The incoming freshmen had barely taken their first tentative steps onto the campus of McDaniel College in Westminster when it became clear this would be no ordinary orientation.
Among the swag they received: face masks in McDaniel’s signature green. The setting: the Gill Center, normally home to the school’s Green Terror basketball team, where safe distances were marked off on bleachers and hallways. The message: Welcome, and please stay 6 feet apart.
This wasn’t quite what Shakia McKinnon expected college would be like when as a student at Green Street Academy in Baltimore she plotted her next educational step.
But with the coronavirus looming overhead, students will find campus life upended: Much of class time will transfer from in-person to online. Many students will reside in single dormitory rooms rather than with roommates. You’ll more likely see coronavirus testing, symptoms-monitoring and contact tracing than sporting events, concerts and frat parties.
McKinnon is not deterred but rather full of plans — to major in early education, to join the Black Student Union, to support LGBTQ causes.
“I try to put the bad thoughts in the back of my head,” she said, “and just enjoy my time while I’m here.
“I’m the type of person that makes the best out of a worst situation,” McKinnon said.
Students across the country may have to do just that. As coronavirus cases continue to spike in many parts of the country, some colleges have reversed earlier decisions to reopen their campuses and will only offer online classes.
On Friday, Goucher College became the first Baltimore area school to announce it would conduct its fall semester fully rather than partially online as originally planned. The school, which draws students from more than 40 states, said recent increases in coronavirus cases in Maryland and across the country raised concerns over whether the campus could be reopened safely.
Georgetown, American and George Washington universities in Washington also decided recently to start the year remotely. According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, fewer than half of the 1,260 colleges it has been tracking are opening their campuses this fall.
In May, when there was still hope the pandemic would be under control by fall, three-fourths of the colleges were planning to resume on-campus instruction and activities.
In the Baltimore area, universities generally are offering a mix of remote and in-person teaching.
But that is subject to change, with some medical experts casting doubt on the safety of welcoming students and faculty back to campus and the path of the coronavirus continually taking unexpected turns.
“We’re prepared to pivot to fully remote,” said Joann Boughman, senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs for the University System of Maryland. But having students on campus “is our plan for now.”
The university system, which operates 12 public colleges and three regional centers across the state, on Thursday announced a universal testing mandate for students and employees on its campuses. Students and staff will be required to show proof that they tested negative in the past 14 days.
Going forward, they are expected to monitor themselves for symptoms and get tested as needed. Officials say they will conduct contact tracing when someone is found positive.
Over the summer, public and private colleges in the state have invested heavily in mitigation efforts — contracting for extra cleaning of facilities, and converting dormitory rooms into singles or doubles. They’ve also set aside dorm and hotel spaces if students need to be quarantined after a positive test.
Some wonder, though, whether colleges can do enough to safeguard their communities. Campuses by their nature are meant to encourage interaction, whether it’s the exchange of ideas or the blooming of lifelong friendships.
Dr. Wilbur Chen, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, expects colleges that are reopening this fall will ultimately re-close.
“It’s, to me, not an if. It’s a when,” said Chen, who has advised Maryland universities on their plans. “I don’t know if that’ll happen in August or September, October or November.”
Colleges have to create clear metrics for what would prompt a shutdown, Chen said. In-person classes could continue if there aren’t too many cases, he said, as long as the positive students can be quarantined in dorm rooms with private restrooms.
The prospect of a less than lively campus scene persuaded Naomi Bilesanmi, an incoming freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park to forgo dorm life.
She couldn’t justify the expense of a dormitory when so much of her time would be spent studying alone in her room — especially since she could live at home 10 minutes away from campus.
Still, as she scrolls through Instagram, seeing her friends posting how they’ll decorate their dorm space while she ponders rearranging the furniture in her childhood bedroom, she feels “so jealous.”
“People say your freshman year of college is like one of the greatest times of your life,” Bilesanmi said. “It was very hard for me to get over.”
Schools have spent much of the summer weighing options, with the goal of giving students enough time to plan for what is generally a move-in period in mid- to late August. They had to consider the desires and needs of students, their parents, faculty and staff, some of which conflicted, during a time of daily fluctuations in how the coronavirus is spreading.
In Maryland, cases, hospitalizations and deaths had been declining until a recent uptick, throwing a wrench in some colleges’ plans.
Morgan State University President David Wilson said that as he has watched those numbers, he “gave serious thought” to an all-virtual start of the fall semester.
He had already pushed Morgan’s first day of classes to a relatively late Sept. 9 — last year’s was Aug. 19 — to allow as much time as possible to respond to the changing public health situation.
About three-fourths of the faculty said they didn’t feel comfortable teaching in person, Wilson said. By contrast, students wanted to be on campus at least some of the time, and the plan is to offer both online and in-person classes.
As a historically Black college, he said, the campus is even more of a haven for students.
“They see Morgan as their home. It’s an institution that cares about them and they don’t have to question whether they belong,” Wilson said.
He said the school invested about $5 million upgrading classrooms to allow for classes taught on campus to be livestreamed and videotaped for students “to access wherever they are in the world.”
Wilson regrets that incoming students won’t have the full, traditional experience, of on-campus tours and orientation sessions in the summer, or of football games and homecoming with its influx of alumni in the fall.
But if anything, Wilson said, the pandemic has made him even more determined that Morgan continue to close “the equity gap” for Black students.
Jennifer Ballengee, a Towson University professor who chairs the school’s Academic Senate, said she and her colleagues have spent a lot of time adapting their courses for online.
“There’s a loss of the personal touch,” said Ballengee, an English professor. “It’s hard to make sure that people are engaged, and not falling through the cracks.
“But this is presenting us with an opportunity to rethink how we teach.”
Ballengee had planned to teach her three fall semester classes partially in person and partially online. But when the Baltimore public school system announced that it would begin the academic year fully online, keeping her sixth grader at home this fall, she realized she couldn’t be on campus as much.
She opted to teach her two undergraduate courses online, while still meeting on campus in the evening with her graduate students.
College communities are still hashing out the changes. Ballengee said faculty remain concerned about how conducting instruction online will affect how they’re assessed for tenure.
Students at some schools are worried they won’t get what they’re paying for in tuition and fees. At Towson, for example, students have petitioned for a refund of athletic fees because fall sports have been canceled.
“Incoming and returning students, from what I’ve heard thus far, would like reductions in the overall cost of education, given that things are going to be drastically different this coming semester,” said Maman Deguene Ndiong, president of Towson’s Student Government Association.
Still, she said, students understand the constraints colleges are under due to the pandemic, and she’s glad for the “healthy combination of in-person and remote courses.”
By now, online instruction is no longer new — after schools closed in mid-March, most colleges finished spring classes remotely.
“It wasn’t an easy transition,” said Stephen Li, a rising senior at the Johns Hopkins University. “You could fall asleep in class or be on YouTube and no one knows. It’s so easy to be distracted.”
After spending half the year “cooped up” at home in North Carolina, he’s looking forward to returning to his off-campus apartment in Baltimore at the end of August.
Still, it won’t be the same for the biomedical engineering major. The lab at Hopkins hospital where he had worked won’t be letting undergraduates in, Li said. And his a cappella group, the Allnighters, won’t be able to rehearse and perform in person — singing in proximity is known to quickly spread the virus.
The group may perform virtually, but something like the traditional fall auditions for new members has to happen in-person to gauge chemistry, Li said.
“A big part of it,” he said, “is the vibe check.”
As at other schools, many beloved events have already been canceled at the Hopkins Homewood campus, including the end-of-semester Lighting of the Quads in December, with its student musical performances, holiday decorations and fireworks display.
“It’s right before finals, and really fun,” said Katherine Reinke, a rising senior.
Reinke, a molecular and cellular biology major, could have done all her coursework remotely but decided to come to campus nonetheless. The lab she works at arranged for work stations to be safely separated, and she heads the Hopkins Entertainers Club, which teaches and performs circus arts, such as fire twirling.
She realized that unlike the musical and dance groups, hers could easily rehearse and perform outdoors while wearing masks and staying 6 feet apart. Now, she said, members need to think of how to sanitize the props they toss among themselves, or wear gloves.
Campuses have been trying to find ways to adapt their housing, classrooms, libraries and other facilities to the new standards of safe distancing.
“That required us to move thousands of pieces of furniture off campus,” said Julia Jasken, McDaniel College provost.
“We use the term de-densify a lot,” she said.
A coronavirus task force began meeting in the spring and will convene every afternoon once the semester gets underway to monitor how the plan is working, Jasken said.
Even with new restrictions on campus, McDaniel was able to bring incoming freshmen to campus over the summer in groups of about 50 for two-day pre-orientations, including a session Thursday and Friday.
When classes begin Aug. 20, about two-thirds will taught in a hybrid style, online but meeting on campus typically once a week, Jasken said. Just 5 percent of classes will be taught fully in person, and the remainder will be all online, she said.
The semester was split into two seven-week sessions, with students taking two courses in each, which should reduce the number of interactions they have compared with taking four courses simultaneously, Jasken said.
The semester ends at Thanksgiving, which helps avoid the prospect of students and faculty traveling during the holiday and potentially bringing the virus back with them, she said.
Campuses are particularly wary of the Thanksgiving period because flu season generally begins to peak shortly after it, even as schools may still be dealing with the coronavirus. Many schools will convert to all-online instruction when their semesters resume after the holiday.
The dorm housing agreement College Park students sign, for example, says that if they travel for Thanksgiving break they can’t return until the spring semester.
What worries some is that no amount of planning can guarantee compliance, college kids being college kids. Chen, the infectious disease doctor who also serves on Gov. Larry Hogan’s coronavirus advisory group, said colleges have to enforce the rules and establish consequences for breaking them.
“If students read these guidelines, and then they see that this campus is lax, then, of course, students are very good at pushing that envelope,” Chen said.
He winces even now, seeing small groups of young people gathering in homes and at the community pool in his Bethesda neighborhood, and imagines similar clustering on a larger scale at universities this fall.
“If my kids were college age,” Chen said, “I don’t think that I would be letting them go to college.”