COVID-19 Briefing: Higher Ed’s Plans for Fall

Our region’s colleges and universities play an important role in our economy and our communities. How will they operate in Fall 2020 given the nation’s surging COVID-19 case numbers? In this conversation, leaders from area academic institutions describe how their campuses will adapt in these unique and extremely challenging conditions.


  • Ronald Mason, Jr., J.D., President, University of the District of Columbia
  • Anne M. Kress, Ph.D., President, Northern Virginia Community College
  • Paul Almeida, Dean, McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University
  • Darryll J. Pines, President, University of Maryland College Park

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Every institution for higher education in our region is facing an enormous challenge: they must begin the 2020-2021 academic year in the middle of a deadly pandemic. Ronald Mason, Jr., J.D., President of the University of the District of Columbia, explained that all academic institutions share many concerns. Their budgets are taking a hit because fewer students are enrolling and states are allocating less funding; Faculty and students are required to quickly adapt to online learning; there are equity issues, especially for students whose financial hardships prevent them from possessing a reliable computer and internet connection; and schools must be prepared to manage COVID-19 outbreaks on their campus.

Beyond these shared concerns, each school faces unique challenges that depend on their circumstances—the students they serve, the curriculum they teach, the government policies they operate under, and so on.

In this online discussion, leaders from several area academic institutions described their circumstances and the decisions they have made for their students, faculty, staff, and communities.

University of the District of Columbia

The University of the District of Columbia (UDC) is the only public university in the District. It provides degrees from Bachelor’s to PhDs and JDs as well as workforce training programs. It has decided that for the fall semester, all courses will be delivered online by default. There will be limited access to campus with one-directional walkways, and masks will be required.

To help students who do not possess a computer and a reliable internet connection, UDC has set up student workstations that are spread apart far enough to enable a safe environment.  

CARES ACT funding has helped UDC and its students during the pandemic, but budget issues remain. Unfortunately, they have had to put on hold an ambitious workforce development program which is designed to help workers advance through professional credentials at their own pace.

Georgetown University

Georgetown has decided to start the year with the Freshman class on campus and other classes learning virtually. Freshmen are at the very beginning of their higher education journey, and Georgetown’s leadership decided that they needed the on-campus experience to make that transition. Upperclassmen who are unable to properly learn from home will also be allowed to attend classes on campus. After Thanksgiving, all students, including Freshmen, will only have online coursework.

Most faculty and some staff members will work on campus, but Georgetown is limiting employee density as much as possible. Face masks will be required of all persons on campus, hand sanitizer will be ubiquitous, and the school will take other standard sanitization and hygiene precautions.

The university is preparing activities that students can participate in virtually to give them the same social and extracurricular experiences they would normally have, to the extent possible.

Georgetown attracts students from around the United States and the world, so they are preparing to help students who come from “hot spots” quarantine for the initial two weeks, as required by DC law. They are also reimagining the study abroad experience, which has been a standard and important part of the curriculum for the McDonough School of Business.

Northern Virginia Community College

Northern Virginia Community College, or NoVA, will welcome to campus students who are pursuing fields that require hands-on training, such as fields in healthcare or the trades. These students represent about 20 percent of the student body. The other 80 percent will take their courses online for the Fall 2020 semester.

About half of NoVA’s 70,000 students live on the economic margins and face some form of basic needs insecurity, such as housing or food insecurity. The pandemic has eliminated jobs or hours for many, exacerbating these economic challenges. In response, NoVA has created a laptop loaner program and washed large parking lots in free Wi-Fi to make sure all students have the digital tools they need to continue their studies. NoVA has also trained professors to identify students who may be struggling and to notify a designated staff member who can intervene and help that student find assistance.

NoVA received $10 million from the CARES Act to navigate the challenges of the pandemic. President Anne M. Kress, Ph.D., noted that this sounds like a lot of money but breaks down to only $132 per student.

Her fear is that many of her financially challenged students will not return to school. This is a recipe for disaster when most jobs require some form of post-secondary credential.

University of Maryland, College Park

Like NoVA, University of Maryland (UMD) at College Park is offering approximately 80 percent of their courses online and 20 percent on campus for the Fall 2020 semester. Dorm occupancy has been reduced by half and most units will be single occupancy.

Beyond these changes, UMD has made the extraordinary commitment to test all students, faculty, and staff on campus for COVID-19 infection at multiple points throughout the semester. They expect to conduct 30,000 to 40,000 COVID-19 tests. They are asking all incoming students, faculty, and staff to provide a list of people who they regularly encounter (friends, coworkers, family, etc.) so that if they test positive, UMD can provide that list to the Maryland Department of Health and get a head-start on contact tracing.

Despite the enormous effort and resources required to reopen campus this fall, Why reopening at all? Because we really don’t know when we will have a COVID-19 vaccine. Historically, it has taken 4-7 years.