The Impact of Coronavirus on Higher Education in US

While the coronavirus pandemic is taking its toll around the world, the US has currently surpassed China and it is now the country with the most coronavirus-infected individuals. Despite the human consequences that the virus is causing around the world, which must always be the top priority, the current situation is also causing confusion and disruptions in businesses and education sectors.

US universities and colleges have decided to postpone their classes, finish their semesters earlier, or as most have done, move their classes online. Classes as we know them are, for the most part, not available. This is done as a means of avoiding face-to-face teaching to prevent the transmission of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Although moving classes online might seem easy in theory, there are actually quite a few issues that come with this transition. We will elaborate on this below.

How Are Universities Handling the Situation?

Many residential universities have instructed their students to travel back home. Students are asked to be understanding that face-to-face learning must be avoided during this pandemic, to slow the rate of transmission and protect the community. All graduate and undergraduate classes will be delivered on an online basis. This, of course, is a lot more challenging for clinical courses and those that are taught on a hands-on basis. Some universities have decided that these classes should be exempt from remote learning, while others will be fully online.

Higher education institutions have reduced the number of people on campus since this is the kind of environment students reside and study in close proximity to one another, increasing the chances of possible transmission of the virus. This way, those who must remain on campus or university premises will be able to apply safety measures more easily, including social distancing which is essential. So, there are quite a few impacts on higher education already visible. Depending on how much the pandemic will last, the impacts might prove to be even greater for the higher education sector. 

Many universities and colleges have cancelled spring break trips and study abroad programmes in China, Italy, or South Korea. This also includes all the other countries that have considerable numbers of people infected with the coronavirus. All non-essential international university travel has also been annulled, as was the case with the New York University, with other institutions also following suit.

How Are Students Handling the Situation?

Universities and colleges in the US are also aware that there are international students who cannot return home due to travel restrictions or other circumstances, so those who need to remain on campus were required to contact the university and discuss the situation. Many have returned home after being instructed to do so before spring break. For those who remained on campus, universities have tried to keep a minimal staff to cater to student needs, like meals. At Harvard University, for example, students were moved to other rooms or units in order to apply all the necessary safety measures. However, even for the students who remained on campus, remote teaching and learning apply, and there must be little or no campus interactions.

Students nationwide are expressing their concerns when it comes to their education, exams, and ability to adapt to online classes. Some students are worried that the current situation in higher education in the US, will further bring forward the differences between the privileged students and the less-privileged. Numerous factors should be taken into consideration by universities, such as whether or not students have the necessary conditions to study at home, whether they have internet access or even laptops. Then, the unforeseen expenses of students who have travelled back home have also become an issue. Universities are expected to deal with all these issues in order to avoid their students missing their semesters or having to repeat them.

On the other hand, not all universities have the essential resources to cater to students needs during this pandemic. Some may have the possibility to offer free laptops to students in need, or financial aid to those who can prove they need it. The less wealthy colleges and their students remain, then, without the needed means of facilitating online classes for everyone and keeping the semester going smoothly, even if on an online basis. People have even claimed that cancelling classes, for the time being, would be the fairest solution during this time.

The current situation also impacts those who are currently in their last year of studies and about to graduate. It is not yet clear how exams are to be held, and whether or not these students will be able to graduate on time or even be part of a graduating ceremony. Although universities have not been very clear whether graduation ceremonies will be postponed or cancelled altogether, they are doing everything they can to ensure that students’ needs are being met. For some in their senior year, their campus experience as they know it might have come to an end.

How Is the University Staff Handling the Situation?

The university staff is also facing their challenges while trying to make the situation as efficient and productive as they can. All those who are able to work remotely are doing so at the moment. However, in some universities, some members of the staff must remain on campus to carry on with research and labs and also support the students who are still on campus. The academic staff have also gone through a process of transition, themselves. Not everyone has experienced teaching online previously, and many of them had to carry on with online lectures without any training. So, it has been and continues to be a challenging process for them as well as for the students.

In-person meetings are not advised by universities. Therefore those who plan on organizing any meeting, are suggested to use remote technology instead, which also includes conference calls or simply phone conversations. Those meetings that must be held in-person, should use the right social distancing practices, which include staying at least six feet away from one another and avoiding hand-shakes.

Will International Student Numbers Be Affected?

The US is the greatest international student destination in the world, counting a total of over 1 million international students enrolled in higher education institutions, according to the latest statistics. One-third of the total international student body in the US comprises of Chinese students. Coincidentally, all international students in the US, contribute to a staggering $39 billion to the US economy. While the class delays and drop in enrollments might be temporary at the moment, if the pandemic lasts longer than expected, these effects might even become quite pronounced.

Taking into consideration that a large, or the largest, number of students arrive from China, it is likely that there will be a drop in international student numbers coming from China to study in the US if the situation holds for longer periods of time. This also means that the US economy will be impacted since international students to not only contribute to the finances of higher education institutions but also accommodation providers, restaurants, and everything else that caters to international student needs. Some universities have even been freezing new hires, cutting staff or pay, in order to fill their financial gaps. 

At the moment, travel bans to and from China, or any place in the world, are crucial to prevent the number of infected people from growing. However, many students have been left stranded and confused as to what this whole situation means for their education. Universities and colleges are doing a lot to provide the necessary support to both domestic and international students. Support lines and emails, updated websites and FAQs sections – all these contribute to the mental wellbeing of both students, parents, and staff during the pandemic.

Although it is hard to see how long the pandemic will last and whether it will result in long-term disruption to the higher education system, the only safe solution to keep the higher education sector moving forward right now, while avoiding transmission of the virus, is investment in remote learning.