Back-to-School: Fall Start?

Interview waiting room

Will classes be in person in the fall? That’s the question on everyone’s mind. In fact, this past week the topic received ample news coverage.  In a New York Times opinion piece, the President of Brown University suggested reopening universities should be a national priority. Quebec’s Premier announced elementary schools and day cares would re-open in May. High schools, junior colleges and universities in the province will remain closed until September. As institutions figure out how, and when to start campus activities, some research labs are reopening. All of this points to the possibility of a return to in-person classes later this year.

A return to normal?

Back-to-school this year will likely be different, however.  Officials in some jurisdictions have suggested that some COVID-19 restrictions will need to be in place for a year or more. For example, British Columbia’s Provincial Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, warned of restrictions on gatherings of more than 50 people, and Saskatchewan’s five phase plan to re-open only allows for groups of up to 30 in phase four. And, while New Brunswick will allow some students to return to campus to fulfill course requirements, “large gatherings” are prohibited through December 31, 2020. Comments by New York’s Governor Mario Cuomo also suggest large gatherings are unlikely to occur anytime soon, and that any re-opening plans are likely to be regional in nature.  So, as much as universities may want to proceed with business as usual, their plans will be constrained by government regulations.

Education at a time of social distancing

Governments around the world are struggling with the back-to-school question too.  “We recognize that the idea of schools all returning on day one with the full complement of pupils is not realistic or practical,” said Gavin Williamson, the British Secretary of State. Institutions leaning toward starting classes in the fall are unclear on how and when to do it. Harvard, Purdue, North Carolina, Waterloo, York, and Ottawa among others publicly signaled a fall start. Their statements however include caveats such as “… will be necessary to conclude that we are safe,” “expect,” and “based on the advice of public health authorities.” A list in The Chronicle of Higher Education makes clear there are more than a handful of ways to go back to school. The only thing we know is there’s uncertainty on how to go about it.

While it’s impossible to predict what will ultimately happen in the fall, universities are considering a range of back-to-school options from “back to the old normal” on one end of the spectrum to fully remote learning on the other end.  Given what we’ve pointed out above, the former is unlikely, and the latter is an option many would prefer to avoid. The experience of school children returning to school in Taiwan, Norway, and Denmark shows that the “new normal” is anything but normal.

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