This page summarizes a selection of currently available information about guidance and plans for the reopening of higher education institutions in the United States, with particular focus on the implementation of public health strategies and anticipated modes of educational delivery in the fall. We hope this synthesis provides helpful insight into current developments in higher ed, recognizing that the content presented below does not encompass all the information circulating in the field. We intend for this page and its accompanying resources to be living documents, updated at regular intervals to address gaps and changes in information. 

Topics addressed include:

  1. Current Guidelines and Recommendations for Reopening Institutions of Higher Education
  2. Early Indications of Institutional Plans for Fall 2020
  3. Updates on the Status of COVID-19 Testing at Colleges & Universities
  4. Guide to Existing Resources for Tracking Higher Ed’s Response to COVID-19

The accompanying spreadsheet provides a summary of sources referenced throughout this document, including published guidelines, media reporting, opinion pieces, and surveys on institutional plans for reopening and updates on public health responses at colleges and universities.

Disclaimer: Much of the information presented here is preliminary and is subject to change as events unfold. Ithaka S+R and its authors are not public health experts and the information contained here should not be construed as public health advice. 

Current Guidelines and Recommendations for Reopening Institutions of Higher Education

Several organizations—state task forces, health organizations, higher education associations, and university systems—have published guidance on reopening the country’s colleges and universities. These recommendations vary in form, specificity, and intended audience. In addition, many task forces have announced plans to publish similar documents in the coming months (see list below). What follows is a brief summary of key takeaways from these publications, and an in-depth review of selected guidelines.

The Landscape of Published Guidelines and Recommendations

State Guidance: Several states have now published guidance for reopening institutions of higher education. Many build off of recommendations first proposed by the State of Connecticut, which lay out the necessary gating conditions that should be met before the phased reopening of higher education operations, and the various scenarios institutions should plan for, leaving flexibility for institutions to adapt guidelines to their specific circumstances. See below for a full list of published state guidance. State guidelines have drawn some criticism for not providing specific regulations for colleges and universities, particularly on the topic of COVID-19 testing and tracing

Published state guidelines include: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Oregon, New Jersey, New York, Washington, and the National Governors Association letter to governors.

Health Agencies: The American College Health Association guidelines offer specific guidance on the implementation of public health measures at a college, integrating operational considerations with guidance on instruction and extracurricular activities. Likewise, the CDC’s recommendations provide a set of protocols to put in place to maintain healthy campus environments and reduce the spread of disease. 

See the American College Health Association’s recent update to guidelines issued in May, with specific recommendations for COVID-19 testing regimes.

Institution-specific Plans for Operation: Guidelines from the University of Nebraska Medical Center and the Utah System of Higher Education are structured as comprehensive checklists for university administrators and operators, focusing specifically on the implementation of public health and safety protocols (social distancing regulations, sanitation, PPE distribution, testing) in different settings on campus.  

Higher Education Groups and Associations: OpenSmartEDU, a joint effort by Tuscany Consulting Group, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, has published a comprehensive planning guide and self-assessment tool for institutions to use as they plan and assess their operational responses to COVID-19. The American Council on Education has published a brief set of equity-minded, guiding principles for higher education leadership to consider as they implement their own institutional plans for reopening. 

See National Collegiate Athletic Association’s guidance for information on the resocialization of college athletics.

Despite differences in content and structure, these resources are aligned on the fundamental requirements for an effective reopening strategy.

Reopening Fundamentals

    1. Establishing a widespread, sustainable testing, tracing and supported isolation program is a necessary prerequisite to reopening campuses
        1. Sources differ on what qualifies as an adequate testing and tracing regime. Recommendations range from testing symptomatic individuals and contacts, to universal, randomized testing of the entire campus community. Financial resources for testing and community prevalence both appear to be influential factors in determining testing recommendations.
    2. All institutions should collaborate with local and state health officials to develop a plan that is appropriate and responsive to their local environments.
    3.  All institutions should develop a phased plan for reopening with embedded contingency plans for closing down physical operations and resuming exclusively online instruction.
    4. To the extent possible, institutions should encourage faculty, staff and students to telework for the foreseeable future until a robust public health response is in place.

Review of Select Publications on Recommendations for Reopening Campus Operations

Below, we provide a review of select guidelines and recommendations. Together they serve as helpful guideposts as the higher education community seeks safe, equitable, and sustainable solutions to the coming academic year. In different ways, these three frameworks integrate public health considerations with recommendations for instruction, extracurricular activities, and the maintenance of equity in our educational system. OpenSmartEDU’s planning tools and resources complement these frameworks by providing step-by-step guides for implementation and self-assessment. 

ResourceDescriptionSummary of content
State of ConnecticutState-level recommendations submitted to the Governor of Connecticut, outlining gating conditions which must be met for colleges and universities in the state to re-open.

Lays out broad planning framework for institutions with sufficient flexibility for institutions of different types to develop individualized plans for reopening.

Provides helpful guidance on institutional characteristics that warrant specific types of response.


Outlines gating conditions for the state that must be satisfied for colleges and universities to reopen:
• Prevalence must be deemed low, according to state standards;
• State must ensure institutions have adequate testing supplies, capacity for contact tracing, and PPE supplies, and the financial support to administer all of the above;
• State must provide public health guidelines to all institutions;
• Nearby health facilities must have adequate surge capacity;
• State should provide a safe harbor for liability for institutions.

Recommends each institution develop plans for four scenarios—repopulating campus, monitoring health conditions to detect infection, containing the disease, shutdown if necessary—and provides detailed frameworks for each scenario.

Advocates for a phased approach to reopening, with campus activities akin to small businesses (labs, libraries, commuter programs) being the first to open.

Promotes universal testing for residential colleges, and targeted testing and tracing of symptomatic individuals for nonresidential institutions.
ACHADetailed guidelines produced by the American College Health Association.

Offers specific guidance for different departments/areas on campus, with prescriptions for public health measures and physical operations.

Referenced in many reports as a definitive guide for public health & safety protocol.
Reopening campuses must be gradual and based on scientific data and the health status within the local community.

Promotes implementation of a hybrid mode of instruction for the foreseeable future, until a vaccine is widely available (12-18 months).

Outlines step-by-step protocols for Student Health Services, in tandem with local health offices, to follow while implementing an intensive testing, tracing, and supported isolation (TTSI) program.
• In contrast to Connecticut’s guide, promotes testing symptomatic individuals and all contacts, instead of universal testing.

Offers specific guidance for different departments/areas of campus operations: workforce policies, learning environments, housing, dining, athletics, extracurricular activities. Highlights include:
• Encourage staff to work from home, particularly at-risk employees;
• Prioritize in-person instruction for performance courses, labs (research and clinical);
• Reduce density in residential and dining halls and restrict entry to campus, largely through retaining online program offerings;
• Implement protective measures for vulnerable populations on campus.

Provides guidance on interventions to promote general physical and mental health in the campus community, and includes helpful checklists for devising a communications plan alongside plans for reopening.
ACEOffers a set of recommended principles/values for campus leadership to bear in mind while implementing plans for the coming academic year.

Complements procedural and logistical considerations above by offering a set of equity-minded values to guide planning work.

Provides an accompanying list of questions for campus leadership to consider.
Establishes leadership principles to guide institutional planning:
• Use institutional mission as framework;
• Promote and empower a shared leadership model;
• Establish priorities and plans for the immediate and long-term;
• Apply a student-centric, safety-first, equity-minded lens while emphasizing financial sustainability;
• Commit to continued improvement and ongoing assessment;
• Be adaptive, flexible, and resilient.

Outlines questions/factors to consider, organized by category: local health conditions, mission considerations, financial planning, physical return to campus, medical preparation on campus, testing/tracing policies, academics, student life, athletics, travel, enterprise safety, liability, ongoing tracking, outbreak scenario planning.

Integrates equity considerations into factors to consider for financial planning, academics, and public health.

Early Indications of Institutional Plans for Fall 2020 Reopening

Fall Reopening Trends

Over the past several weeks, many institutions have published plans for the fall, with many more planning to announce by mid-July. Whether institutions should resume in-person activities is a polarizing topic among public commentators (see spreadsheet for catalog of op-eds on the topic).

According to the Chronicle’s List of Colleges’ Plans for Reopening in the Fall (tracking over 1,020 colleges as of 6/23/20):

  • 64% are planning for in-person;
  • 16% propose a hybrid model;
  • 8% are planning for online;
  • 7% are considering a range of scenarios, and 
  • 5% are waiting to decide.

Recent data visualizations and analyses of the Chronicle’s list reveal variances in institutional planning by sector, region, and institution type:

  • Two-year institutions appear more likely to go online compared to all four-year institutions
    • Planning for online: 49% public two-year, 10% public four-year, 1% private four-year
  • Institutions on the coasts appear more likely to go online compared to counterparts in the South and Midwest
  • Smaller institutions have a higher tendency to plan in-person for the fall
    • 64% of institutions by number plan to be in-person, but these schools represent just 51% of total enrollment at institutions included in the survey.

Please note that the categories used in the Chronicle survey may be misleading. Many institutions categorized as “planning for in-person” plan to incorporate hybrid and online courses into the academic schedule. 

Institutions that plan to resume some or all campus activities in-person seem to have coalesced around a few popular strategies:

    1. Shift the academic calendar: resume in-person activities in late August, forgo breaks to the academic schedule, conclude on-campus activities by Thanksgiving, and complete the remainder of the semester online. 
    2. Utilize several instructional modalities for educational delivery: offer a mix of in-person, remote (both synchronous and asynchronous), and hybrid classes, and move large lecture classes online.
    3. Provide flexibility to all students and staff, particularly to high-risk individuals: to the greatest extent possible, provide vulnerable community members with the ability to work and learn remotely.
    4. De-densify residential spaces on campus: reduce the number of residents in each dorm room (to 1 or 2), convert all on-campus dorm rooms to singles, and/or limit the number of students able to live on campus.
    5. Encourage adherence to health and safety protocols through education and social compacts: augment existing student contracts to include language about student behavior during COVID-19, create new, mandatory student pledges, and/or promote community buy-in through community-based programs.

To learn more about institutional plans for the fall, check out our new Fall 2020 Practice-Sharing Resource.

What do college and university presidents have to say?

Several organizations have conducted surveys of college and university presidents to gather intel on how institutional leadership is approaching Fall 2020. Two such surveys are the American Council on Education’s May 2020 Survey and The Chronicle of Higher Education’s President and Provost Survey. Summaries of findings are presented below. Please note that both surveys were conducted in late May and may not reflect current thinking and planning.

Survey respondents310 presidents: 42% private 4-year, 27% public 4-year, 22% public 2-year, 10% other.357 presidents: 50% private 4-year, 35% public 4-year, 15% public 2-year.
Actions taken to-date-Majority of presidents have either taken or considered the following actions: freeze hiring (83%), use reserve funds (67%), furlough employees (68%).
Fall 2020 plansMajority indicate intention to resume in-person classes (53% responded “very likely”), with meaningful variance across sectors (private 4-year = 58%, public 4-year = 53%, public 2-year = 38%).Plurality plan to have most or all instruction in-person (46% versus 17% planning for online and 38% still deciding), but presidents planning for online are much more confident in their plans (73% “very confident” vs. 29% among presidents planning for in-person).
Necessary conditions/actions for resuming in-person activitiesMajority plan to limit class sizes for social distancing, limit travel, and require face coverings on campus. However, presidents remain undecided about how to implement a COVID-19 testing regime, whether to provide PPE to students, and how to rearrange residential living spaces.Vast majority agree that increased cleaning protocols, lower-density instruction, mandatory community health training and mask wearing are necessary for resuming in-person activities. However, a minority view occasional or weekly testing as necessary pre-conditions. Presidents show the greatest concerns about the feasibility of contact tracing, testing, and stocking PPE.
Stakeholder influence and decision-makingBy a wide margin, state governors, state health officials and the CDC are the most influential stakeholders in decision-making.By a wide margin, public-health recommendations and research and government guidelines were identified as key factors in decision-making.
Contingencies for Fall 2020Vast majority of presidents anticipate decreases in institutional revenue (80%) and enrollment (67%), though presidents at private 4-year institutions expect greater enrollment declines.Vast majority have considered the possibility of declines in enrollment (88%), net tuition revenue (86%), and having to close campus after resuming in-person activities (72%).

See Massachusetts’ Readiness to Reopen Survey of Massachusetts Presidents for more comparable responses from 106 Massachusetts institutions.

Recent spikes in COVID-19 cases and new regulations may impact decisions about resuming in-person activities this fall.

As many colleges and universities continue to announce intentions to resume on-campus, in-person activities in the fall, the development of new COVID-19 cases among campus communities and the introduction of new regulatory measures may influence institutions’ reopening plans:

  • Sudden increases in cases in and around campus communities: As the virus continues to spread, several institutions are experiencing upticks in COVID-19 cases in their surrounding communities, including Michigan State University and Louisiana State University. Cases have surged in  San Diego County, CA, where UC-San Diego has launched a major COVID-19 testing pilot program on campus (see below for more details), raising doubts about whether the rigorous testing program will be enough to mitigate community spread. University South Carolina at Columbia has witnessed sharp increases in the number of positive cases among students currently residing off-campus, highlighting the difficulty of managing student behavior and community spread when students live off-campus.
  • Surges in cases among student athletes: In the past several weeks, college athletic programs have begun to resume pre-season training. Many colleges have now reported spikes in the number of student athletes infected, including Clemson University with 28 positive cases as of 6/19/20, Kansas State University with 14 positive cases as of 6/20/20, and University of Texas-Austin with 13 positive cases among football players as of 6/18/20. As a result, several institutions are canceling early-season football games, suspending training, or – in the case of Bowdoin and  Morehouse Colleges – canceling fall sports seasons altogether. These patterns of infection among returning student athletes raise serious concerns about the likelihood of disease spread once more students return to campus environments.
  • New state quarantine and travel restrictions: Earlier this week, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut announced that they will require visitors from states experiencing current COVID-19 outbreaks to quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. These restrictions currently apply to residents from Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah. Travel restrictions such as these may influence colleges’ plans to manage the return of students to campus, and the willingness of students to travel.

Updates on the Status of COVID-19 Testing at Colleges and Universities 

The resources above demonstrate the necessity of adequate healthcare capacity for any substantive reopening plan. Below are excerpts of  institutional plans for implementing COVID-19 testing at scale, in addition to some commentary on the challenges faced by institutions as they devise public health responses to the crisis. As is evident from the guidelines reviewed above, testing is only one component of necessary plans for public health and safety on campuses.

Outlining the approaches to COVID-19 testing

As outlined by the American College Health Association, there are several different approaches of COVID-19 tests available:

  • Diagnostic: tests for current viral infections in individuals. There are two types of diagnostic tests – molecular and antigen. Molecular tests are more accurate and widely available, whereas antigen tests are much cheaper.
  • Serology: tests for prior infection by detecting antibodies. The presence of antibodies may indicate short-term immunity.
  • Screening: tests to detect unrecognized cases among a population. Institutions may use diagnostic tests (molecular or antigen) when conducting screening, or other techniques such as pooled testing or wastewater testing. Pooled and wastewater testing have been identified by several institutions as cost-saving screening methods.

Current recommendations for colleges and universities encourage diagnostic testing of symptomatic individuals, in tandem with plans for rigorous contact tracing and supported isolation. While several institutions plan to screen individuals and test all returning students upon arrival to campus, few guidelines recommend mass screening, both because of concerns around funding and test availability, and because some experts are increasingly skeptical of the benefits of screening asymptomatic individuals.

Large research universities are utilizing in-house laboratories and medical resources to develop in-house testing, whereas smaller institutions must rely on external partnerships to implement a testing regime.

Select research universities have published plans to implement in-house testing:

  • University of California – San Diego: First, large-scale implementation of a pilot testing program on a campus. 
    • Currently administering nasal swab tests to over 5,000 students in residence. Tests are self-administered and available at designated collection boxes. Each test has a unique barcode. Once scanned, a data management system produces a personalized number and time stamp for each individual, which is then used for contact tracing efforts. 
    • Plans to expand monthly testing to the campus community of 65,000 by September.
  • Purdue University: Promised ability to implement a robust testing system of all symptomatic individuals, processed at Purdue’s in-house laboratories.
  • University of Florida: Florida’s infectious disease specialists are building out a robust “test-and-trace” program for campus, using its own labs to process tests in under 12 hours.
  • Notre Dame University: Devised a public health strategy in collaboration with Cleveland Clinic and St. Joseph County Department of Health to enable sufficient testing and tracing on campus. Have identified facilities for supported isolation of COVID-positive individuals.
  • University of Kentucky: Currently has the ability through its own testing sites to administer 800 tests a day (~2% of the entire campus community).
  • Boston University: Plans to stand up its own testing program for 40,000 individuals in the BU community. Specialized robots will be used to speed up the test result process and test results will be delivered electronically. BU will conduct surveillance testing as well as testing symptomatic individuals.

Small colleges lack the in-house laboratory access to implement a self-sufficient testing program, and are therefore reliant on external health organizations for support. These challenges highlight the fundamental misalignment of scale and resources in devising a public health strategy for the fall: Those institutions capable of administering tests in-house (large, research institutions) operate at scales that make containment of the disease a real challenge, whereas small-scale institutions with the greatest chance of containing the disease lack the resources to do so. 

Examples of small colleges forming partnerships to deliver COVID-19 testing include:

  • Franklin & Marshall: F&M is scaling up an existing partnership with a nearby hospital, Penn Medical Lancaster General Health. These services come at no additional cost to the college.
  • Loyola University New Orleans: Loyola is partnering with Ochsner Health to create a plan for the fall and augment health resources and personnel.
  • Calvin University: Calvin has formed a partnership agreement with Helix Diagnostics that guarantees Calvin access to over 5,000 to ensure universal testing of community members at the beginning of the academic year.

For many institutions, the cost of widespread testing is very uncertain and potentially prohibitive.

Even for those with the capacity to administer diagnostic tests, current cost estimates remain very high and may inhibit full implementation. Several institutions have indicated how much a single round of diagnostic testing for the entire campus community would cost (estimated costs of individual tests imputed based on size of community population and aggregate costs cited):

These figures only estimate the cost of COVID-19 testing per round of testing. Great uncertainty remains about how much full implementation of a COVID-19 testing regime throughout an entire semester on campus would cost. This is largely because there are several variables—both known and unknown—that determine how many tests will need to be administered and at what price. These factors may include:

  • Cost of a single diagnostic test (may vary widely depending on type of diagnostic test offered, supply chain networks, and the ability to manufacture in-house)
  • Frequency of testing, which depends on an institution’s approach to testing:
    • Are you testing all students and staff upon arrival?
    • Are you regularly screening a certain percentage of the campus population?
    • Are you prioritizing tests for certain sub-populations on campus?
  • Labor needed to administer tests (institutions may need to hire additional staff or contract with external organizations)
  • Disease prevalence and rate of infection:
    • Assuming institutions are testing all symptomatic individuals, the rate of disease spread will greatly influence how much is spent on testing.
  • Accuracy of tests administered:
    • No test is 100% accurate. If there is a high false positive rate (i.e., tests indicate that individuals are infected when they aren’t), contacts of incorrectly identified infected individuals may be tested, which could yield additional, unnecessary costs. Because of existing testing inaccuracies, some recommend testing each individual twice to confirm infection, which again would drive up costs.

We can estimate the approximate cost of regular COVID-19 screening and testing upon arrival fairly easily using theoretical inputs:

Testing upon arrival = 10,000 (number of community members) x $50 (cost of test) = $500,000

Testing throughout the semester = 10,000 (number of community members) x 12 (weeks in semester) x 0.23 (percent of population tested per week) x $50 (cost of test) = $1,400,000

Total cost of screening =  $400,00 (testing upon arrival) + $1,400,000 (testing throughout the semester) = $1,900,000

Yet, this cost only represents the cost of regular screening. The great unknown is how many individuals develop symptoms and need diagnostic testing. Institutions will need to have some estimations of how disease might spread to budget appropriately for testing and ensure adequate testing supply.

Guide to Existing Resources for Tracking Higher Ed’s Response to COVID-19

Several news outlets and organizations have created helpful resources to track real-time updates to higher education’s response to the current crisis. Listed below are some that may be helpful in tracking ongoing developments.

  • For comprehensive data on institutional responses in spring 2020 and beyond:
  • For updates on the developing public health situation as it relates to colleges and universities: