“Social Distancing” has become the new buzzword in a matter of weeks not only in higher education but the rest of the world as health organizations encourage a range of measures to limit face-to-face contact and thus help stem the Coronavirus outbreak. These measures create acute challenges for colleges and universities as they scramble to protect students and others in their communities from the virus while continuing education, research, and support activities.

By now, we know about campus closures, canceled travel, and warnings issued across campuses nationwide and around the world.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued a range of recommendations for higher ed institutions, central to these measures are social distancing efforts such as class suspension, activity cancellation, and discouragement of social gatherings.

The CDC also suggests:

  • Robust communications about Coronavirus exposure and measures to prevent it.
  • Ensuring continuity of safe housing and meal programs.
  • Ensuring continuity of education and research programs.
  • Considering cessation or modifying of support services.

Inside Higher Ed offers an updated news page with the latest on higher education Coronavirus efforts.

The American College Health Association has issued COVID-19 guidelines for campuses.

Transitioning Classes to Online

See our earlier post on online learning tips and resources.

Perhaps the most widespread higher ed response to the crisis has been moving classes, research communication, and support services online. This is either an easy or difficult process for each institution depending on how robust their online systems were before the Coronavirus.

Joseph James, a professor of library and information science and chair of the faculty senate at the University of Washington (UW), a campus hit hard by the pandemic, is quoted on UW’s efforts to take classes online. Here’s an excerpt from the Inside Higher Ed article:“There are so many different kinds of classes, there’s no way to do a one-size-fits-all,” he said. “There are some classes where I can imagine it’s just really hard to go forward.”

With few days left in the quarter, James said that many instructors have nearly finished covering their material. For remaining content, instructors have full agency to decide if they would like to hold lectures over videoconferencing, record instructional videos or try some other modality. Final exams could be transitioned to take-home tests or projects.

For classes that involve use of labs, performances or studios, none of those measures may really work. Faculty can choose then to simply grade students on the work they’ve already completed.

The article details other efforts to move online, including:

  • Allowing faculty to decide how or whether to move their classes online, and supporting their efforts to do so.
  • Offering guidance to faculty on how to teach online during an emergency.
  • Expanding Zoom and other remote conference licenses to faculty, staff, students.
  • The use of “lockdown browsers” or browsers which support remote testing and exams by disabling a student’s ability to copy, print, or access other applications or websites during an exam. Some of these browsers include audio and video recording of test attempts.
  • Keeping classes accessible for students with disabilities and students who may lack access to the internet, devices, or other needed technology at home.
  • Schools are trying to ensure that students will not be punished if they struggle in online classes because of circumstances that inhibit their online learning. That could mean providing summer courses or allowing students to retake courses for free.

Though moving courses online typically requires an accreditation process, the Department of Education released a letter giving institutions broad approval to use distance technology temporarily in response to the Coronavirus without going through the regular approval process.

How Colleges Are Continuing Admissions and Student Support

Inside Higher Ed outlines these Coronavirus impacts for admissions:

  • “Institutions are shifting their programs for newly admitted students online.”
  • “Graduate schools with many international students are exploring options to admit students to study online only. Some are worried about enrollment for the fall.”
  • “Undergraduate institutions vary widely in their expected impact. The majority of institutions enroll most of their students from close to home and are expecting some confusion now but not a serious loss in enrollment. But undergraduate institutions with many international students or domestic students far from home are more concerned.”

According to the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), school closures, standardized test cancellations, postponement of college fairs and college visits, and limitation of travel, are just some of the impacts of the outbreak on student recruitment and admissions.

The NACAC is encouraging these measures:

  • Flexibility with admission deadlines.
  • Open communication among counselors and admission officers about disruptions.
  • Flexibility for students, families, and counselors in the affected areas.
  • Possible special accommodations related to COVID-19.

Shifting to Online Orientations for New Students

Among the most common measures that colleges are taking in the face of Coronavirus are moving traditional college new student orientations online. Some of the advantages of online orientations include:

  • Compliance with required social distancing measures.
  • Flexibility in scheduling.
  • Less staff time required than in-person orientations.
  • Prevents the overwhelm with the barrage of information given at in-person orientations.
  • Becomes a resource to refer back to at any time after the first viewing.
  • Staff can free themselves from answering common questions, allowing them to spend more time addressing individual student needs.

Campus Technology details the University of Colorado’s move to online orientations and how it increased the efficiency, optimized the timing, and cut down on staff time dedicated to orientations. When advisors talk to students, they have more productive discussions because the students come into the meetings more informed. With information broken-down into easily digestible modules, the information is less overwhelming and better absorbed. Students get the information right when they need it.

For institutions looking to make the move to online orientations, Comevo’s Launch Orientation Software is easy to implement, easy to use, and easy to update. Here are some of the specific benefits:

  • Comevo maintains and supports the software platform, freeing up your IT department.
  • Comevo offers unlimited customer support.
  • The orientation is mobile-friendly and can be accessed on desktop or mobile devices.
  • Tracking reports show specific stats on student usage.
  • The orientation program can interface with student information system (SIS) applications.

Supporting Low-Income Students

Higher Education always needs to think of low-income students, during a crisis—even more so. Will Walker, a junior at the University of Richmond wrote an open letter to university administrators focused on his experience as a low-income student during his campus’s shutdown. Here are excerpts from Walker’s letter, published by Inside Higher Ed:

While I understand your concerns about maintaining the safety and health of the campus community, it is not uncommon for students from low-income and first-gen backgrounds to support themselves through on-campus employment opportunities. Because so many students are dependent on these, the loss of income that many students will experience should be at the top of the priority list.

You should also know that I and many other students are not able to buy plane tickets at the flip of a coin.

I hope that you, as administrators tasked with making big decisions, are also considering, at minimum, a refund or advance credit for room and board charges. Many parents and students, me included, have paid tens of thousands of dollars for our room and meal plans that will not be utilized in the foreseeable future.

Supporting International Students

The Chronicle of Higher Education details impacts on international students and what campuses are doing to support these students:

  • Keeping international student affairs and visa/immigration support open.
  • Continuing mental health support for these students who often come from countries hard hit by the pandemic.
  • Some colleges are keeping dormitories open for international students who can’t return home.
  • Cafeterias are being kept open.
  • Colleges are considering long-term housing plans around the disruptions surrounding travel restrictions and quarantines.
  • On-campus jobs or internships for international students stuck on campus are offered.
  • Colleges are discussing the need to provide special assistance to students who could struggle to pay for tuition and other costs.


Colleges are scrambling to advise students set to graduate in spring since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has visa rules requiring students who do not plan to stay in the US to leave within two months of graduation. DHS has stated it is allowing colleges to adapt their procedures and policies for international students to “address the significant public-health concerns associated with Covid-19.” Training and communication is critical now and many and turning toward online orientation and training as a tool for the international students and their parents.

NAFSA: Association of International Educators has put together a coronavirus critical resources page with helpful updates and information.

The higher education community is resilient and will weather this crisis while playing a critical role not just in protecting its own, but in finding the vaccines, treatments, solutions, and information that will get us through this crisis. In the meantime, stay safe and healthy.


Author: Bryan Schneider