Campuses anxious to rekindle ‘college experience’ while battling COVID-19

BOSTON — Boston is known as a college town, but really the entire state is dependent on higher education.

As the pandemic shutdown swept through the region, campuses closed and distance learning became the norm.

As Eli Hopkings finishes up his spring semester from home in Brookline, he’s hoping to be back on campus at the University of Delaware when he starts his senior year in September.

“I think that the overall learning experience has gone down significantly,” said Hopkins, who is majoring in finance. “Also the experience. College is supposed to be the best four years of your life and spending them in your parents’ basement is not the best way to do that, I’d say.”

Known for crowded dorms, large parties, and classes in auditoriums, schools are trying figure out how to adapt, considering the population they serve.

Worcester State College President Barry Maloney is working on plans that would let students return to campus.

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“Our student deposits for returning students to live back on campus are at an all-time high, which sends a message that our students are really eager to get back on campus despite all the health challenges that we’re facing,” Maloney said.

Maloney said the university is looking closely at testing protocols, social distancing guidelines, and procedures for tracing coronavirus.

Maloney added that he gives his faculty and staff an "A" for transitioning quickly to remote classes as the pandemic spread, but believes education improves when students are physically on campus.

“We know that college students who live on campus, who are able to have that opportunity, do about 5%-6% better in terms of their graduation rates, their persistence rates and their overall GPA. These are significant numbers, which speak to the campus life experience as not just an add on,” he said.

Other schools, like Northeastern University, are also pushing forward with plans to bring students back. In a recent letter to the campus community, President Joseph Auon wrote, “to put things in very clear terms: It is our intention to reopen our campuses this fall and offer on-site instruction and a residential experience for our students.”

Lasell University in Newton has already announced a plan to re-open using a blended approach.

“We decided to give our students and families a choice about how they attend next year,” explained President Michael Alexander.

Students can attend as traditional residential students, living on campus and attending classes in person. Students may also elect to stay home and take classes on line. Or they can mix the two, living on campus and taking some, or all, of their classes on line.

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Getting students back on campus sounds good, but Hopkins admits it might be tough for college students to practice social distancing on campus.

“Kids would definitely be hanging out. Social gatherings would be a huge problem," said Alexander.

Higher education proved it could adapt this spring, and will have to respond as circumstances change. Maloney says the impact will be felt not only on campuses, but in host communities, like the city of Worcester.

“We have 36,000 college students taking classes here every academic year and that has a huge impact on our culture, and our community,” he said.

Many changes have already taken place throughout higher education, both locally and nationally.

The California State University system recently announced all classes will be remote in the fall.

The state of Vermont is closing down several campuses this fall.

Pine Manor College in Chestnut Hill agreed to be taken over by Boston College instead of shutting down.

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