It couldn’t have been easy for Fairfield administrators to decide to shut down the campus for the remainder of the semester this past spring, even as COVID-19 ravaged the nation. As a result of the closings, colleges and universities have had to contend with millions of dollars worth of revenue shortfalls after they provided refunds for unused housing and meal plans. Nevertheless, that decision pales in comparison to what awaits them this summer and fall. Now, Fairfield will have to face perhaps its biggest challenge in its 78-year-history: determining how it will safely reopen in the middle of the worst viral outbreak in over a century. Will all students return to campus? How will classes be conducted? Will athletics be permitted to resume? What about clubs and other activities? These are just a few of the many questions that Fairfield must answer in advance to the upcoming fall semester.
Although certain details have yet to be ironed out, Fairfield has indicated that it is planning for an in-person fall semester, and has made steps toward ascertaining what it will look like. In a letter to the university community sent on June 9, Fairfield President Mark R. Nemec, Ph.D. wrote: “A cross-functional University task force has been in operation since February, planning for all contingencies required for a successful and safe reopening. Fairfield also continues to work closely with the State of Connecticut, adhering to and complying with all guidelines set forth during this time. Our task force has thought carefully about how and when to return to campus-based teaching, learning and operations, with the safety and wellbeing of our entire community as a top priority.”
The letter stated that the university plans to adjust the academic calendar slightly in order to maximize the time and opportunity for learning in the classroom and to eliminate the need to leave and then return to campus. The first day and last days of classes will remain Sept. 1 and Dec. 21, respectively. However, fall break will not take place and following Thanksgiving break students will have the option of returning to campus to attend and complete their classes in-person or staying home and finishing the semester online. Students will begin moving in on Aug. 24, by appointment only. Whether or not students will be required to be tested for the coronavirus before returning to campus was not addressed in the letter, but seems to be a strong possibility.
In any case, the campus that students return to in the fall will be a very different place than the one they left back in March. Though no official announcement has yet been made about what specific precautions Fairfield is taking with regard to safety and staying healthy on campus, it can be assumed that the administration is planning to put in place rules and restrictions similar to those that other colleges and universities have already announced that they will establish. For example, students and faculty will most likely be required to wear masks or facial coverings and hand-sanitizing dispensers will be placed around campus. Large on-campus gatherings and events will likely be a thing of the past, at least for the foreseeable future. Certain dorms may be designated as “infirmaries,” where students who test positive for the virus but cannot return home will stay until they recover. There may even be noticeably fewer students roaming the walkways, as some might be too afraid to return to campus.
Fairfield is not alone in making plans to reopen. Colleges and universities across the country have recently announced plans for reopening. Some universities are planning for an entirely in-person fall semester, while others have created “hybrid” plans which will allow for a mix of online and in-person classes. This could entail holding some courses entirely online and others in-person, or, alternatively, classes in which certain students attend in-person on some days and online on others, allowing for smaller class sizes. Some of the other plans include making dining halls take-out only, placing immunocompromised students in single-occupancy dorms and permitting students and faculty who wish to work exclusively online to do so.
Notwithstanding the looming threat of the virus, many students and faculty believe that it is safe for the university to host in-person classes and allow students to move into dorms.
“With the decline of coronavirus cases countrywide, I do think it is safe to hold in-person classes,” said Sarah Macedonio ‘21.
Kallan Hook ‘21 said, “I believe that if the conditions were not seen as being safe then we would not be returning to school in the fall.”
This confidence was present despite the many changes that will be seen on campus as a result of the pandemic.
“I know that this upcoming semester may not be the typical ‘college experience,’ and it will definitely take some time to transition and adjust to the new normal, but I am very excited to return to campus anyway,” Hook said. Not everyone is so optimistic, however.
“For all universities across the country as well as the entire society and world, we are returning back to ‘normal,’ perhaps too fast,” said Chloe Riven ‘21. “We have not yet accepted the ‘new normal,’ as COVID-19 has shifted our way of life drastically,” she continued. “Although these institutions, businesses and companies are eager to reopen, I am hesitant to return to campus, particularly since I am a semi-immunocompromised student. Before deeming this decision safe, I would like to read Fairfield University’s safety implementations and their in-depth plan of the steps they will take to ensure their students, faculty and staff remain healthy and safe.”
According to Riven, these safety implementations could include sending students information on where to obtain a vaccine if and when one becomes available, instituting mandatory temperature checks, providing thermometers to all residences, providing masks and hand sanitizer to all students and hiring a larger cleaning staff to routinely sanitize all classroom surfaces. Above all, students and faculty alike stressed the need to be flexible and transition seamlessly to new developments as they occur.
As Gayle Alberda, Ph.D., a politics professor at Fairfield, put it: “Knowing the pandemic is ongoing, and a resurgence can occur at any time, plans can quickly change. We saw this when Fairfield quickly moved to virtual learning last semester. It is important that everyone remain flexible because things could change unexpectedly.”