Last month, Ithaka S+R launched an effort to aggregate and synthesize information related to the fall reopening of colleges and universities in an effort to facilitate institutional collaboration and planning. As of July 13th, we have synthesized 57 institutional plans into a single resource (click here to view), and plan to continually update this resource with new and evolving information. We capture information about several aspects of institutional plans for the fall, including:

  • Rigorous testing, tracing and supported isolation; 
  • Changes to policies and facilities to keep the campus community as safe as possible;
  • Efforts to protect the local community and vulnerable populations, and; 
  • Efforts to promote and protect equity. 

In this post, we present some preliminary, overarching, findings from our review of the plans we have synthesized thus far. In the coming weeks, we will regularly update our overarching findings and use the plans to answer additional priority questions, which we’ll convey through blog posts hosted on our COVID-19 page

We recognize that the colleges and universities that have put forth these plans are not representative of higher education broadly. Many of them have the financial and physical plant resources to implement widespread testing, social distancing, and more. In fact, many community colleges and other open-access institutions, as well as a growing number of selective institutions, have already made the difficult decision to conduct classes online and keep students, faculty, and staff home for the fall semester. Nonetheless, we hope the synthesis of these plans and our analyses of their components is useful as institutions solidify their fall plans in the coming weeks.

Preliminary, Overarching Findings

[Updated: July 13, 2020]

The institutions represented by the plans are of varying sizes, from diverse geographies, and have varying resources. All 57 colleges and universities are four-year institutions; 36 are private non-profits and 21 are public institutions. The plurality of institutions (24) are located in the Northeast, 18 institutions are located in the South, and nine and six institutions are located in the Midwest and West, respectively. The vast majority of institutions included in the resource are residential colleges and universities. At 39 of the 57 institutions, more than 50 percent of undergraduates live on campus. Fifteen institutions house between 25 and 50 percent of undergraduates in campus dormitories, and the remaining three are primarily non-residential, with fewer than 25 percent of undergraduates residing on campus. 

The 57 plans referenced in this analysis vary in format, content, and level of detail. Yet, all the plans appear to include comprehensive information on a select set of areas related to fall reopening. These areas include changes to the academic calendar and anticipated modes of instruction, modifications to classrooms and shared residential spaces, face covering requirements, and efforts to encourage community cooperation with new health and safety protocols. Below, we review institutional plans to invite students back to campus, and changes to the academic calendar and modes of instruction.

Students on Campus

All 57 institutions whose plans are included in our preliminary synthesis will welcome at least some students back to campus in the fall. Thirty-seven (37) are inviting nearly all undergraduate students to live on or near campus, while 20 are meaningfully reducing density by inviting only a subset of undergraduate students to live on or near campus. 

The majority (15) of these 20 institutions are inviting specific cohorts of studentsmost often defined by class yearback to campus for the fall. For example, Spelman College is inviting only first-year students to live on campus, which will result in its campus operating at 25-30 percent capacity. Clark Atlanta University is bringing back all first-year and sophomore students, which administrators expect will fill campus to about 40 percent capacity. Yale plans to utilize most of its campus capacity and is inviting first-years, juniors, and seniors to campus in the fall. Rather than inviting specific cohorts of students back to campus, five institutions are limiting the capacity of on-campus housing by allowing students to opt into on-campus housing, and in the event demand outweighs supply, considering such factors as a student’s home environment and chosen academic field.

The majority of institutions plan to make housing provisions for students who are the most vulnerable, both in terms of their health and financial condition, to the impacts of the global pandemic. Among the 20 institutions inviting subsets of the undergraduate population back, the majority (12) specify that they will welcome back to campus any student facing housing insecurity or whose home living environments are not conducive to effective learning, even if these students do not belong to the cohorts formally invited back for the fall. To accommodate those students with health concerns or other family responsibilities, the vast majority of included institutions (54 of 57) specify that undergraduate students can opt to conduct the semester remotely without jeopardizing their place at the university or progress toward their degree. 

Instruction and Academic Calendar

In addition to determinations about which students will return to campus, the vast majority of institutions have made changes to their modes of instruction or academic calendar in order to safeguard campus communities and reduce the likelihood of community spread. Just because an institution is inviting students back to campus does not mean that the students will necessarily resume their classes in-person. In fact, nearly all of the included institutions plan to deliver many or all academic courses in a hybrid format (38 institutions), and in many cases, mostly online (13). Only a small minority (six) plan to conduct the majority of academic courses in-person. 

All but two institutions have altered their academic calendar in some way. 90 percent of included institutions (51) are planning on concluding on-campus activities by Thanksgiving. Eleven of these institutions also plan to lengthen the teaching day and/or conduct courses on weekends to either make up for any time lost by compressing the academic calendar, or enable longer breaks between classes to ease traffic during class transition times on campus. Four institutionsColumbia, Stanford, and St Lawrence Universities and the College of William and Maryare adopting a less common approach of extending academic term time throughout the course of the year by adding summer sessions. Doing so enables students greater flexibility in choosing when to enroll in courses, and for those institutions meaningfully de-densifying campus, provides more students with the opportunity to spend at least some time on campus throughout the course of the year.

The comprehensiveness of institutional plans reviewed demonstrates the care with which university administrators are addressing planning for the fall. Yet, with the virus surging in several states across the country, it is unclear whether these plans will be sufficient. Moreover, our preliminary review of institutional plans reveals notable gaps in current plans for Fall 2020. First, most plans do not mention the extent to which equity concerns influence and inform institutional planning for the fall. Secondly, the majority of the 57 reopening plans analyzed are largely focused on students and the academic enterprise of the institution. Most do not provide details on how institutions plan to keep non-faculty staff, especially essential employees and contract workers, safe as students return to campus, and even fewer articulate how they plan to protect and serve the local community surrounding campus.

In upcoming analyses we will evaluate specific aspects of institutional plans for fall reopening and expand upon our findings related to plan comprehensiveness and the presenceor lack thereofof equity considerations in institutional plans. In our next blog post, we will use our analysis to answer the following priority question:  

For those institutions that are bringing students back to campus in the fall, what are their plans for COVID-19 testing, tracing, and supported isolation; and how do they plan to keep their communities safe?

All future blog posts will be hosted on our COVID-19 page. To find out more about this project, and how your institution can participate in this effort, please contact Elizabeth Banes ( or add a comment below.