SACRAMENTO — As colleges make plans to bring students back to campus, alongside discussions of mask requirements and half-empty classrooms, one common strategy is emerging: Forgoing fall break and getting students home before Thanksgiving.
The University of South Carolina, Notre Dame, Rice and Creighton are among the schools that have said they will find ways to shorten the fall semester, in an attempt to avoid a “second wave” of coronavirus infections expected to emerge in late fall.
Built into their calculations, university officials say, are epidemiological assumptions that reducing travel will help students avoid contracting and spreading the virus, and that any easing of the pandemic this summer will end with the return of flu season.
“We don’t know if the second wave will be weaker or stronger, but there’s a significant risk that this will resurge in the winter,” said Rice University’s president, David W. Leebron.
Rice, a private university in Houston, was among the first schools to adopt the strategy of a streamlined semester. It notified 7,000 students this month that the fall semester would not have the usual breaks, ending at Thanksgiving instead of around Christmas.
In making that decision, Mr. Leebron said he drew on guidance issued by federal disease experts, pandemic modeling from other universities, Rice’s own infectious diseases faculty and the school’s “robust crisis management structure” — a result of too many Texas hurricane seasons.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have warned almost from the outset of the pandemic that the United States can expect to be hit by multiple waves of infections until the development of a vaccine, a process that can take at least 18 to 24 months.
The likelihood of another wave of infections in the fall and winter prompted the nearly 500,000-student California State University system to announce last week that it would keep its 23 campuses mostly closed, holding classes primarily online during the fall semester.
California’s community colleges, which serve more than 2 million students and which are run by more than 70 governing bodies, were urged by that system’s chancellor on Monday to adopt a similar plan.
But those universities receive state aid, while private institutions like Rice and Notre Dame rely primarily on tuition, often paid by families who place a premium on small, in-person classes.
In Orange, Calif., Daniele Struppa, president of Chapman University, another private school, said 80 percent of his $400 million annual budget depends on tuition — a far higher proportion than at, say, Cal State Fullerton 10 minutes away. Tuition and fees make up less than a fifth of the revenue stream at the so-called Cal States.
Dr. Struppa said that his university was still finalizing plans for the fall, but that a Thanksgiving end date was among the possible scenarios. Also being considered were requiring face masks and social distancing, designating dorm rooms for quarantining infected students, and marking one-way paths to reduce outdoor interactions, an idea under discussion at nearby Disneyland.
He said faculty and administrators were weighing whether to bring students back before the typical Aug. 31 start date, or whether to shorten the weeklong break at Thanksgiving — or perhaps whether to keep things they way they were.
“Some in our working group say start later in September — give the epidemic a month to die down,” he said. “Another group says start earlier because it will come back in the winter, or people will get the flu and think they have corona. Everybody is making decisions with incomplete information.”
Only 6 percent of Notre Dame’s 11,000 or so students are from Indiana, according to a campus spokesman, and 10 percent come from outside the United States to the campus near South Bend.
“They said, ‘How worried should we be?’” Dr. Fox said. “Well, with an international student body, the risk is different.”
Paul Browne, Notre Dame’s vice president for public affairs and communications, said administrators decided that cutting down travel would be the smart approach.
“There’s a fall break of about a week,” he said, “and then there’s Thanksgiving, and then they’re back again and then home for Christmas — we wanted to avoid all those dispersals and reunions.”
So far, officials at several universities said, the reopening plans have gotten a positive reception — even at Rice, where for many students fall break has traditionally meant a road trip to music festivals in Austin.
“People want to be back on campus,” Mr. Leebron said. “And people want assurance that there’s a plan. If there are health concerns, we’ll adjust.”
Dr. Fox said colleges would also need to be prepared for the possibility that a resurgence of the virus in the winter could make next spring semester even more uncertain.
“What happens after winter break?” he said. “In many ways, it is going to be even more important to get that right.”
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