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Cal State Fullerton Announces Plans For A Virtual Fall. Will Other Colleges Follow?

Online library design in isometric vector illustration
Ali Kerem
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Updated at 9:40 a.m. ET Wednesday

On Monday, California State University, Fullerton announced it was planning to begin the fall 2020 semester online, making it one of the first colleges to disclose contingency plans for prolonged coronavirus disruptions.

"Our plan is to enter [the fall] virtually," said Pamella Oliver, the schools provost, at a virtual town hall. "Of course that could change depending on the situation, depending on what happens with COVID-19. But at this point that's what we're thinking."

The public institution in Southern California also said it hopes to resume in-person learning when it's safe to do so.

Oliver asked faculty to start planning for fall virtual classes now, citing the pain felt this spring when the university was forced to transition to online classes. "Having to jump quickly, without having in-depth plans," she said, "added to the difficulty."

"It's a hard call. There's a lot of pressure," says Ellen Treanor, who helps lead strategic communication at the school. "Obviously we want to resume in-person teaching as soon as possible, but we also need to make sure that we're safe."

Treanor says despite the announcement, the administration is preparing for a number of sceneries. They even had the faculty measure their classrooms, calculating how many students could fit in the space if they were 6 feet apart. She says they've also planned out how students could enter and exit the classrooms without crowding at the door. But ultimately, she says, it made more sense to assume they'd start online. "What would be the easier way to transition? It would be easier to transition beginning virtually and then transitioning in-person," says Treanor. "The faculty need to be prepared."

After closing campuses and moving spring classes online, colleges and universities are now grappling with how long the disruptions will last, and what the fall semester will look like. Many have been hesitant to announce their fall plans publicly.

College enrollment was already on a downward trend before the pandemic, making it a competitive field for college recruiters — every student they sign up counts. The big question is: Will students still enroll if college is all online? And will colleges that were already in dire financial straits survive the outbreak?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.