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Colleges & Universities Culture

Christian Colleges Making Plans for Unprecedented Fall

Four months after COVID-19 closed down America’s colleges and universities, schools have been going through a painful process The Chronicle of Higher Education calls “The Great Reopening Debate.”

The Chronicle, which has been tracking the fall reopening plans of more than 1,000 schools, says 60 percent are planning for in-person classes, 23 percent are proposing a hybrid model, and the rest are either going online-only, closing down for a quarter, or still trying to figure it out.

But while most schools are getting back to the business of bodies in seats, the fall 2020 semester will be anything but business as usual.

The millions of students in the California’s State University system will be studying remotely, while Harvard will open with approximately 40 percent of its student body, and Princeton will reduce its students on site by inviting first-year and junior students back to campus in the fall, with sophomores and seniors coming back to campus in the spring. Princeton also announced a 10 percent discount on tuition for all students for the year.

A survey of a dozen of the better known and best-rated Christian colleges and universities shows that all are inviting students back for the fall, that they acknowledge that campus life won’t offer the free-flowing socialization of years past, and admit that a deadly wave of outbreaks could send everyone home again.

Open, but with asterisks

Many Christian schools, including Taylor University in Indiana, Messiah College in Pennsylvania, and Azusa Pacific University in California, are requiring masks and social distancing throughout a fall semester that will start and end earlier than usual, wrapping up classes by Thanksgiving so students don’t put themselves or others at higher risk by traveling home for the holiday.

Some Christian schools say that not only is community an indispensable part of their culture, but it will also help them do what it takes to keep each other safe.

“Taylor is uniquely positioned as we live out the Life Together Covenant and remain ‘dependent on and accountable to one another,’” wrote Skip Trudeau, vice president of student development, on Taylor’s website.

“The world is different now,” says George Fox University’s site. “We need Christ-centered education more than ever.”

But George Fox will keep first-year students off campus. “George Fox Digital will allow first-year students to take a year of general education courses online before transitioning to on-campus instruction in year two.”

Some schools are hoping to avoid spreading the coronavirus by staggering the times students have contact with each other, either when moving into campus (Calvin College in Michigan), or attending classes (Messiah), or attending chapel (Taylor).

Christian colleges vary widely in how much information they provide and how accessible they make it, with Azusa Pacific, Westmont College in California, and Grand Canyon University in Arizona earning bonus points. College of the Ozarks in Missouri has a link to “President Trump’s Coronavirus Guidelines for America” that goes nowhere.

GCU is focusing on a blended learning model that offers students options that work for them.

“GCU has options for all students to either continue or start their academic journey in a learning modality that best suits their individual circumstances,” said the school’s COVID-19 pages. “If there are students who have underlying health conditions, have family members who are high-risk COVID-19 candidates or simply feel uncomfortable living and studying in a dense campus population, we will support that by providing options to allow them to continue their coursework online in most academic programs for the fall semester or even the entire 2020-21 academic year. For those who are comfortable being back on campus in the fall, they will join a welcoming, robust community operating under the Arizona health guidelines that exist in the fall.”

In case students grow ill or require to be quarantined, they will be staying at the GCU Hotel. The hotel, normally run by students in the college’s hospitality management degree program, is being closed to guests.

Will there be students or professors?

Colleges usually have a pretty good idea about how many students they will have on campus by May 1, a common enrollment deadline, but this year’s deadlines have been extended, and no one is sure yet how many students will show up.

Some Christian colleges will be resuming classes with fewer professors than before.

Bethel University in Minnesota announced it was letting go 36 faculty, 28 staff, two master’s programs, and 11 majors as part of cost-cutting moves.

As Christianity Today reported, Bethel was one of five evangelical Christian colleges and universities that together eliminated more than 150 faculty positions. The other four are Southeastern University in Florida, Hardin-Simmons University in Texas, and John Brown University and Harding University in Arkansas. Two other schools (Taylor, and Charleston Southern University in South Carolina) have furloughed employees instead of eliminating  positions.

Only two of the schools blamed the cuts on the coronavirus, and similar cuts were made at other schools the previous year.

Small, evangelical colleges were already in a precarious position due to lower enrollment, relatively small endowments, and shrinking donor bases. COVID-19 only made it worse.

Some major universities have also seen protests by faculty members concerned that lax guidelines might make teaching deadly. More than 800 of some 1,100 professors employed by the Georgia Institute of Technology signed an open letter saying the school’s plan to reopen without making masks mandatory for students ignores science and endangers lives.

As one professor told Georgia Public Broadcasting, “At no university where I have been have I ever seen the faculty take a position as unified as this one.”

But even the best laid plans may be victim to the ever-changing course of the coronavirus pandemic. Some schools have already scaled back their fall plans as the virus has surged, and the next month may force more schools to change their plans.

Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.