'There is so much unknown': What will college in Tennessee look like this fall?
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As unconventional spring semesters are coming to an end at universities across Tennessee, leadership is beginning to look at options for the fall semester.
Universities are weighing whether it will be safe to allow students to return to campus and evaluating their different options. All of the universities contacted by the USA TODAY Network - Tennessee said they are waiting to make a final decision on the fall semester until more information about the coronavirus is known.
At Lipscomb University, President L. Randolph Lowry III said he hopes to bring everyone back on campus for the fall semester, but is preparing for other scenarios as well.
“A college is like a little city,” Lowry said. “The president is the mayor, and you have to worry about all the things you need to take good care of your citizens.”
Most universities in Tennessee have taken a similar approach of forming a task force or committee to consider options for the fall semester. Several administrators said they are creating plans for one of three scenarios: if COVID-19 worsens, improves or stays the same.
If things worsen, classes could remain online only. Some universities said they are considering a hybrid option, with classes offered partially online and partially in person.
University of Tennessee
The University of Tennessee has canceled in-person classes through the summer semester but hasn't made a final decision about the fall semester. All campuses within the UT System have task forces to look at options for the fall semester, as well as a system task force.
Speaking to the board of trustees on Friday, UT System President Randy Boyd said it's still too soon to make a decision for the fall semester.
Donde Plowman, chancellor of UT Knoxville, said they are looking at options for how in-person classes might be different in order to maintain social distancing if necessary.
"We're hopeful and optimistic that we’ll have students back on our campuses in the fall, but we’re planning for every contingency," Boyd said. "We're looking at everything from a worst-case scenario, with all classes online and no sports, to everything back to normal, and then everything in between."
Steve Smith, dean of libraries, and Ellen McIntyre, dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Services, said they are looking at three scenarios for the fall at UT Knoxville: having classes fully online, having some classes in person but moving to online in case of a coronavirus spike or having a semester with in-person classes.
Smith and McIntyre are co-chairs for Knoxville's task force and said the main consideration is safety of students, faculty and staff. They will present their recommendations for the fall semester to Plowman by May 18.
In a Twitter thread, interim Chancellor Susan Wente said Vanderbilt’s “goal and sincere hope is to hold in-person classes on campus this fall,” but she acknowledged that there might not be a “one-size-fits-all solution” to every undergraduate, graduate and professional program.
Vanderbilt leadership is in transition. On July 1, Daniel Diermeier, a University of Chicago provost, will take over as chancellor. He is serving on Vanderbilt’s COVID-19 ad hoc committee, which the Board of Trust created in March.
That committee is also working with Vanderbilt’s public health advisory task force, which leans heavily on the medical school staff's expertise, and a university continuity working group, created last week to weigh options for reopening campus.
“Our mission of teaching, discovery and service to humankind, which we have pursued for nearly 150 years, matters more now than ever before,” Wente said in a statement.
Middle Tennessee State University
MTSU President Sidney McPhee has also formed a task force to look at options for the fall semester. They will present their recommendations at the end of May, and McPhee said he hopes to have a better picture of what the fall semester will look like then.
MTSU will consider three scenarios for the fall: if conditions stay the same, worsen or improve. If things worsen, McPhee said they are prepared to have the fall semester online, taking time this summer to make sure faculty and staff are prepared for an online semester.
"The bottom line is, we're not going to make a knee-jerk reaction right now because there is so much unknown," McPhee said.
Things will also depend on how comfortable students and parents feel about returning to a place where large gatherings occur.
"Universities are designed for people to be together," McPhee said. "This is going to be somewhat of a new normal."
Austin Peay State University
Austin Peay has formed two task forces to oversee its COVID-19 response.
"We're still in the process of making plans for the fall semester," said Bill Persinger, Austin Peay's executive director of public relations and marketing. "Nothing is set in stone for the fall. But to be clear, we're not rushing into getting back to 100% normal. We're going to ease back into this."
Persinger said Austin Peay officials are "cautiously optimistic" students and faculty will be ready for on-campus instruction by fall.
"Our hope is to get back to offering on-campus classes, but there's still quite a few unknowns," Persinger said. "We won't know until life starts to get back to some kind of normalcy."
Lipscomb initially created a task force in early February to address COVID-19 concerns over university programs in Italy, Vienna and Costa Rica. The task force still meets daily to consider future options.
Lowry, Lipscomb's president, hopes to bring students back to campus for the entire fall semester, but contingency plans are being developed. A couple of scenarios would have students begin the semester with classes online and then finish on campus, if it’s safe to do so.
“Once (government and health care) give us permission to do it, then our full intention and hope is to open in August,” Lowry said. “But because of the realities of life, we will also be prepared to open after Labor Day or open the first of October. So when the window is there and it’s both legal and safe, we very much want students to come back.”
There are 40 students, mostly international, still living on campus. Lipscomb students come from 48 states and 54 countries, so stay-at-home orders beyond Tennessee are being monitored in bringing back students.
President Bob Fisher is skeptical that students will be able to attend all classes in person in the fall, but that’s one of three options. Belmont is also considering online-only classes and a hybrid of in-person and online.
“I’d love to return to business as usual in August, but I just don’t expect it,” Fisher said. “But I would hate being totally online. We are really focusing on the hybrid option because it could give us a lot more options.”
One possibility is alternating students in the same class to follow social distancing guidelines. Half would attend in person on a given day while the other half follows online, and vice versa. Belmont’s smaller class sizes may make that more feasible than at large state universities.
“But if they are living (on campus) at some risk, that’s where you have to think about whether it’s worth the risk,” said Fisher, who has worked with a Belmont task force about COVID-19 response since late January. “The return to campus learning is the most complicated decision.”
East Tennessee State University
ETSU President Brian Noland said a committee will start meeting next week to discuss options for the fall semester.
"Everyone is wanting to ensure that they make decisions that are within the best interest of our faculty and staff, putting safety first," Noland said. "We moved to an online format for that reason very early in March. We wanted to ensure that the safety of our students, faculty and staff was placed first."
One thing the committee will consider is when to reopen in the fall. Noland said they may consider opening earlier or later than scheduled, depending on the coronavirus. Another option would be to divide the semester into two segments, with one part on campus and one part online if needed, he said.
On-campus events and gatherings are another concern, Noland said.
“By nature of our existence, we bring people together,” Noland said. “We have 3,000 students who live in our residence halls, 12,000 folks at football games and thousands of people at events throughout the fall.”
Noland said he hopes to make a decision about the fall semester by early June.
Trevecca Nazarene University
Trevecca Nazarene University created a COVID-19 task force in February, which continues to meet and plan for the fall semester.
“It’s our hope to bring students back to campus for classes this fall,” Trevecca President Dan Boone said in a statement. “But this virus has been hard to predict, so we are considering a number of contingency plans that would help us create the kind of community and academic rigor our students expect and desire.”
Options include starting classes later in the fall, creating hybrid options that combine online and in-person classes, and remote instruction. Trevecca has students from 47 states and 25 countries, so officials are monitoring stay-at-home orders beyond Tennessee as they look at options for the fall semester.
Tennessee State University and the University of Memphis responded to emails from USA TODAY Network - Tennessee reporters but did not provide the information requested about their planning for the fall semester.
Tennessean reporter Adam Sparks, Commercial Appeal reporter Laura Testino and Leaf Chronicle reporter George Robinson contributed reporting to this story.