June 29, 2020

Reshaping the Student Experience for Fall 2020

Colleges and universities are racing to answer a remarkable question in the weeks ahead: How do you safely and effectively educate students during a pandemic?

There’s no roadmap for these institutions to follow. As a result, colleges and universities are taking all different approaches. In recent weeks the Boston Globe reported Tufts University plans to welcome undergraduate students back to campus, MIT will only allow a certain number of students on campus and UMASS Boston will teach all classes online. Here’s a college-by-college breakdown for higher education in Massachusetts.

“This is a really interesting conundrum. Colleges and universities exist to bring people together to learn through socialization, networking, and thereby creating a learning community. Studies show that a great deal of learning occurs outside of classrooms through social interaction,” explained Lynne Deninger, our Boston Education Market Leader. “So it’s hard for institutions to now say, okay, come back to campus and learn, and live, and eat, but without the social connectivity you’re used to and need. It runs counterintuitive to their mission.”

It all translates to the Fall 2020 semester being engulfed in uncertainty. But, we do know any institutions welcoming students back to campus will offer a completely reimagined campus experience to help keep students, faculty and staff safe. 

We’ve published a living guide of considerations for Returning to Campus and our Boston education leaders recently interviewed with WBUR on this topic. Their thoughts on how student housing, campus recreation and athletics, research labs, dining and more can be reimagined for the semester ahead are summarized below.


Lynne Deninger on Residence Halls and Dining
From a residence hall perspective, for 60+ years it has been about bringing people together, now it’s about encouraging physical distancing for students on campus similar to what they have been doing at home. Many campuses are offering only single rooms, even if they’re in rooms designed for doubles or triples. 

Some colleges are planning on allowing multiple students to live in the same room, but they’re asking that group of students to consider their room or suitemates as their “family unit.” So, those students don’t need to wear masks in their room or suite, but they should be in every other public setting in the residential hall and on campus. Additionally, students are being asked to sign updated conduct policies, acknowledging campus health is up to each individual. 

Many programs are taking a wait-and-see attitude with opening communal spaces like game rooms and kitchens for the fall semester. It’s really going to depend on student behavior, their ability to physically distance and its impact on community health. 

Other key moves to support the live in student include grab-and-go foodservice and food trucks. If dining halls are used, furniture grouping will be lessened or off limits to keep gatherings small and separate. Many students will be waiting in their rooms with suite and roommates. We also anticipate many institutions will install plexiglass or glass dividers at reception, check out and security desks to promote safety.

Colleen McKenna on Campus Recreation
It’s really incredible how many campus recreation programs rapidly expanded their virtual offerings this spring as the pandemic began. These virtual classes were great ways for students to feel connected to their campus, friends and instructors. 

Now, as some recreation centers are opening up, it’s a different experience. Most will require students to reserve time online or through an app. So, you can arrive, check in, use a treadmill for 45 minutes, and then there’s 15 minutes for the equipment to be cleaned before the next student reservation. There won’t be opportunities for students to linger in the corridors and socialize.

In regard to group fitness, much like classrooms, you’re going to have reduced capacity. Group fitness classes may happen with 50 percent of the students as usual. Swimming will probably take place with one person per lane via online reservations. With basketball you’ll be able to shoot baskets with your own ball by yourself.

It’s unfortunate, as campus recreation is really all about bringing people together for camaraderie, team building and socialization. But, this fall it’s going to be about helping people exercise for personal health in a safe way.

Toni Loiacano on Teaching Labs
An interesting wrinkle is how hands-on laboratories will need to be almost fully virtual or limited to very small groups this fall. Schools are looking at doing demonstrations by video in the laboratory, and having students complete the laboratory virtually.  Some schools are planning to have scheduled appointments for students to complete prioritized experiments.  Other schools are looking at having single representatives of thel lab groups, in person, with the rest of the grup joining virtually.  

So, trying to figure out how you make that a meaningful experience poses new challenges and opportunities. And, it’s not just science – this is arts, engineering and more. It’s almost going to feel like the recreation experience Colleen describes: reserve your lab, use it, clean it up, allow for the next small group to use the space.

Colleen McKenna on Collegiate Athletics
The impact on collegiate athletics began the day March Madness was cancelled. Now, both football and hockey are in serious question. These are the three largest revenue generating collegiate sports that fund the majority of other programs. The financial impact on institutions is significant.

Football is fast approaching and if it does take place, it’s going to be a different experience for everyone. We’re hearing outdoor stadiums might be able to open at about 25 percent capacity. That’s with staggered entry and exit times, limited movement in the stadium bowl and concourse, and all food and beverage orders being placed online. Fan seating will likely be clustered in groups of two to six based on group ticket sales and stadiums will only allow fans in every other row. So stadiums that would have been packed with 100,000 screaming fans are probably looking at 20,000+ people having a very different experience.

Toni Loiacano on Seizing the Long-Term Opportunities
For the most part, colleges and universities aren’t making significant long-term changes. The thought is once there’s a vaccine, things will return to a sense of normal. So, rather than capital dollars, they’re spending social dollars – reshaping residence halls, campus recreation, everything we’re talking about – but that’s not sustainable for multiple semesters.

While it’s a tough moment, there are opportunities for innovation. Embracing virtual learning at this scale means geographic barriers are essentially eliminated. I think even once you can fill classrooms safely, virtual learning will continue at a large scale. You’ll see institutions reach students outside their traditional recruiting zone, new partnerships, new collaboration – that’s what virtual learning can fuel for an even stronger future.

Learn about our Returning to Campus guide >