Fall 2021 College Reopening Plans During COVID-19

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Attractive young woman sitting on wooden floor with laptop and drawn question marks above on concrete wall. Confusion concept Colleges are Hopeful for a “Normal” Fall 2021 Reopening Plan

In the wake of COVID-19, colleges and universities across the globe have implemented various reopening options in order to resume and continue instruction for the spring 2021 semester, and many are starting to set their sights to the fall with optimism that they will be able to return to normal operations by then.


As we’ve seen, there is no universal policy for college campus reopenings during the 2020-21 academic year. Instead, there have been an array of outcomes, with some colleges completely open and operating, while others utilized a hybrid learning model or opted to conduct classes exclusively online.

Now, colleges are starting to set the tone for the fall, especially as current college applicants await regular admissions decisions and make their final choice for enrollment in May.

Fall 2021 College Reopening Plans

While we are a long way from the start of the fall 2021 semester, a lot of schools are already making their plans for the next academic year public, anticipating they they could be fully open and operational. Universities like University of Maryland at College Park, University of Wyoming, and Indiana University have already started to outline what the fall might look like, with a return to “mostly normal” operations like a majority of classes held in-person and more capacity at athletic events. Yale University has said that it’s hopeful they can bring all students back to campus in the fall. There will still be, of course, precautions in place in order to prevent and/or prepare for a surge in COVID-19 cases.

This news is a major draw for prospective students, as many college bound high school seniors are paying close attention to what their first year of college might look like at various campuses. Many of these students have spent the last year either mostly or completely virtual, and are likely to want a more “normal” first-year experience, if possible. Expect more colleges to announce their plans for the fall as enrollment deadlines get closer and more students are making their final college decisions.

Spring 2021 College Reopening Plans

Spring 2021 semester plans looked a lot like Fall 2020, with some colleges inviting more students to campus while others planned to limit the number of people on campus and in the community. College openings linked to surges in COVID-19 cases in the surrounding community have also informed how colleges approach the spring semester. Those that opened relatively successfully in the fall plan to continue their current strategies of frequent testing, monitoring wastewater, contact tracing, and quarantining positive students. Overall, most universities in the US are primarily online this spring, with only 3% fully online and 2% fully in-person.

Some schools in hard-hit areas, like Stanford University, decided against their original plan to bring more students to campus in the spring. While others planned to bring more students back to campuses. This, of course, comes with its own risks. While some students are on campus at the University of Michigan, positive cases of the new COVID-19 variant prompted the university to advise students to stay at home unless running essential errands or going to class. Expect university policies to continue to evolve through the spring, as campuses adjust to case surges and the needs of the community as a whole.

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education

Fall 2020 College Reopening Plans

For incoming college freshmen, the question of what the fall semester looked played heavily into their enrollment decisions. For a lot of schools, decisions on fall instruction came down to where those colleges were located. Some schools in more rural areas that weren’t as heavily impacted by COVID-19 cases were able to reopen more quickly than campuses in hard-hit regions.

Even some schools that initially reopened with students on campus in the dall, like Notre Dame and UNC – Chapel Hill, scaled back to virtual due to rising COVID-19 cases on campus.

The Chronicle of Higher Education is tracking over 3,000 colleges and universities in the US and documenting their reopening plans for fall 2020. Check out their comprehensive resource here.

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College Reopening Scenarios

Students on Campus
The best-case scenario for colleges across the US was to be completely open to all students for the fall semester. From a financial standpoint, colleges need to be open. Operating budgets depend on tuition money and schools need students on campus to support resources such as the dining hall and bookstore. 

While many universities across the US have opened the campus in some capacity for the fall semester with in-person instruction, few are entirely in-person. And these plans are subject to change at any moment in the year should COVID-19 cases spike on campus.

A Hybrid Model
One of the most popular solutions that is being widely utilized is a hybridized learning experience that combines in-person instruction with virtual lessons. While policies will likely vary by institution, generally, this scenario has larger classes held virtually while smaller lectures will be moved to larger spaces to allow for better social distancing. Some colleges are considering turning on campus ballrooms into large classrooms to give students more space to spread out. 

The model for residential living has also been adjusted to facilitate social distancing practices. Some institutions have considered buying up hotel or casino space to give students single rooms. Another solution has been to invite only certain class years to campus at different times in order to maintain social distancing while also giving students the on-campus experience. Similarly, some schools have just invited the freshmen and senior year students to campus, with sophomores and juniors going virtual for the upcoming year. 

Fully Virtual
The third option implemented by many colleges was a fully virtual fall semester. While going fully virtual isn’t ideal, ultimately it wasn’t completely up to some colleges themselves to make decisions about when to reopen. Schools must comply with local regulations; most universities aren’t considered “essential businesses” in the initial shut down so they were forced to close. In this scenario instruction is completely online, with some schools allowing students to live on campus while taking remote coursework, and others requiring students to stay at home for virtual instruction.

Starting and Ending the Semester Early
Another option that schools are implementing is starting the semester 2-3 weeks early, canceling fall break, and ending the semester by Thanksgiving. This way students will be on campus the entirety of the semester and not traveling back and forth for fall break and the Thanksgiving holiday. This scenario allows for a full academic semester, with still the possibility of some in-person and some virtual classes during that time period.

Delaying Until Spring 2021
One scenario considered by many colleges early on, but was never really implemented, was delaying the start of the fall semester to January 2021 and running the school year through the summer.

Again, all of these reopening plans are subject to change at any moment. Many colleges that were in-person or hybrid have already switched to fully virtual due to COVID-19 outbreaks on campus. It’s important during this fall for students to keep tabs on news and stay in the know. If you are in the midst of your college search and looking for guidance, our team of admissions experts can provide personalized advice. 

Related Topics

12th Grade, Choosing a College, COVID-19
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