College looking at mix of in-person and remote learning for fall semester

President Pelton spoke about Emerson’s plan for the fall as schools around the nation are adjusting schedules.


By Jacob Seitz

The college hopes to announce a plan for the fall semester featuring some in-person classes combined with the continued use of online instruction some time in the next two to three weeks, President M. Lee Pelton said during a Zoom panel hosted by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Wednesday.

“It is our hope to have some in-person classes and curriculum in the fall term,” he said in the panel. “Those will probably be complementary to some remote learning.”

Pelton’s comments follow earlier statements by journalism professor Tim Riley—a consultant on the COVID-19 working group—who said last week that the college would make its decision regarding the fall semester before July 1. Initially, it appeared the college was going to announce a decision before the deposit deadline for incoming freshmen, which was extended in March to June 1

The meeting, intended to shed light on Boston-area colleges’ struggles during the pandemic and plans for the upcoming fall semester, included Boston University President Robert Brown, University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan, Bunker Hill Community College President Pam Eddinger, and Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun. 

Earlier this month, Aoun said Northeastern plans to resume in-person classes in the fall, in an open letter to the Northeastern community. Boston University announced similar plans yesterday, saying it would suspend employee retirement contributions as a cost-saving measure. 

Conversely, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said a second round of COVID-19 cases are “inevitable” in the fall and some colleges are adjusting the semester to give them more time to plan. Notre Dame is planning to start their semester two weeks early and end the semester before Thanksgiving, while Ithaca College is planning to push their start of the semester back to October. 

Pelton, after acknowledging that the pandemic will likely continue to shape the way colleges operate for at least the next year, said drastic changes to higher education called for by health officials will be complicated to implement.  

“We’ve seen all of the futurists come out, as they did in 2008 and whenever there’s a crisis in higher education, and they talk about the fundamental changes to the business model for higher education,” he said. “What they don’t often understand is that change at a college or university is like trying to move a cemetery.”

Brown said that while change in higher education can be difficult, he’s been impressed by colleges’ ability to adapt.

“I believe higher education is much more flexible than anyone ever imagined,” Brown said. “In fact, much more flexible than we were. Our faculty are more innovative and creative to pivot under extreme circumstances in ways we never imagined. I really believe that there’s going to be a fundamental understanding now of all of the things that residential education does, besides delivering high-quality content, which we’re still doing.”

Gov. Charlie Baker unveiled a four-phase plan Monday to reopen the state and said he expects colleges to make a decision about their fall semesters soon.

“The conversation about the fall — the discussion there is ongoing,” Baker said at a press conference announcing the state’s plan. “I would expect that to get resolved at some point over the course of the next four or five weeks, but that hasn’t been answered yet.”

Aoun said he doesn’t expect all international students—who make up almost 33 percent of Northeastern’s student body—to be on campus in the fall. International students account for about 12 percent of Emerson’s student population. 

“This means that we have to be ready for them to insert themselves at any time they are willing and able to do so,” Aoun said. “And this is [also] true for domestic students, which means that, for instance, all of our courses are going to be delivered in a synchronous way and they are going to be available in an asynchronous way, that’s going to allow any student to join us at any time.”

Eddinger said Bunker Hill Community College bought 800 to 1000 Chromebooks and laptops as well as multiple hotspots to help students transition to off-campus learning. Forty-four percent of students at Bunker Hill are 25 and older, and the school’s median family income is $36,600—one-fourth of the median family income of an Emerson student.

“Sometimes it’s not even just the technology or the acquisition of the devices themselves,” she said. “It is, [for example], the folks who need to use these devices have basic understanding and training in order to use them well and use them at a level that’s sophisticated enough in order to receive education or other kinds of information that they would need to accomplish.”

Brown echoed Eddinger and spoke about distance learning challenges to lower-income students.

“We see this among our considerable Pell Grants student population, that [COVID hardship] has not been equitable because the environments that they’ve gone back into are not the environments that are conducive, in every case, for that kind of learning environment and that they had in the residential campus setting,” he said. “The support structures that we can offer everyone residentially don’t work nearly as well in the nonresidential model.”

Meehan said the University of Massachusetts—which has five campuses with a total of 75,000 students—is looking at all the options for the fall semester.

“We’re going to prepare for everything from online education to being on campus to hybrid, and it’s difficult to predict how that all happens,” he said. “I can’t predict exactly what will happen in September, but I can tell you that we are committed to online, some hybrid, having people back.”

Brown said while colleges will inevitably face an economic downturn, they need to learn from the 2008 recession.

“It’ll be the worst recession we’ve ever seen in our lives, and it may even be worse than a recession,” he said. “Our campuses figured out how to do this in 2008 pretty well. We have to do it much better this time.”