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Here’s How College Campuses Will Look Different This Fall

College students sitting outdoors studying, wearing masks.
Kzenon/Shutterstock

Will you be starting or returning to college this fall? From freshmen to grad students, everyone’s wondering what the new semester will look like. Here are some of the changes many colleges are considering.

With COVID-19 still running rampant, colleges can’t just return to normal any time soon. However, there’s a wide range in how different schools are proposing to handle classes during the pandemic.

Let’s take a look at some of the changes universities have proposed, and how they might affect your studies.

Socially-Distanced Classes

Many teachers and students agree that it’s easier to learn in person than online. To make in-person courses safer, some campuses are rearranging classrooms so everyone can sit at least six feet apart from each other.

This means moving chairs and desks or marking off certain seats in a lecture hall so everyone is safely separated. However, this works best for classes with a smaller number of students, such as graduate classes.

For larger classes, the number of students will have to be cut down to accommodate distancing. One way to do this is to have students rotate between in-person classes one week, and online classes the next. This way, lecture halls will always only be partially full.

In-person classes will also be losing any activities, that require students to sit close together or share materials, like group projects.

Online or Hybrid Models

Some schools are switching to remote learning for some or all of their classes this fall. However, it’s looking like the “hybrid model” will be more common for most.

Hybrid models combine online and in-person classes. As we mentioned above, this could mean students will rotate between online and in-person learning to reduce the number of people in each classroom.

It might also involve in-person classes only for sessions that can’t be done remotely, like labs, while the rest are conducted online. Another option might be in-person classes for part of the semester, and online classes for the rest. In-person classes might also have online versions available for students who are quarantined or sick.

Some schools are leaving the final decision up to professors, as not all of them are comfortable with the risks of teaching in person.

As of early July 2020, 60 percent of schools are planning to have in-person classes, 23 percent are looking at a hybrid model, and 8 percent are planning to go remote. Others are still weighing their options.

It’s also worth noting, however, that the number of colleges adopting online or hybrid models continues to creep up in response to the ongoing outbreaks.

Mask Requirements

Most schools expecting students to learn in person are also requiring face masks for everyone on campus. Even with social-distancing measures in place, a face mask offers a valuable added layer of protection.

Safety and Cleaning Protocols

Some schools are supplying essentials, like hand sanitizer and masks, to students on campus. Many are also committing to cleaning on-campus spaces more often and more carefully.

Similar to the plans many school districts are rolling out on K-12 campuses, many colleges will also take advantage of a rotating schedule and off days to deep clean.

Fever and Coronavirus Testing

At some schools, students will have their temperatures taken at “fever checkpoints.” Anyone who’s running a fever will be expected to stay away from class and on-campus social activities.

Certain schools are also planning to implement coronavirus tests on campus. In fact, Maryland just mandated that all college students and staff must be tested at state schools.

Self-Reported Symptoms

Another option that might be utilized is giving students thermometers. They can then use an app to report fevers or any other symptoms.

Any students who report possible COVID-19 symptoms would not be permitted to attend classes.

Modified Semester Schedules

A young woman studying in a college library wearing a mask.
Pixpan_creative/Shutterstock

Some colleges are changing when the semester starts and/or ends, or reducing midsemester breaks, to keep disease transmission at a minimum.

For example, some schools are starting early and canceling fall breaks so they can finish classes before Thanksgiving. This way, after students and staff visit family over the holidays, they won’t be returning to the classroom and passing on anything they picked up while traveling.

Other schools are navigating this issue by having in-person classes until Thanksgiving, and then online classes through the end of the semester. Some are even considering sectioning the semester into two mini ones, so it’ll be easier to transition to remote learning halfway through, if necessary.

Yet another option is to delay the start of the semester so schools have more time to prepare and implement safety measures.

Closed Campus Resources

Even schools holding in-person classes likely won’t have a fully open campus.

While students need access to food, many dining halls will be takeout-only, and nonessential dining options might be closed. Gyms, libraries, bookstores, and other on-campus facilities might also be closed or have limited hours.

Resources that are expensive to maintain and nonessential to most students, like pools, might be closed for the entire semester or school year to cut down on costs.

Athletic Disruptions

What to do about sports is a major issue many schools have yet to address. So far, it looks unlikely that any school athletics will be happening at many colleges. If they do, major changes will be necessary to make these activities safer.

Because schools are also facing COVID-related budget shortages, some athletic programs might even be cut permanently.

Dorm Adjustments

Dorms with communal spaces might be closed or rearranged to accommodate social distancing this fall. However, students have to have a place to live, so most are planning to leave the actual dorms open. Many schools are reducing the capacity of their dorms, though, so students won’t be living in such close quarters.

Of course, no one knows what will happen once the semester is underway. It’s a good idea to have a plan B for a place to stay in case your college dorms unexpectedly close.

Check if it would be possible to stay with some friends or family on short notice, if necessary. You might also need to figure out alternative transportation options, as well.

Some schools are also considering turning dorms into quarantine facilities if there’s an outbreak.

How to Find Out Your School’s Plans

As you can see, there’s a wide range of possibilities for the fall semester. No matter what, though, no college will look “normal” this year.

Your school’s fall plans might seem vague and confusing right now, because they’re likely still figuring them out. So, where should you look for the latest COVID-19 updates over the summer?

Your college website can be a good resource, but it’s also good to maintain contact with any trusted advisors you have at the school. Also, keep an eye on your school email account and follow your college’s social media accounts for the latest news.

Do keep in mind, though, that many schools don’t yet have any plans set in stone. Depending on the locations of viral outbreaks, local policies, and other variables, plans might change several times before, or even after, the semester begins.

If you’re heading to school this fall, just be on the lookout for updates. Ask as many questions as you need to and be prepared for the rules to change at any given moment.


Another option for students who are concerned about returning to campus is to defer admission for a semester or take a year off. However, not every school or program will make this option available.

For right now, the best thing to do is stay in contact with your advisors and professors. They will keep you updated and advocate for your needs. It’s a semester like no other, but having mentors you trust will make this a valuable and safe learning experience, in spite of COVID-19.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a freelance and creative writer from the Pacific Northwest, and an MFA student at the University of New Orleans Creative Writing Workshop. She specializes in lifestyle writing and creative nonfiction. Read Full Bio »

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