How universities are planning for back to school

Institutions know students want to come back—these three experts have ideas for how to make it happen

As the world waits eagerly to get “back to normal,” students may well be among the most desperate to resume life as we once knew it. Many have not only missed out on in-person learning for the better part of a year or more, but they’ve also missed out on the social connections and personal development that comes with it. For university students in particular, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to engage with like-minded peers and work together in a way that feels meaningful. 

According to the WeWork and brightspot strategy study, overall student satisfaction declined by 27 percent from fall 2020 compared with the previous spring. “That’s an enormous number,” said Dr. Peter Temes, founder of the ILO Institute, in a recent webinar discussing the impact of COVID-19 on the university student experience, hosted by WeWork. Watch the webinar on-demand.

Educators and administrators know that students are struggling, and they are working on solutions. WeWork gathered three such experts—Temes; Dr. Felicia McGinty, the executive vice chancellor for administration and planning at Rutgers University; and Dr. Fanta Aw, the vice president of campus life and inclusive excellence at American University—to share their insights in a webinar facilitated by Ryan Tucker, the director of WeWork for Education. Below are some highlights from the discussion.

Learning is so much more than sitting in front of a computer

All three panelists agreed that the college experience is more than just the learning that takes place in the classroom, and that students and families want that 360-degree experience in the fall. 

“As we know, learning doesn’t just happen around the seminar table or in the lecture room—a lot of it is side-to-side,” explained Temes. “It’s not just about absorbing knowledge. It’s also learning how to live in a complex, information-rich, socially engaged community, which is different from the community at home, and different from the community in your neighborhood…. It is a fundamentally different experience from sitting in front of a computer and having an exchange,” he says. 

The impact of the pandemic can’t be overstated

COVID-19 has done more than just shift academics to a virtual model—it has had a potentially lasting impact on students’ academic and personal growth, as well as their futures, said McGinty. 

“The impacts are profound. They impact student learning, they impact student engagement. If you’re looking at retention, and graduation, the first two years are critical and foundational,” she said. “Now we have a generation of students who have lost that.”

Regaining what’s lost won’t be as easy as targeting a date where institutions can return to the way things were. “This idea that there would be a ‘post-COVID,’ I think, is something we just need to clear our minds of,” said Aw. “COVID is what we’re dealing with today, but I think scientists and others have started to prepare us for the fact that we’re going to be living in a world of pandemics. So how institutions adapt and re-adapt is the real question.” 

“We’ve got to find a way, as a university, to live, to coexist with COVID, and to operate the university safely so that we can get back to some sense of normalcy and have a vibrant campus community,” added McGinty. “It won’t be as vibrant and active, and classes won’t be as large as they were before, and we may not house the same number of students. But there is something to that student experience that we must afford to our students in order to maintain our identity and our brand as a world-class university.”

Virtual learning will continue—in new ways

Now that educators have had a chance to learn from virtual learning, they’re realizing it may still be valuable going forward

“We’ve been piloting some things with virtual learning communities, and other kinds of virtual engagement,” said McGinty. “So we will still offer students the opportunity to do some things remotely. Remote could be in a different room, in the room next door, or on a different part of campus, because we can’t congregate thousands of students in the same spaces safely.”

WeWork Gotham Center in Long Island City, NY.

What that will look like will depend on the size of the school, among other things. “For large institutions, this is even more challenging, because the way that we have done business—congregating students, pushing them on buses, large classes—all those things we’re having to rethink,” she says. 

Institutions are dealing with decision anxiety 

As the country (and the world) looks ahead to what’s next, institutions are glancing around to see what decisions are being made by their peers. 

“Everybody is looking at the next institution to see what they’re doing, because they don’t want to be an outlier,” said McGinty. 

“I would bet that every institution across the United States has known for months what they’re going to do. But the timing of those announcements is challenging,” she said. “There are a lot of factors involved…. There is the fact that we’re still in the admissions cycle. All those things influence what we say and when we say it.” 

Campus space will get a rethink

Just as businesses are rethinking traditional office space right now, the panelists said educators and administrators are reassessing spatial needs on campus. 

“How we conceptualize space, and the places in which our communities find themselves, is probably the next big frontier,” said Aw. “For institutions to reimagine this issue of space, and [know] that it’s not an infinite resource.” 

McGinty already has some ideas. “Our challenge is to say, ‘Things are going to change. Does everybody need an office that they don’t really work out of? Does every unit need the amount of space that they had previously?’” she says. “Because we have now learned that things can operate remotely, how do we stagger schedules? So that’s a bright spot, coming out of COVID-19, that now we can reconsider these things.” 

Temes emphasized the ways that space fosters connection. “Part of the student experience is [being] with people who are different from you, with a degree of intimacy that you probably never had before,” he said. 

“Maybe we’re not able yet to go back to doubles and triples [in dorms], and maybe we never will,” said Temes. “But we want to have more of those flexible workspaces where a student has the ability to say, ‘Now I want to sit in a community of people, not when I’m scheduled to… but because of my choice.’”

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