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A Growing Number Of U.S. Colleges Cancel Classes Amid Coronavirus Fears

The University of Washington in Seattle is one of a growing number of U.S. campuses that have canceled in-person classes in response to the spread of the coronavirus.
Karen Ducey
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The University of Washington in Seattle is one of a growing number of U.S. campuses that have canceled in-person classes in response to the spread of the coronavirus.

Updated at 11:44 a.m. ET Tuesday

A growing number of U.S. colleges have canceled in-person classes because of the coronavirus. The closures began in Washington state, and now include Harvard University, Columbia University, Princeton University, Rice University, Stanford University, Hofstra University, University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington, among others. As of midday Tuesday, more than half a million students are affected by the cancellations.

Education technology specialist Bryan Alexander of Georgetown University has been leading an effort to track coronavirus-related higher education closures. He expects to see many more in the coming days and weeks. "Higher education has a very strong herd mentality," he says, "so I think once University of [Washington] made a shift to teaching online, I think that really got everyone excited."

Many of the colleges announced that they were pausing in-person classes after students or staff members tested positive for the virus. Others, such as Midland University in Nebraska, announced only that they were canceling "out of an abundance of caution."

In some cases, events for prospective students are also being canceled. But many campuses are following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and are staying open when possible to offer housing and meals to students.

Research labs, including those investigating the coronavirus itself, will in most cases remain open. University of Washington spokesperson Victor Balta told NPR: "The campus is not closed; therefore any researchers who need to come to campus are able to do so."

In addition, some of the colleges that have canceled classes, such as Rice and the University of Washington, are continuing to hold athletic events.

In most cases, colleges that have canceled in-person classes have taken steps to offer some instruction online in the interim, and those that are still holding classes are preparing to do the same if necessary.

Stanford spokesperson E.J. Miranda told NPR, "We are not canceling classes. We are implementing online instruction for the remaining two weeks of the quarter."

Daniel Stanford, an education and multimedia professor at DePaul University, has been collecting resources put out by universities to help faculty shift to online teaching. His list includes learning management systems like Blackboard, videoconferencing programs such as Zoom and Shindig, lecture capture tools like Kaltura and free online course platforms like Coursera.

On Thursday, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance allowing colleges to pivot quickly to distance instruction without needing to go through normal channels for approval of an online program. As for students, whose enrollment or academic standing may be disrupted, the department instructed financial aid administrators to "use professional judgement to make adjustments on a case-by-case basis" as far as financial aid amounts and eligibility.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises that higher education institutions that have not yet identified the virus in their community take several steps now, including updating emergency operations plans, promoting basic hygiene and stepping up cleaning and disinfection protocols.

Once higher education leaders identify a case in their community, the CDC advises that they "determine if, when, and for how long" to suspend in-person events and class meetings. The CDC recommends that campuses try to maintain basic services, including housing and meals. For example, rather than serve meals in dining halls, the agency suggests alternatives like "grab-and-go" lunches.

The CDC also recommends that school leaders "help counter stigma and promote resilience on campus." It advises that colleges work to "counter the spread of misinformation and mitigate fear" and that leaders "speak out against negative behaviors, including negative statements on social media about groups of people."

On social media, students have been speaking out about the cancellations.

"@Princeton just cancelled in person classes for three weeks because of Coronavirus but they can't replace the hand soap in our dorm that's been empty for a week," wrote a user who identifies as a member of the class of 2021.

On Sunday, a Twitter user who identifies as a student at Fordham University wrote, "Columbia cancelled class cause 1 person was exposed to coronavirus meanwhile fordham is staying open with like 5 people exposed." The next day, Fordham canceled classes.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.