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Returning to College 101

Administrators are working hard to provide the college experience in the middle of COVID-19

By Debra Gibson Isaacs


The University of Kentucky, like other colleges and universities across the state, has a detailed plan to implement physical distancing and other measures to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (Mark Cornelison/UK)

“COVID-19 has turned the culture in academia upside down,” said Aaron Thompson, president of the Council for Postsecondary Education (CPE), the coordinating agency for Kentucky’s eight universities and 16 community and technical colleges.

While COVID-19 has turned most everything in life upside down, academia has had to adjust in myriad ways—simultaneously. Most notably, it has struck at the heart of the college experience. 

“The college experience is designed to engage people mentally and socially,” Thompson said. “That’s the big impact as far as the way we are doing business: How do we provide the college experience in the best way possible while keeping everyone safe?”

Thousands of decisions have gone into answering that question.

Colleges and universities have had to devise ways to keep students safe physically and mentally; keep campuses open and sanitized for students who can’t go home; move from in-class instruction to remote learning methods in mid-semester; develop hybrid classes on the fly; prepare food and dining areas even as other restaurants shut down and provide places for students to sleep as hotels shut down. And they have to do all of this while still offering students “the experience.”

That question and the plethora of issues that arise from it are the focus of weekly meetings that began March 14 and continue today between the presidents of every public college and university. 

The goal, according to Thompson, is to take the mountain of information coming in, share it with each other, and learn from each other. 

“We are working to gain innovation from each other,” he said. “New things pop up weekly. It is a continuous learning process. We’re all following strategy set by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Kentucky state government. We are all seeking to be innovative.”

Speaking to the Interim Budget Review Subcommittee on Education COVID-19 in mid-July, Thompson said the virus has inflicted a staggering financial toll on public colleges and universities, driving unexpected costs and lost revenue just as campuses are striving to keep tuition low.

“While the estimates remain fluid, they reveal that campuses suffered a $144.8 million financial blow in fiscal year 2020 due to the outbreak,” Thompson said. “That’s equal to 17% of the state general fund dollars allocated to public colleges and universities for the year.”

Thompson warned that the numbers provide only an indication of the coming financial challenges for higher education. However, he said campuses have so far performed above and beyond their funding levels.

“We are using this opportunity to advance strategic innovation, and not just wring our hands,” Thompson said. “You are going to see new approaches to academics and student support, and a focus on boosting long-term employment and economic sustainability. Higher education will be the key to getting our economy back on track.”

The budget strains included $75.9 million in pandemic-related costs, such as refunds and credits on housing and dining, technology expenses related to online instruction and the expense of sanitizing facilities.

Campuses also faced $68.9 million in lost revenue due to impacts on tuition, decreased parking revenue, investment losses, and the cancellation of sporting events, summer programs and other activities.

The totals did not include costs or lost revenue from hospital operations at the University of Kentucky or the University of Louisville, which would have increased the numbers significantly.

Meanwhile, state colleges and universities have kept tuition increases at a minimum this year or avoided them altogether. The average increase for fall 2020 is expected to total 0.7%, the smallest increase in decades.

“In terms of revenue, we know we are going to have less,” Thompson said, “ but we don’t know how much less. Most of our finances come from tuition-based support. Once upon a time the state supported higher education more. We are probably going to have fewer students, which means less tuition; fewer people in residence halls and therefore less revenue; fewer people in dining halls, which alters that revenue stream. To what extent will we have athletics? 

“The revenue model is altered. We just don’t know to what level. We have to look at innovation coming out of this. How does this change the way we look at college?”

In the mean time, Thompson offered three steps for students and their parents to take:

• Get information.

• Make the decision to go to college or stay in college. Thompson said it will take college graduates to rebuild the workforce after COVID-19.

• Be prepared to change. “Sooner or later, we will come out of this crisis,” Thompson said. “This is not a forever thing. Not everything is going to happen in the short term, but education is still affordable and still happening in Kentucky.” 

Ultimately, higher education is essential, Thompson said.

“Higher education is going to be the key to solving the COVID-19 crisis,” he said. “Research institutions are going to find the antidote or ways to help our bodies grow stronger. Higher education is also going to be the key to building the economy back afterwards. We will need people with a college credential when all of this is over.”

A grand opportunity

At Murray State University, President Bob Jackson said nearly 200 faculty, staff, students, administration and health-care professionals have been working for the past several months to develop a plan “for a new normal fall semester and a safe and healthy campus.”

As part of the Racer Restart Plan, all faculty, staff and students will be given a Racer Safe and Healthy kit at the beginning of the fall semester, which will include a thermometer, face coverings/masks, hand sanitizer, and other items deemed essential by university, state and federal guidance.

“Our students and families will be pleased with the many positive changes we have made to campus,” said Jackson.

Jay Box, president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, also expressed optimism for the coming semester.

“We are looking at this as a grand opportunity to show how entrepreneurial we can be,” said Box. “Our community colleges have always been able to pivot when change was needed. This gives us an opportunity to show what we can do.” 

KCTCS was fortunate in that 65% of its students were already enrolled in at least one online course, Box said.

“This was a big plus for us to already being used to taking classes online,” he said. 

However, one area was not feasible for online courses—physical skills attainment. Think welding. It is very difficult to practice welding in a virtual environment from home. Nonetheless, KCTCS personnel at each college prepared technical labs, required masks, and social distancing, and followed all CDC guidelines.

“We had about 9,000 students at the end of spring semester who still had incomplete grades because they were not able to finish up the skills and testing required in technical programs,” Box said. “We petitioned the CPE and asked for the opportunity to bring back those 9,000 students for two to three weeks for them to complete their technical programs.”

CPE gave it the green light.

“We made it an option,” Box said. “Of those 9,000, we had 90% come back and finish and without any hiccups or complaints. That gave us a good indication that we could bring back some students by practicing.” 

KCTCS has been able to meet all CDC safety standards and prepare faculty for face-to-face education during COVID.

“We have purchased face shields (not just masks) for all our faculty,” Box said. “We decided to go with shields because we also need to meet ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) guidelines. For example, some students may need to read lips and could not do that with masks.”

Despite all the technical challenges, Box said the biggest challenge so far has been getting the word out to students and potential students that KCTCS is providing a safe teaching and learning environment.

“We feel very, very confident we can provide that,” Box said. So many of our students are part-time. The vast majority are adults with children. Many of our students are waiting to see what public schools are going to do. We just want to say: ‘We’re ready for you.’”

Public Colleges and Universities

Eastern Kentucky University

EKU’s fall semester begins Aug. 17 and ends, including final exams, December 10. In-person instruction will conclude on Nov. 25. EKU’s proposed academic calendar eliminates fall break and one day of the traditional Thanksgiving holiday break (the Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving) to add instructional days. Details: EKU Covid-19 Page at staywell.eku.edu/insidelook/colonels-comeback-plan.

Kentucky State University

Academic calendar pending. Start date is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 17. Details: https://kysu.edu/COVID19/.

Morehead State University

Fall semester begins Aug. 17 and ends, including final exams, on Nov. 24. In-person instruction concludes on Nov. 24. No fall break. No classes on Labor Day. Details: Healthy at MSU at moreheadstate.edu/healthyatmsu.

Murray State University

Fall semester begins August 17 and ends on Nov. 20, including final exams. In-person instruction concludes Nov. 20. No fall break. Thanksgiving break will also be adjusted. MSU will have a three-day finals week Nov. 18–20. However, students with internships, clinicals, practicums, and other experiential learning may complete those through Dec. 11. A “holiday term” will begin on Nov. 23 and end on Dec. 11. Details: MSU Racer Restart at murraystate.edu/racerrestart/.

Northern Kentucky University

Fall semester begins Aug. 17 and will end, including final exams, on Dec. 11. In-person instruction concludes on Nov. 24. Holiday schedule is unchanged. Details: NKU Moving Forward at nku.edu/covid19/moving-forward.html.

University of Kentucky

Fall semester begins Aug. 17 and ends, including final exams, Dec. 4. In-person instruction concludes Nov. 24. Holiday schedule will not include a fall break and Labor Day will be used for instruction. Details: UK Restart Playbook at uky.edu.

University of Louisville

Fall semester begins Aug. 17 and ends, including final exams, on Dec. 9. In-person instruction will conclude on Nov. 24. Sept. 3-4 will be online instruction days in order to accommodate possible traffic and parking issues for faculty, staff and students due to rescheduled Kentucky Derby plans. Details: UofL Pivot to Fall at louisville.edu/coronavirus.

Western Kentucky University

Fall semester begins Aug. 24 and ends, including final exams, on Dec. 11. In-person instruction concludes on Nov. 20. Labor Day will be an instructional day as will the two days traditionally observed for fall break. Details: WKU Big Red Restart at wku.edu/covid19/.

Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS)

KCTCS’s fall semester begins Aug. 17 and ends on Dec. 13. The holiday schedule is unchanged. KCTCS is offering a mix of in-person and online courses in addition to providing options of 16-, 12- and eight-week course offerings. The above dates are for the traditional 16-week course option. Additional dates for other options can be found on the website. Details: KCTCS Academic Calendars at kctcs.edu/education-training/academic-calendars and Healthy at KCTCS at kctcs.edu/healthy-at-kctcs.

Independent Universities and Colleges

Alice Lloyd College 

Fall semester begins Aug. 18 and ends Nov. 25. No fall break. No commencement. Details: alc.edu/covid19/.

Asbury University

Fall semester begins Aug. 17. On-campus instruction concludes Nov. 20. Welcome weekend (campus arrival/activities for new students) and returning student move-in will be staggered. Students are expected to maintain a distance of 6 feet or wear a face mask while on campus. In addition, last year’s commencement was postponed until Oct. 17-18. Details:  asbury.edu/covid19plan/return-to-campus.

Bellarmine University

Fall semester begins Aug. 20, with in-person classes ending Nov. 21. Final exams will be online, Dec. 3-9. Classes will meet on Labor Day, and fall break has been eliminated. Physical distancing and face coverings required in classrooms. Many courses will be offered in flexible hybrid formats. Details: bellarmine.edu/welcome-back.

Berea College

Fall semester begins Aug. 12 and concludes by Thanksgiving. Fall semester is split into two, seven-week sessions. Students may return to campus this fall—with new restrictions including social distancing and masks—or continue distance learning for the fall. Students may also exercise an option to defer enrollment in the fall altogether. Virtual commencement was May 2, 2019; in-person commencement is scheduled for Dec. 12, 2020. Details: Video announcement from President Lyle Roelofs regarding the fall semester can be seen at bit.ly/32pM4r3.

Brescia University

Plan under development.

Campbellsville University

Fall semester begins online Sept. 3 and transitions to in-person Sept. 8. The fall term will be split into two bi-terms. In-person instruction ends on Nov. 25, with the remainder of the second bi-term completed online. Fall semester ends Dec. 11. Details: campbellsville.edu/news/campbellsville-university-set-to-begin-fall-semester-sept-3.

Centre College

Fall semester begins Aug. 26 and ends Nov. 24, when students will return home.  CentreTerm and the spring term are still under review. The calendar has been further modified to reduce travel to/from campus. The blocks will now run Aug. 26-Oct. 9 and Oct. 12-Nov. 24 (Thanksgiving), eliminating the break between blocks. Details: centre.edu/coronavirus/.

Georgetown College

Fall semester will be split into two subsessions: Aug. 10-Sept. 30 and Oct. 2-Nov. 24, with finals concluding on Nov. 24. The only break will be between the two subsessions. Students will complete both sub-sessions, with their classes split between the two. Details: georgetowncollege.edu/tigers-together.

Kentucky Christian University

Fall classes begin Aug. 17 and end Nov. 24. No fall break. Details: kcu.edu/covid-19.

Kentucky Wesleyan College

Fall semester begins Aug. 17 and concludes Nov. 24. Classes will be held on Labor Day, and fall break is canceled. Finals to be held online after Thanksgiving. Details:  kwc.edu/coronavirus.

Lindsey Wilson College

Fall semester begins Aug. 22. Classes held on Labor Day. Holiday and fall breaks eliminated. Courses will be taught in a hybrid fashion, allowing students to attend classes during part of the week and online during other parts of the week, with no face-to-face classes on Wednesdays to allow for deep cleaning of facilities. Classrooms have been reset to allow for physical distancing. Masks and social distancing will be enforced.   Students will return in waves prior to the start of classes. More information at Details:  lindsey.edu/news/Coronavirus/index.cfm.

Midway University

Fall semester begins Aug. 17. All classes moved online beginning March 16 through the end of the semester. Move-in will be staggered. Officials are evaluating classroom and residential space for distancing. The requirement for all freshmen and sophomores to live on campus has been eliminated this academic year. Modifications will be made to dining. Masks required in all common areas.  Details:  midway.edu.

Spalding University

Fall semester will start Aug. 24. Courses are offered in face-to-face, hybrid, and online formats. Cameras have been added to classrooms so seated classes can offer remote options. All residential students will be assigned single-occupancy rooms but will pay the lower double-occupancy rate. Details:  spalding.edu/coronavirus-disease-information.

Thomas More University

Fall semester begins Aug. 17 and concludes Nov. 25, with finals online until Dec. 3. No fall break. On-campus learning will take place, but remote learning will be available and some courses will be conducted in a hybrid format. Details: thomasmore.edu/covid-19/ 

Transylvania University

The academic calendar has been “modularized,” with first-year students taking a one-week first engagement seminar beginning Aug. 23. Move-in for upper-class students will be staggered. The first of two, seven-week modules begins Aug. 31. The third module ends Dec. 18. Students in higher-risk categories or with other COVID-19 related concerns may petition for a single room or to be exempted from the university’s housing policies for the 2020-21 academic year only. Details: blog.transy.edu/healthy-at-transy.

Union College

Fall semester begins Aug. 19. In-person classes conclude before Thanksgiving break, with courses completed online by Dec. 3. Students required to have a COVID-19 test within seven days prior to arrival and will be tested again on arrival. Staggered move-in dates. Details: unionky.edu

University of Pikeville

Fall semester plan is still under development. Students in the Kentucky College of Optometry are already on campus. Details: upike.edu/coronavirus.

University of the Cumberlands

Traditional undergraduate calendar has been changed from semesters to two, eight-week terms. Students will take two or three courses per eight-week term. Courses will meet Monday through Thursday. The university promotes remote work and is adhering to Healthy at Work guidelines. Details: ucumberlands.edu/COVID19.

Drop/Add for Fall 2020

The familiar college term drop/add takes on a whole new meaning this coming semester as colleges and universities across the state have been working diligently to drop some of the traditional educational formats that could increase the risk of spreading infection and adding new safety measures to keep students, faculty and staff safe.

All Kentucky colleges and universities are planning to provide a mix of in-person, hybrid and fully online courses. This mix may change—particularly in-person classes—depending on the spread of COVID-19 and may vary greatly depending on the severity of virus’ spread in specific geographical areas.

Most universities are planning extended, staggered, move-in periods for students staying in residence halls. 

Masks will be required at virtually every school for faculty and students.

Most traditional fall semester holidays are canceled so in-class instruction can be completed before Thanksgiving.

Finals for most classes will be held online after in-class instruction ends. 

Debra Gibson Isaacs is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected]