Photo: Luke Sharrett for The New York Times
Fever checkpoints at the entrances to academic buildings. One-way paths across the grassy quad. Face masks required in classrooms and dining halls. And a dormitory-turned-quarantine facility for any students exposed to the coronavirus.
That was one vision for the fall semester at the University of Kentucky conjured up by a special committee last week — and not the most dystopian scenario.
In a series of planning meetings on Zoom, dozens of key leaders at the university, from deans to police officers to a sorority and fraternity liaison, debated whether and how to reopen its campus in Lexington, Ky., amid an active outbreak.
Similar discussions have taken place at almost every American college and university over the last few weeks, as administrators fiercely debate whether they can safely reopen their campuses, even as most provide students with encouraging messages about the prospects of returning in the fall.
On Monday, Notre Dame became one of the first major universities in the country to announce detailed plans for bringing back students, saying it would implement a regimen of testing and contact tracing, put quarantine and isolation protocols in place, and require students to maintain social distancing and wear masks in public.
Notre Dame’s decision is in contrast to an announcement last week by the California State University system, which will keep its 23 campuses largely shut and teach nearly half a million students remotely. Most other universities have said they are planning to reopen in the fall, but have yet to announce specific plans.
Colleges were closed in a rushed and chaotic fashion two months ago, disrupting students’ lives and costing tens of billions of dollars in lost revenue, according to a survey by the American Council on Education, a trade group. But opening up, though vital to the survival of some institutions, is proving much more intricate than shutting down.
The University of Kentucky allowed a reporter from The New York Times to listen in on its discussions, in part to show how deliberately administrators were working through the possibilities in such fraught times for the country.
“This is a moonshot, to do something this quickly,” said Eli Capilouto, the university’s president, who spent many years as a professor of public health policy and has led Kentucky’s flagship institution since 2011.
The online discussions revealed the complicated balancing act facing the university as it considers the risks for 30,000 students and 18,000 faculty and staff members and searches for answers with limited knowledge of what the future will bring.
“Can you hear me?” Dr. Robert DiPaola, the medical college dean, asked during one of the meetings, in what has become an oft-repeated line in the days of virtual conferencing.
Sitting alone at a gleaming oval conference table in his office, Dr. DiPaola injected some of the grimmest reality into the discussions, with concerns about sanitation and testing. The university might have to distribute thermometers to everyone, he said, and require students to report symptoms on a cellphone app every day to be cleared for classes.
The administrators studied complex models, considering if Kentucky could hold in-person classes before Thanksgiving and then online classes for the rest of the fall semester; if it could reduce classroom crowding through a longer day; or if it should allow only certain groups of students on campus, like freshmen, who administrators said would benefit the most from the experience.
Dr. Capilouto is expected to announce a decision in June. His public health background, he said, made some of the risks and challenges facing the university more clear to him. While visiting Zambia during the AIDS epidemic, for instance, he observed that treatment alone was not enough to stem a health crisis.
“You also had to change behavior,” he said — something that his advisers agreed would be especially difficult on a college campus. Whatever course they choose will require enforcing profound changes to the traditions of college life.
“There’s no way you can have a quote-unquote old-fashioned, like fall 2019, semester again,” Sue Roberts, an associate provost, said during one virtual meeting in her crisp English accent. “That’s not going to happen.”
To think through scenarios, the university split its administrators and advisers into three groups, named after the school’s colors and mascot. There was Team Blue, Team White, and Team Wildcat.
Although the school is known for its basketball championships, athletics did not factor into the discussions, nor did a hazing scandal that resulted Monday in the firing of the cheerleading squad’s entire coaching staff.
The job of each team, plus a separate group of medical experts, was to develop scenarios that could be distilled into a final plan for the fall semester and beyond.
The list of questions they tried to answer started with the most basic: Would anyone even want to come back?
Students are tired of being at home and eager to return, offered Anna Bosch, associate dean of the college of arts and sciences. “I know this from personal experience,” she added, flashing a warm smile, “because I have two college students living back at home with me right now.”
But there was a divide between undergraduates and those who teach them on the question of reopening, Dr. Bosch said into her computer, a painting of clouds and water on the wall behind her.
At a recent faculty senate meeting, she had been surprised to hear from many professors who were reluctant to return. They were worried, she said, because they or someone close to them had underlying health conditions, or because they were fearful of bringing the virus home to their spouses and children.
The wary faculty might have a point, replied Capt. Rob Turner of the campus police department. The university did not operate in a vacuum, he argued.
Much would depend on what national, state and local governments did over the next few months, he said. Like Indiana, where Notre Dame is, Kentucky is not currently a hot spot for known coronavirus cases. Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, is permitting businesses to gradually open up, which could put pressure on the university, a state institution.
But what, Captain Turner asked, if Fayette County public schools did not open in the fall?
“That’s a really serious one,” Dr. Bosch said. “It’ll be very difficult for us to bring everybody back on campus, including faculty and staff, if the public schools aren’t open.”
The scenario many committee members were drawn to involved bringing everyone back to campus as usual, even though it was clear that things couldn’t be truly normal.
“We know there’s going to be no such thing," said Dr. Roberts, who headed up Team Blue.
But a full return for the fall would also be the riskiest.
“We’re worried,” Dr. Roberts added. “What would happen if there was another outbreak of Covid-19, and worse, what would happen if we, in some ways, were complicit?”
At the same time, Dr. Roberts acknowledged that students and faculty alike were suffering “burnout from virtual teaching and learning,” and that continuing to hold classes online could deter students from enrolling or returning, costing millions of dollars in revenue.
Already, the university was projecting that the freshman class would shrink by about 1,000 students this fall, to 4,500, because of health and economic concerns. An online-only semester would likely push those numbers even lower.
And Dr. Roberts said an empty campus in the fall “might dull the enthusiasm of our donors and alums,” further draining the school’s finances. The university is projecting losses of up to $275 million this year for its campus and medical center from the virus, and $70 million next year on the academic side, and has announced plans to furlough some staff members.
Part of the problem, said Kathryn Cardarelli, a senior assistant provost, was the widespread perception that remote education is inferior, motivating students to demand a tuition reduction for online courses.
From her office with industrial yellow walls, Dr. Cardarelli, an epidemiologist, made a strong case that the pandemic offered a chance to improve and expand online education, positioning the university to capture more of that market.
“We think the university should get out ahead and control the narrative,” she said.
In case bringing everyone back proved too risky, committee members considered options to reduce the campus population, and thus reduce the likelihood of transmission.
Ideas were tossed out rapidly: Maybe only freshmen and seniors should attend classes in person, which Team Blue called the “bookend” model.
Or maybe athletes, artists, or researchers would benefit most from the use of practice fields, studios, and labs.
Team Blue argued for bringing back freshmen and sophomores, giving new students the chance to get their footing socially and academically and trying to alleviate the dreaded “sophomore slump,” while leaving more seasoned juniors and seniors to take classes mostly online.
“Freshmen have already had a terrible end to their senior year of high school, and are hungry for an on-campus experience,” Dr. Roberts said, making Team Blue’s case. “This would set them up for success.”
And from a financial standpoint, she noted, it wouldn’t hurt that freshmen and sophomores are the biggest users of the residence and dining halls, a valuable source of revenue for the university.
Just as important as the question of whom to bring back was the matter of when and for how long.
Notre Dame said on Monday that it would start the fall semester on Aug. 10, two weeks early, and end it before Thanksgiving, forgoing fall break. The University of South Carolina made a similar announcement, saying it would also skip fall break and switch to remote instruction after Thanksgiving.
In Kentucky, the teams debated similar ideas, talking about reconfiguring the traditional 16-week semester in a number of ways: Split it into two eight-week half-semesters, or go for 12 weeks plus four weeks, or even five, five and five.
Such changes would allow for maximum flexibility, proponents of the various scenarios said, in case another outbreak forced administrators to send students home again for virtual instruction, as they did in March.
Dr. Bosch wryly pointed out that there was no guarantee that the virus would return on schedule, at precisely eight weeks or five weeks. “That didn’t seem like something that we could really count on,” she said.
Another idea, delaying the start of classes until September or October, would give the university more time for planning. But it would also push the semester later into the fall when public health experts expect a possible second wave of cases.
Thanksgiving quickly emerged as a danger zone. What if students left for the holiday, then brought the virus back to campus with them?
“It’s critical,” said Donna Arnett, dean of the college of public health, to “eliminate fall break and try to get students out of here at Thanksgiving.”
Shorten the semester to 12 weeks, her side urged, and keep students away from Thanksgiving through January. To make up for lost credits, an online class could be added in December.
And the university would have to test everyone when they returned.
Testing, in fact, would need to be a major undertaking for in-person classes to resume, said Dr. DiPaola, the medical school dean, sitting alone at his office conference table in a suit and tie. But it might not be feasible right away.
The university currently has the ability to test about 800 people a day. But to screen everyone as they arrived on campus, he said, would require help from a private lab or the state.
To reduce the need for widespread tests during the semester, he envisioned using a cellphone app to keep sick students away from classes: If they answered “no” to every symptom — cough, fever, potentially loss of smell and taste — they would receive a “day pass” to flash at building entrance checkpoints.
Such an app is already being used by the university’s medical staff, he said.
The nonmedical experts offered their own ideas for sanitation and social distancing: Hands-free faucets and doors that open with foot pedals. Large lecture classes broken into smaller sections. Seats blocked off in classrooms to keep students six feet apart.
Team Wildcat suggested turning residence halls into protective cocoons for living and learning.
“We have students functioning in pods, almost like family units,” Dr. Cardarelli told her colleagues, describing the idea. “They’re spending most of their time in residence halls together with the same students.”
Professors would come to the dorms to teach, she said, or do it via videoconference. This would reduce circulation and transmission of the virus, and make it easier to do contact tracing, her group theorized.
The student pods would take turns going to the dining halls. And, Dr. Cardarelli added, “no more buffet.”
The more they talked, the less it sounded like a dream experience.
For many students, part of the joy of college is playing Frisbee in the grass, studying over shared boxes of pizza, going to fraternity parties, and drinking at town bars.
Now the reinvention teams were talking about young adults wearing masks all day and staying six feet apart at all times. Even if administrators could enforce the rules on campus, said Andrew Smith, the assistant provost for health and wellness, what about after hours?
“How we can make that into a campus culture — really, we didn’t come up with an idea for that,” he said.