Most universities to mix online and in-person teaching

Mary Beth Marklein

Most universities in the United States appear poised to offer a mix of in-person and online instruction in the coming academic year as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and about half plan to start and end the year earlier than usual, a survey has found.

Meanwhile, questions remain as to whether some new international students will be allowed to enter the United States at all.

“Most institutions are preparing for both the knowns and unknowns of the coming semester," says a report on the survey, released on 30 July by the New York-based Institute of International Education. The survey of 520 US universities was conducted from 9 to 24 July amid a roller-coaster month of uncertainty for international students and educators.

In order to accommodate the abrupt shift to online-only courses in March when the coronavirus broke out, the US Department of Homeland Security waived a requirement that international students participate in classes in which instruction takes place in person on campus.

On 6 July, federal officials dropped the waiver, then reinstated it on 14 July, bringing to a halt legal proceedings against the federal government that were filed and supported by universities across the country.

The most recent federal guidance, issued on 24 July, says the waiver applies only to students who had been issued a visa and were in the United States before the pandemic erupted. New students travelling from their home countries “will not be able to enter the United States (and) pursue a full course of study that is 100% online,” the guidelines state.

Some universities offering only remote instruction in the autumn, including Harvard University and the University of Southern California, have advised new international students that they will not be allowed entry to the United States.

The US State Department, which issues student visas, says on its website that international students “must obtain the appropriate visa before travelling, and may still be subject to visa processing and travel restrictions due to COVID-19.”

It adds: “We recognise the serious challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has posed to universities and students alike, and we hope that many international students who had planned to study this fall in the United States will still be able to do so.”

One in 20 offer in-person instruction only

Just 5% of universities plan to offer in-person instruction only, the survey shows. US university leaders have continued to press immigration officials to allow entry of all full-time students into the United States, regardless of the instruction format, during the pandemic.

Nearly nine out of 10 (87%) of universities surveyed said they are offering international students an option to defer enrolment until the spring, and nearly half (46%) are allowing deferments until next summer, findings show.

Many institutions were already moving toward more virtual instruction and hybrid models, but COVID-19 has accelerated their timelines, the report said.

In all, 92% universities surveyed said their approaches to instruction would be different from previous semesters, and 87% of that population characterised their plans as hybrid instruction.

Some, for example, are planning institution-wide modifications, such as limiting class size or offering in-person instruction until a specific date, such as Thanksgiving, and then switching to only online instruction. Other administrations are leaving details to academic departments.

Among the most common safety measures to be adopted are face mask requirements (by 94% of institutions surveyed), restrictions on on-campus events (89%), restrictions on social areas (86%), and restrictions on sporting events (67%). Other common strategies include reduced class sizes (77%), new protocols for student housing (69%), and contact tracing (51%).

Just 38% said they would conduct COVID-19 virus testing for all people on campus. Nearly half (49%) said they will ask incoming international students on campus to self-quarantine, and 26% said they will ask the same of incoming US students on campus.

International applications lower

Half of the institutions surveyed noted that their application numbers are lower than in previous years, while one-quarter (26%) indicated their applications were about the same as last year.

Of 302 institutions reporting collectively that more than 40,000 international students had remained enrolled on campus in summer 2020, 91% said they expect most of these students to continue in the autumn semester. At the time the survey was conducted, data reported by 286 institutions showed that more than 57,000 international students had accepted enrolment in the autumn 2020 semester. About 4,500 had deferred to the spring semester.

“While this is by no means indicative of all fall 2020 enrolment at US higher education institutions, this figure tells us that there is a significant population of international students who would like to attend a US institution in the fall,” the report says.

Nine out of 10 universities acknowledged that they expect to run into difficulties with virtual enrolment for international students.

“Most institutions are frank in reporting the challenges of virtual enrolment, including concerns about decreases in enrolment, less student engagement with faculty and peers, and access and ability to attend online classes,” the report says.

The survey is the third in a series studying the fast-changing effects of the COVID-19 virus on US higher education. Mirka Martel, who led the study, said “flexibility to fast-changing circumstances will be critical”, but that institutions “are prepared to enrol students in the coming semester”.