NEW ALBANY — It is uncertain what the next academic year will look like for college students as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, but Indiana University President Michael McRobbie has outlined multiple possibilities for IU campuses.
McRobbie provided an update this week with five different scenarios for the 2020-2021 academic year. Classes were moved online for the remainder of the spring semester, as well as the summer semester, and it is unlikely that in-person classes will fully return in the fall.
“It would not be realistic or even responsible to promise a full resumption of in-person activity in the fall, as the best medical and public health evidence and projections tell us that the novel coronavirus will remain active to some degree, and that the potential for COVID-19 reoccurrence will remain with us until a vaccine is widely deployed,” he wrote in a Thursday statement.
The university has formed a Restart Committee to guide the process and recommend “when and under what conditions” IU will restart educational, research and other activities. Each IU campus, including Indiana University Southeast, will establish committees “tailored” to the specific needs of the individual campuses and programs to plan and implement the reopening operations.
The first scenario would be the unlikely return to in-person teaching and research in the fall, McRobbie said. It would require the continuation of social distancing and safety measures to prevent spread of COVID-19, and it would involve changing up large lecture classes and courses that bring people into close physical contact, as well as altering laboratory and studio practices to ensure proper distancing.
The second scenario would be a hybrid of both in-person and virtual classes and research, which McRobbie considers the most likely possibility at this point, although that could change as the pandemic continues. Several versions of this scenario are being considered, and each would require flexibility as new developments occur.
“It could involve classes offered both in-person and virtually,” he wrote. “It could also involve prioritizing some classes for in-person or for virtual instruction, based on their size, content or other characteristics; creating modular classes that are designed to include both in-person and virtual elements, or that can switch from one mode to another very quickly; rethinking the weekly schedule, to spread out larger classes, for example, to allow for smaller sections; or, most likely, some combination of these and other measures.”
The other three scenarios outlined are ones IU leaders would like to avoid, according to McRobbie. They include a virtual fall semester with hybrid classes in the spring, returning to a virtual semester in the spring following hybrid classes in the fall or virtual operations for the entire academic year.
IUS Chancellor Ray Wallace said the campus is in the process of forming committees, which would consist of a combination of faculty, staff and administration, and he expects that a decision on campus’s plan will be made by June at the latest.
“We’ve always had the same goal — to keep people safe,” he said. “Would we all love to be back face-to-face, oh yes, of course, but we can’t do that if we’re putting people’s health at risk.”
The committees would be looking at a variety of ways to implement the hybrid model outlined by McRobbie, according to Wallace. They will be looking at all of the scenarios and plan for various outcomes, he said.
“In one scenario, it could work where half the students in the class would go one day and the other other half of the students would take that class online, and then the second time the class would meet and the other half of the class would meet. It would be splitting that up online and face to face. We’re looking at that.”
For any big classes, IUS would have to find a way to divide them up and limit the amount of people in the same room, so not every seat would be filled.
“The vast majority of our classes are small enough that we think we can manage this with a combination of face-to-face and online, if that’s the way we have to do it,” Wallace said.
One of the challenges will be planning courses involving lab work, according to Wallace. Although basic science labs can be taught online, certain labs in science and nursing will be more difficult to plan.
“We have to be careful that we are getting the same level of instruction online as we could do face-to-face, and that’s something we obviously have to spend a great deal of time making sure that we’re doing,” he said. “There could be a scenario where we even look at eight-week courses, and we say, OK, let’s see if we can get the labs done in the first eight weeks or the second eight weeks.”
McRobbie noted that IU could see a mixture of scenarios across its campuses depending upon how the pandemic is affecting a particular region. The individual campus committees will consider the effects of the scenarios upon health and safety practices, student enrollment, course offerings, staffing levels, cost structure and research activities.
Restarting in-person education as described in the second scenario would probably require a combination of social distancing, therapeutics, temperature monitoring/surveillance, contact tracing and quick, comprehensive testing, McRobbie wrote.
“We are still far from sure what form the next academic year will take, but it will almost certainly look and feel different,” he said. “COVID-19 will be with us this fall in some way, and perhaps longer, until a cure is uncovered. To this end, I do not want to sugarcoat the situation with trite phrases or hollow optimism. Even under the best of circumstances, academic and research life at IU will not be the same for some time, and we will feel the repercussions of this pandemic for many years.”
Despite the changes caused by the pandemic, this is not a time for students to give up on higher education, Wallace said.
“This is a time for students to continue with higher education,” he said. “This is an opportunity for them to keep moving through their degree program. The fact that we were able, at very short notice, to move what was, for many courses, completely face-to-face to an online environment is a credit, frankly, to our technology and a credit to our faculty and supporting staff. We can do this, and there will be even more time to plan if we have to move things in the fall.”