After months of planning and preparing for the new normal, colleges across the U.S. have started reopening their doors to staff and students. But in some instances, reopening schools in the fall has come to an abrupt halt. It shouldn’t come as a great surprise considering the rise in cases across the country, but many schools are experiencing a spike in COVID-19 cases among students and staff as they resume in-person learning. And after the fiasco at the University of North Carolina, schools are abruptly changing their reopening plans.

In April, the interim President of the University of North Carolina (UNC) announced that all campuses of the school would reopen for the fall semester. Despite student and staff protests, campuses re-opened in August, welcoming 19,000 undergraduate students. Unfortunately, with the influx of people came the greater spread of the virus. UNC isn’t the only college to have an increase in outbreaks. The University of Michigan, the University of Notre Dame and many other schools have reported spikes in cases. They also aren’t the only ones having to implement a virtual learning experience for their students in an effort to curb the spread of the virus. 

Many colleges relied on online learning through the last few months of the Winter 2020 semester, as they were forced to close in March when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. But as things began looking up and economies began reopening, 22.5 percent of surveyed colleges decided to hold classes fully or primarily in person. With the U.S. now averaging 1,000 COVID-related deaths per day, reopening schools in the fall has proved to be dangerous, inefficient and unnecessary considering the technology available today.

Almost every aspect of the university learning experience can be done virtually. Video conferencing tools and cameras can broadcast professors either live or through recordings. This allows for increased access for students, as they can watch recordings on their own time and from wherever they are. It also drastically reduces the spread of the virus, as many college classes–especially in first year courses–are packed full.

Other aspects of the learning experience–such as office hours for professors, and academic, financial and student services–can also benefit from the implementation of technology, specifically virtual queue management and call-back systems. To help minimize the spread of the virus as a result of choosing to reopen schools in the fall, services can be held via video or phone calls using either scheduled or “walk-in” appointments. The functionality of these systems is fairly straightforward: students join a virtual queue for either a phone or video call. They can then hang up and continue their day, receiving updates about their wait time and place in line. Once they reach the front of the virtual queue, they can access the service again to talk to their advisor. If appointments are made, advisors can accommodate “walk-in” appointments by fitting them in when people fail to show up or when appointments are shorter than their scheduled time. These options offer a similar experience as in-person services, while actually improving student and employee satisfaction in the midst of reopening schools in the fall. They also save universities money by reducing the number of no-shows–something that is increasingly important as many colleges struggle to keep enrollment numbers and revenues high. 

No matter what decision is made–resuming in-person learning, going virtual or employing a hybrid approach–the student experience will be drastically different. Many pivotal aspects of the student experience won’t be able to take place due to COVID-19 restrictions and student safety. And as more people opt out of going back to school in person, approaching the year as “normal” doesn’t make sense. Colleges need to learn from the negative experiences that have impacted schools that chose to reopen in the fall and plan accordingly. And for the sake of public safety, this will largely mean using technology to create a virtual learning experience.