In March, postsecondary institutions closed their doors one by one in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, switching almost exclusively to online coursework to protect students and families. As the pandemic stretches into the summer, colleges and universities are faced with the likelihood that the Fall 2020 semester will continue to look very different from the traditional postsecondary experience. Institutions in Tennessee are seeking innovative solutions to ensure students remain supported, safe, and healthy while encouraging them to pursue a postsecondary degree or credential.

Perhaps most pressing, institutions are faced with the choice of whether to bring students back to learn in-person, continue instruction online, or combine online and in-person learning in a hybrid model. While holding classes fully online would perhaps present the lowest risk of spreading illness, as of early July most colleges and universities favor at least a partially in-person model. This preference is supported by research that suggests online college classes can be detrimental to students’ success and their progression toward a degree. Additionally, recent surveys suggest the majority of college students prefer in-person instruction.

While currently working to provide a high-quality in-person experience, postsecondary institutions are also committed to the safety of students and their families. Institutions across Tennessee are moving forward with plans for the fall by implementing safety and support measures while remaining flexible as circumstances continue to change.

Hybrid Models To Allow For In-Person Learning

Most of Tennessee’s public four-year institutions, including the University of Tennessee System and most of Tennessee’s six locally governed institutions,  plan to hold classes primarily in-person until Thanksgiving when many students return home for the holiday. After Thanksgiving, classes and final exams will be held online. To ensure safety while holding in-person classes, institutions will implement additional policies to encourage social distancing. For example, the University of Tennessee – Knoxville  plans to have smaller class sizes, use larger classroom spaces, allow extra time between classes, and require face masks.

Rapid Adaptation To Meet Student Needs

Certain types of credentials — for example, in the healthcare and manufacturing fields — require skills labs that are particularly difficult to conduct virtually. The Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology (TCATs) award many of these credentials and are implementing creative solutions such as online simulations and video observations to conduct skills labs virtually. As the summer has progressed, many TCATs have pivoted, at least partially reopening in order to provide in-person skills labs. These labs typically consist of 10 students or fewer, all of whom are required to wear masks. Faced with a particularly difficult instructional dilemma, TCATs have demonstrated a nimbleness as they continue to adjust to unpredictable circumstances in order to best serve their students.

Sustained Financial Support

The pandemic has negatively impacted the finances of many families, which can severely impair students’ ability to afford college. And yet, during an economic recession, a postsecondary degree is shown to be more important than ever for job security. To ensure students maintain access to key financial aid, select requirements relating to community service and grade-point averages have been waived for Tennessee Promise, HOPE, and other lottery-funded scholarships. In addition, there will be no increase in tuition or fees this year at the 13 community colleges and 27 TCATs overseen by the Tennessee Board of Regents.    

In the midst of the current economic/health crisis, a postsecondary degree or high-quality credential is more important than ever for Tennessee students to achieve economic independence and pursue a fulfilling career. The Fall 2020 semester is unlikely to resemble a “traditional” postsecondary experience, and the rapidly evolving nature of the pandemic makes it difficult to solidify plans for the coming months. Tennessee’s colleges and universities, however, continue to adjust and seek creative solutions to support their students at this time, ultimately promoting success in career and in life.

Claire Ruegg is a graduate fellow at SCORE.

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