Life After COVID-19: How Will Higher Education and K-12 Schools Change in the Fall?

By Kate BoveLast Updated Jul 1, 2020 12:43:52 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg/Getty Images

A few months ago, college campuses across the country started closing down and sending students home for the semester. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) canceled March Madness — and every other sport on the docket. But the ramifications extend far beyond Zoom-hosted classes and Animal Crossing graduation gatherings: For many students, being sent home from college unexpectedly meant scrambling to find a place to live, to find support — financial and otherwise.

For younger students, virtual learning has proven difficult as well. Despite teachers' best efforts, most schools, especially public schools, didn’t have roadmaps to deal with all-virtual learning scenarios. In fact, plenty of universities and otherwise privately funded schools with seemingly huge endowments weren’t well-equipped either. Between technological roadblocks and the fact that many students don’t have access to computers, tablets or the internet at home, the novel coronavirus pandemic certainly spotlighted the discrepancies and shortcomings when it comes to education in the United States. That is to say, the system’s cracks are starting to show — now more than ever.

In New York City, for example, the decision to close public schools was a difficult one: On one hand, keeping schools open would’ve been a health risk for students, teachers and their respective households. But, on the other hand, many students rely on their schools for food and other resources — or, simply, as a place to go when their parents are at work. Needless to say, these exposed cracks reveal complications and contradictions.

How Has COVID-19 Already Impacted Higher Education?

Amid all of those frustrations, there’s also the very real, looming possibility that some schools, particularly liberal arts colleges, won’t reopen come this autumn. In fact, MacMurray College, a small, private liberal arts college in Jacksonville, Illinois, announced its closure earlier in May after 174 years of educating students. Sadly, MacMurray, though it did have financial difficulties unrelated to the pandemic, isn’t an anomaly.

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Photo Courtesy: @Yale/Twitter

"Higher education is not nimble. We are steeped in tradition, and we are not always able to move as quickly as we need to," Beverly Rodgers, president of MacMurray, told WBUR, Boston’s NPR News Station. "There needs to be a remake of higher education as a business model, in my opinion." With as many as 44.7 million Americans owing a total of over $1.47 trillion in student loan debt, it’s clear that this model isn’t working for anyone. But with more colleges on the brink of closure than ever, the novel coronavirus has made this fact all the more apparent — and pressing. In March, the CARES federal relief package allowed Congress to allocate about $14 billion for colleges and universities — an amount that the American Council on Education called "woefully inadequate." The group’s "conservative" ask? They, and dozens of higher ed organizations, believe at least $46 billion is needed.


In May, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives proposed a more than $3 trillion proposal for a fourth COVID-19-related stimulus package. Called the HEROES Act, the funding would go toward state and local governments, healthcare systems and a second round of checks for Americans. Moreover, about $90 billion would be used for a state fiscal stabilization fund for education, which state governments could use to bolster both K-12 schools and public colleges and universities.

Ways Colleges Will Look Different in the Fall

In the meantime, colleges and universities have found myriad ways to cope: Pine Manor College, a small private institution in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, that aims to support underserved and low-income students, merged with the much larger Boston College; a New Jersey state senator has proposed colleges provide students with tuition refunds (many universities are already refunding room and board costs, for obvious reasons); the University of Akron is eliminating three intercollegiate sports from its roster, resulting in a reported $4.4 million in savings, as well as six of its 11 academic colleges; and from Harvard Medical School to the California State University system, many higher ed institutions have already announced completely virtual fall courses.

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Photo Courtesy: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

The safest bet? All-virtual classes, though some institutions fear that students won’t be willing to pay as much for online-only offerings. Of course, this safer bet comes with other issues too: Will professors be brought to campus to utilize the school’s tech and resources? And what will students do if they don’t have access to online learning resources? Some schools may test out a more hybrid approach, with small classes, which can allow for social distancing, meeting on campus and others moving to a virtual classroom space. Needless to say, you probably won’t be attending lecture halls filled with 100-plus students.

There’s also room for other creative approaches, including block scheduling, in which, according to NPR, "students take just one course at a time for a shorter duration, typically three or four weeks. Colorado College, a liberal arts school south of Denver, has been using this model for 50 years" to allow students to take deeper dives into specific subjects. Other scheduling ideas include starting up with just freshmen on campus and slowly introducing the rest of the student body to campus, though it seems strange to completely delay the school year when online learning has proven to be fairly effective. Of course, regardless of whether students return to campus in September or in 2021, it’s clear that universities will want to implement the use of protective face coverings and social distancing, which means measuring how many students can safely be in a given classroom at a time and rethinking how dorms, with their communal bathrooms and crammed bedrooms, are structured.


"I don't think there’s any scenario under which it’s business as usual on American college campuses in the fall," Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist and physician at Yale University, told NPR. "This idea — that we can somehow just get back to normal and go back to school in the fall, because we always have, it’s not reasonable, actually. I think we’re going to have to figure out other ways of doing this."

What Will “Back to School” Season Look Like for K-12 Students and Teachers in the Fall?

When it comes to the closure of college campuses, folks seem more attuned to the other problems that stem from such decisions: Some full-time students who live on campus had nowhere else to go, while others faced daunting financial challenges without on-campus jobs or resources like meal plans. Some students depend on their universities for healthcare — not just insurance, but for therapy and onsite checkups. But these adverse effects also impact younger K-12 students too.

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Photo Courtesy: Bus driver Treva White and nutritionist Shaunté Fields deliver meals to children and their families on May 6, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. Photo Courtesy: Karen Ducey/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Schools and after-school programs provide safe and chaperoned places for young students to be while their parents or guardians are at work. For some students, school libraries are the only places they can access online resources, books and other school materials. Perhaps most urgently, many students rely on meals from their schools; parents who can’t afford breakfast and lunch can find a partner in school cafeterias, which often offer meals to low-income and underserved students during the summer as well, even when school is out.

Following that line of thinking, Seattle-based bus driver Treva White and nutritionist Shaunté Fields (pictured above) have started delivering breakfast and lunch to children and their families. Since the COVID-19 school closures, the Seattle Public Schools and Nutrition Services Department have worked to distribute meals to approximately 6,500 people per day, including on weekends. Needless to say, schools are essential parts of students’ lives and communities — even beyond learning.


Unfortunately, however, schools’ resources are limited. Zoom-based learning, or virtual classrooms, may sound ideal, but they just aren’t accessible or feasible for all students, teachers and parents. Additionally, from buses and hallways to cafeterias and classrooms, schools aren’t set up to accommodate social distancing practices — and protective equipment, like masks or plastic shields, costs quite a bit. In addition to more thorough sanitization protocol, parents and students can most likely expect daily temperature screenings — if not full-on COVID-19 tests in some cases — and, possibly, staggered schedules to reduce how many folks are at the school (or on buses) at a given time. For now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided rather malleable guidelines for reopening, leaving much to be decided by local officials and school administrators.

Last Updated: May 18, 2020. 12:15 PM.