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What does return to campus look like in the US this fall?

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • The Delta variant, as well as relatively low vaccination rates in some parts of the country, are pressuring hopes for a return to a normal school year at US colleges
  • Policy and approach varies widely from institution to institution with a wide mix of COVID-19 precautions and requirements in place

A feature presentation at ICEF Virtual Higher Education provided some important insights this week into how the new academic year is taking shape in the United States. The 2021/22 academic year got underway over August and September at universities and colleges throughout the US, and American International Recruitment Council (AIRC) Executive Director Brian Whalen – along with Director of Certification Jennifer Wright and Manager Member Services Catherine Marte – provided a summary of some of the key points that are shaping student experience this fall.

Mr Whalen set the context by noting that college officials, faculty, and students were all hoping for a return to a “normal” academic year. However, the highly contagious Delta variant has proven difficult to control, and especially so in regions of the US with relatively low vaccination rates.

Daily case counts in the US are currently about half that of the previous high points from earlier COVID waves. As of 14 September, the seven-day rolling average for daily COVID cases had passed 152,000 cases per day, and only about 55% of vaccine-eligible Americans were fully vaccinated as of 13 September.

Mr Whalen adds that the situation is further complicated by fact that the US higher education system is highly decentralised, with varying policies and practices applied by different levels of government and across public and private colleges around the US. “They approach COVID-19 in very different ways,” he explained.

What this adds up to is a mix of in-person and online learning, with the balance varying from institution to institution and with terms such as hybrid or hyflex instruction becoming more common. The session highlighted the example of St. George’s University where 80% of students are on campus this semester and the remaining 20%, including many international students, are following their courses online. “With vaccination access issues, limited travel, and visa access, it was a challenge for some students [to come to campus to start the year],” says Director of Onshore Recruitment John McLoughlin. “And so we wanted to create a seamless transition for them allowing them to start their studies online and then come to campus some time in the fall semester when it made sense for them.”

That flexibility in programming is a key component of the US system this year, with many institutions also beefing up support services for remote students. “Despite the wide variety of approaches, US institutions are finding ways to continue to offer quality academic and student programming,” says Mr Whalen.

COVID cautions vary by institution

Another key point noted in the webinar is that COVID-19 mitigation tactics vary considerably from college to college. They range from vaccination, quarantine, masking, social distancing, and testing requirements, and with equally varying measures around monitoring and enforcement. “Campuses are using these tactics in very different ways,” said Mr Whalen.

Some institutions have placed a greater emphasis on providing incentives for compliance, in the form of financial rewards or prizes. The University of Wisconsin, for example, has a special programme through which vaccinated students can enter to win a US$7,000 scholarship. “These can be an important way to get students to comply with vaccination but obviously they only work up to a point,” said Mr Whalen.

Jennifer Wright added that other institutions have opted for stronger enforcement. George Mason University, for example, requires weekly testing (for the first three weeks of semester) for students who are not vaccinated. Other colleges are requiring students to be vaccinated on arrival back to campus. The Chronicle of Higher Education has been tracking vaccine requirements at US institutions for months and has to date catalogued 1,027 campuses that require students to be fully vaccinated.

“The good news is that vaccines are readily available in US,” said Ms Wright. “But unvaccinated students may have to be tested upon arrival and follow quarantine requirements and other precautions until fully vaccinated.” She notes that COVID-19 compliance requirements are being written into student codes of conduct at some institutions and that in such cases students can be fined or even expelled for non-compliance.”

Catherine Marte added that, aside from COVID precautions and compliance issues, other colleges have made adjustments to their academic calendar this year. Some have adjusted admissions timelines while others have moved classes online, if even for a few weeks, to start the year. It is clear however that US educators see these as temporary adjustments and as part of a continuing adjustment to the pandemic this year.

Along with flexibility in academic programming and scheduling, some colleges are also taking site stores limit access or capacity in dining halls, dormitories, or other common spaces. Others are establishing student cohorts or pods to limits wider contacts across the student body.

Needless to say, given that range of policy and approach across the US system, and especially with the still-fluid public health context around COVID, students and agents are encouraged to be in close contact with their college for the latest information.

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