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Do Students Want to Return to Campus During a COVID-19 Surge?

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For college students and their families, a big question looms as to how schools will balance safety with education quality. But even as the fall semester approaches, the number of coronavirus cases is rising. 

How does the change in COVID-19 cases affect student opinions about the upcoming fall semester?

To find out, we surveyed thousands of college students from across the country. They shared insight into what they think is a safe course of action for the upcoming fall semester.

Should College Campuses Reopen While COVID-19 Cases Are Rising?

A OneClass survey of 18,190 college students asked how students felt about returning to campus while COVID-19 cases are increasing. Respondents are all entering their freshman, sophomore or junior years at one of the 241 colleges and universities included in the survey. 

For 74.9 percent of students, studying on campus is risky during COVID-19. These students are concerned about their safety and will only feel comfortable if effective protective measures are in place, or they will not be returning to campus while there is a risk of an outbreak. Just one-quarter of students say they will feel secure on campus no matter what.  

going back to campus with Covid-19 increased cases

How Do You Feel About Returning to Campus While COVID-19 Cases Are Increasing?

  • Secure on campus only if they have safety measures in place: 56.9%
  • I do not feel comfortable returning to campus: 18.0%
  • I will feel secure on campus, no matter what safety measures are taken: 25.1%

How Does Geography Affect Student Sentiment?

As the coronavirus pandemic progresses, the hotspots have moved from the northeast to the southern states. Geography also affects student sentiment about COVID-19. The data below shows the schools that have the highest percentage of students in each category. 

When it comes to students who aren't comfortable returning to campus, there are geographic clusters in California, Texas and Massachusetts. Each of these states has had areas with high rates of cases per capita, even though the current rate of active cases varies.

Colleges in California account for nine out of the top 15 schools where students are uncomfortable returning to campus.

Percent of Students Uncomfortable Returning to Campus

  • San Francisco State University: 84.0%
  • California State University-Long Beach: 77.3%
  • Cal Poly Pomona: 74.3%
  • University of California-Berkeley: 58.3%
  • University of Texas-Austin: 58.3%
  • University of California-Irvine: 56.8%
  • University of Illinois-Chicago: 56.3%
  • University of California-Santa Cruz: 53.8%
  • University of Houston: 53.8%
  • University of San Diego: 53.8%
  • St. John's University (NYC): 53.7%
  • California State University-Northridge: 52.0%
  • Bridgewater State University (Massachusetts): 51.4%
  • Suffolk University (Massachusetts): 51.1%
  • UCLA: 50.7%

On the other side of the spectrum, some colleges have high rates of students who will feel comfortable on campus no matter what their schools do to manage health and safety. Many of these schools are in the heartland, including Ohio and the Dakotas. 

This set of schools does not necessarily mirror the geography of the virus. For example, areas in Alabama and South Carolina currently have a high number of virus cases per capita and yet the list contains two schools from these states. 

Percent of Student Who Will Feel Secure On Campus No Matter What Safety Measures Are Taken

  • Kansas State University: 89.6%
  • John Carroll University (Ohio): 89.4%
  • University of North Dakota: 88.6%
  • Harding University (Arkansas): 80.6%
  • Pennsylvania State University-Altoona: 80.4%
  • Anderson University (South Carolina): 78.6%
  • South Dakota State University: 73.6%
  • Bowling Green State University: 72.3%
  • Samford University (Alabama): 71.8%
  • Texas Christian University: 71.3%
  • Lehigh University (Pennsylvania): 69.3%
  • Marywood University (Pennsylvania): 68.5%
  • SUNY Buffalo State College: 64.9%
  • Fitchburg State University (Massachusetts): 64.4%
  • North Dakota State University: 64.1%

At many other schools, students are depending on their college to implement effective safety measures. If safety plans seem weak or students feel at risk, they may push back against administrators. 

This was the case back in February when a member of the Arizona State University community tested positive for the coronavirus. More than 25,000 students signed a petition to cancel classes. “We do not want to risk our lives by attending class,” the statement said. 

At many other schools, students share that they trust their college and university to get it right. A school's return to campus plan is typically driven by policies from public health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Plans can include monitoring symptoms of COVID-19, social distancing, limiting access to common spaces, and contact tracing to stop the spread of COVID-19.

These 15 colleges and universities from around the country have the highest rate of students who are comfortable returning to campus only if effective safety measures are put in place.

Percent of Student Who Will Feel Secure On-campus If Safety Measures Are Implemented

  • East Stroudsburg University (Pennsylvania): 93.8%
  • University of New Haven (Connecticut): 92.9%
  • Loyola University-Maryland: 92.3%
  • Brown University: 88.5%
  • Boston University: 87.9%
  • Biola University (California): 87.5%
  • University of Hartford (Connecticut): 86.0%
  • SUNY Oswego: 85.5%
  • University of Minnesota-Twin Cities: 85.0%
  • Columbia University: 84.8%
  • University of Minnesota: 84.6%
  • San Diego State University: 84.3%
  • Loyola Marymount University: 83.9%
  • Marshall University (West Virginia): 83.6%
  • Boston College: 83.3%

What's the Overlap between Virus Safety and Education Quality?

The quick pivot to online classes did not go well in the spring semester, and 75 percent of college students were unhappy with the quality of eLearning during COVID--19. 

In the months since, educators have been developing a range of solutions for the fall 2020 semester that could include improved online learning or improved operations for on-campus virus management. However, students repeatedly share that online classes make it harder to learn and do not have the same value as on-campus education. 

Yet the virus has already taken a toll on college campuses even before students return to campus for the fall semester. As of the end of July, the NYT reported that at least 6,600 cases of COVID-19 were tied to about 260 colleges. 

The largest known outbreak has been at the University of Texas at Austin, which has had 461 students, faculty and staff test positive for COVID-19 since March 1. This data is self-reported, and the school's transparency could be the reason it tops the list as the school with the most cases. One higher education researcher explains, “One of the reasons UT looks so bad is that a lot of universities have refused to release that information or haven’t done that kind of testing.”

Even though some areas of the country are successfully managing to contain the virus, its infectiousness means that viral spread can happen quickly, causing new hotspots to emerge during the semester and can create an increased risk during the large-scale back-to-school migration. 

As Dr. Fauci told the Senate at the end of June: "When you have an outbreak in one part of the country, even though in other parts of the country they’re doing well, they are vulnerable."

Whether you're taking classes in person or online, OneClass study resources can help you to learn more efficiently, and 90 percent of users have improved by at least one letter grade. 

image attribution: Sabrina -


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