Shift to online education spreads in US, covering entire states

Orders to vacate campuses raise fears for low-income and international students as well as resigned acceptance

March 11, 2020
Harvard and Yale signs
Source: iStock

Coronavirus cancellations are rapidly becoming the norm across US higher education, with dozens of institutions and even entire states ending in-person classes, and some institutions moving to close their campuses altogether.

Universities that have moved their teaching online or are making plans to do so now include most of the Ivy League, with heavy concentrations of campuses in New York, Massachusetts, Washington and California – the four US states with the largest numbers of coronavirus cases.

State leaders in both Ohio and Iowa were taking steps to require the move at all their public institutions.

Harvard University was among a smaller number telling its students to vacate the campus, saying it would close on-site housing by the coming weekend. Students should “meet academic requirements remotely until further notice”, Harvard’s president, Lawrence Bacow, said in a letter to the campus community.

As elsewhere in the US, the situation was being met with a mix of protest and resigned acceptance. The Harvard Crimson student newspaper quoted some undergraduates as being concerned for first-generation and low-income students who may have few options for food and housing. But another undergraduate urged concern for medically vulnerable people at risk of dying if the spread of Covid-19 is not slowed.

Harvard officials have promised some assistance for needy students, while advocates have questioned if it will be enough.

Such concerns are becoming common across the US, especially in cases of foreign students who may lack local housing options and the technological options to resume their studies online.

At Grinnell College in Iowa – where a fifth of the students are international – the president, Raynard Kington, told all students to “go home for spring break and finish the semester there”.

“While we acknowledge these decisions are disruptive to the remainder of the spring term,” wrote Dr Kington, a former acting director of the National Institutes of Health, “we believe they are essential to the well-being of Grinnellians and the broader community.”

Grinnell’s announcement does include a provision for students to petition individually for permission to remain on campus.

Foreign students are generally required under US law to attend classes in person to avoid violating the terms of their visas. The main US higher education lobby group, the American Council on Education, has backed a call by Northeastern University for the government to temporarily waive that rule to help students deal with coronavirus-related closures.

The US Education Department said it needed congressional approval for such a waiver, but did not indicate if the administration had asked lawmakers to take that step.

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