education can prepare for future situations in which live instruction must be discontinued.

As online instruction becomes a growing component of education, the abrupt transition brought about by COVID-19 may change the way universities do business for years to come. Furthermore, the potential for there to be subsequent waves of the pandemic make it all the more essential that universities equip themselves to maintain normal operations while running a virtual learning environment.

Adam C. Powell, Ph.D., is President of Payer+Provider Syndicate. He holds a Doctorate and Master’s degree from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied Health Care Management and Economics.