Testing on campus and hybrid classes: leaders of local universities and colleges prepare for the new normal

Leaders from local universities and colleges, including BU President Robert Brown, discuss what higher education would look like in the months leading up to the new normal. Screenshot by Devyani Chhetri

By Devyani Chhetri
BU News Service

BOSTON – No one knows for sure how returning in the fall will look for universities across the country. While some worry that universities dependent on tuition fees for revenue will cease to exist after the pandemic ends, some wonder if student parents will be able to rejoin the educational fold.

Whatever the new normal looks like, leaders of local universities and colleges in Massachusetts said Wednesday that though they hope to open campuses to their students this fall, they are currently looking at a combination of online and on-campus class offerings.

The discussion, hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, was in tandem with previous announcements made by Boston University and Northeastern University.

Boston University President Robert Brown and Northeastern University President Joseph Auon said that they would also announce the establishment of testing facilities on campus to monitor contact tracing and track symptoms.

“Our top priority is always the health and well-being of the community,” Auon said. “It’s non-negotiable.”

Auon said that the university will look at the density of classrooms and residential areas to reduce the spread of infection. He said that the campus secured 2,000 additional beds to achieve appropriate distancing between students.

“It will not be business as usual,” he said about the reopening of Northeastern University campuses across the country. The university’s Seattle campus was hit first by the virus, and the experience on the west coast was a lesson for the Boston campus.

“It’s not going to be one size fits all,” Auon said. “We have to look at the community we live in to see what the situation is and how to ensure the well-being of the community.”

University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan said that the crisis accelerated the breakdown of an education industry that is already suffering the effects of lower enrollment every year and increasing tuition.

“Online education will have to become more nimble,” he said. “In New England, demographically speaking, I think this crisis will accelerate the challenges of tuition-dependent universities that don’t have large endowments.”

Last year, the demise of Brookline’s Newbury College and the abrupt closure of Mount Ida College showcased the cash and resource crunch many higher education institutions face.

“Not all colleges and universities will exist after the pandemic is over,” Meehan said.

The faculty and administrators at the University of Massachusetts have been looking for ways to leverage online classes and make the experience worthwhile, he said.

Meehan, along with Brown, was part of Gov. Charlie Baker’s advisory group that suggested the set of procedures to gradually reopen the state’s economy.

In the months heading towards the new normal, leaders at these local institutions are tracking the fundamental changes to the business model of higher education. Brown said that universities are eyeing phase three, when campuses will be allowed to repopulate. The task, he said, will not be an easy one.

“We’re going to need a large and detailed number of protocols to repopulate traditional university classrooms,” he said.

While laying out plans to re-conceive dorm rooms and classroom experiences, Brown was optimistic about the potential the digital platform held. Routine campus tours given to aspiring high school students and graduate students had to go virtual, he said. But the transition, though not preferred, has been insightful.

“Higher education is much more flexible than we imagined and our faculty is much more innovative,” Brown said.

The success of virtual outcomes, he said, depends upon transparency.

“This is a gut check for us,” he said. “We have to be honest brokers of information about ourselves.”

As for students coming to campus, Boston University and Northeastern University in particular will have to wrestle with the uncertainty of how many international students will be able to come back to Boston.

“We do not expect all international students to be with this fall,” he said. “So we have to take into account the journey of every student.”

Auon said that the pandemic also solidified the personalization of higher education. The focus moving forward, he said, would be on what students want.

Yet, the pandemic has also revealed a big divide in how different institutions were affected. Bunker Hill Community College, based in Charlestown and Chelsea, is a commuter campus.

“Our campus extends to the farthest point from which our students travel, which is about an eight mile radius,” said President Pam Eddinger. “So, no Switzerland campus, no Paris [unlike colleges such as Emerson], just the center of Boston.”

Eddinger said that the dynamic of opening campus in the fall is tied to the dynamics of the city. Students would be unable to travel without operational buses and trains. While she agreed that online education is the future, she also said students need more than that.

“All the inequities that were bubbling beneath the surface have now broken open,” she said, emphasizing the digital divide that doesn’t allow many students in the country to access remote learning.

“In my 25 years of experience, I have never seen such stresses on students,” Eddinger said.

With a campus in the city of Chelsea, a COVID-19 hot-spot that constitutes a mostly under-served Latin populace, Eddinger said that many students simply disappeared because they couldn’t get online. To retain students, Bunker Hill has purchased technical recoupments and delivered groceries to students.

“My fear is that we’re not hearing from students who are truly stressed,” Eddinger said. “And they will go away permanently.”

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.