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What to Do If Your College Closes Due to the Coronavirus

Josh Moody

As the new coronavirus spreads globally, colleges are reacting by shutting down campuses and shifting to online classes in an effort to slow the surge of the pandemic.

Institutional responses vary across the U.S. Some colleges and graduate schools are proceeding with classes as usual but curtailing travel and study abroad programs, others are extending spring break, many are shifting to online classes and some are emptying the dorms and sending students home.

The sudden shifts in living and learning mean that students have to adjust accordingly, often with little warning.

"It's really just chaos on campus right now," says Haeyun Lee, a junior at Harvard University in Massachusetts.

[Read: Coronavirus Takes Toll on K-12 and Higher Education.]

Lee, who lives in student housing, learned Tuesday that Harvard is closing campus for the rest of the semester and shifting classes online. She said the news caught her and many other students off guard, leaving them scrambling for more information and a plan.

As it stands, she's required to move off campus by Sunday. She intends to fly back to Houston with some pledged relocation assistance from Harvard, though she says the details are still fuzzy.

"I'll just try to get back home to Houston and continue the rest of the semester," Lee says.

Hope Brinn, a student at the University of Michigan--Ann Arbor Law School, is also shifting to online classes, a change the university announced Wednesday.

"I think there will be some growing pains but I know that we have the technology to do it," Brinn wrote in an email. "Any challenges are well worth the tremendous public health benefits that come with social distancing."

What to Know About the Transition to Online Classes

Federal education data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that more than a third of students took at least one online course in fall 2018. Out of more than 20 million students in the U.S. at that time, more than 6.9 million took at least one online class and 16.3% of the total student population was enrolled exclusively online.

Now the number of students taking online classes is set to grow almost overnight. The goals of online learning are the same as face-to-face classes, but the delivery of instruction differs. Online education experts say students should prepare appropriately.

[See: 10 Big Mistakes Online Students Make.]

Sam Houston State University in Texas has not shifted classes online on its main campus as of publication, but it has at Zhejiang Police College in Hangzhou, China, where SHSU is part of a dual degree program. Classes there quickly shifted online amid health concerns and quarantines in China, where the coronavirus, which causes a disease called COVID-19, originated.

Faculty and staff at Sam Houston have experience in making an abrupt transition from in-person to online courses, having done so in 2017 when Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, says Ruth Chisum, executive director for online operations at SHSU.

"There's nothing like a crisis to get you ready for things you have not previously considered," Chisum says.

Chisum and representatives from Blackboard, a learning management system provider, and 2U, an online program management company, offered the following tips for student success in the digital classroom:

-- Log into the learning management system to ensure access.

-- Update contact information for emergency communications.

-- Download the school app and the learning management system app.

-- Check technical requirements for browsers and plug-ins.

-- Make sure there is adequate internet connectivity or smartphone access.

-- If internet access is spotty, download the content from the learning management system.

-- Take time to navigate through the online learning platform and explore its features.

-- Check on Americans with Disabilities Act issues immediately, such as the need for closed captions or transcriptions.

-- Discuss possible emergency procedures with professors.

-- Create a dedicated study space and routine.

-- Stick to a traditional schedule to maintain learning pace and rhythm.

-- Attend virtual office hours and participate in online study groups.

-- Don't assume classwork will be easier because it's online.

Finding Alternatives to Campus Housing and Meal Plans

As campus housing closes down at some colleges, the cheapest alternative for many students may be to move back home. But housing situations can vary greatly, and the cost to travel home, especially on short notice, may be prohibitive for students who are at school far away from home.

With colleges emptying dorms, that may mean students find themselves without a place to live or access to meal plans.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, founding director of The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University in Pennsylvania, wrote in an email that student struggles with life, logistics and finances often play out in the classroom as academic challenges. Some students may now be even more vulnerable as campuses close and social supports slip away.

"Many students faced food and housing insecurity before the pandemic, and now the risk is heightened," Goldrick-Rab wrote. "They are facing disruptions in their housing (which may well be pre-paid and nonrefundable), their food (again, pre-paid), their employment, and so on."

Students affected by college closures should look to student affairs officials, she says. "Ask for options, emergency aid, etc. Do not be shy in seeking support. Use your college's resources before turning to community resources, as those are already taxed."

If student affairs doesn't respond, Goldrick-Rab urges students to contact faculty, advisers, coaches and other college resources. The response at colleges has varied, with some delivering meals, housing students in nearby hotels or helping with relocation costs.

Though community resources may be taxed, she notes that community food pantries and churches may also provide assistance.

[Read: Coronavirus on Campus: How College Students Can Stay Safe.]

Graduate students and those in professional programs who live on campus may also face pressures around family situations.

"Given that many schools closing for the pandemic are requiring students to vacate university-owned housing, students here (particularly those with children) are nervous about how to plan for the future," Brinn wrote in an email prior to Michigan moving all classes online.

Local news reports now indicate that students at the University of Michigan who desire will be allowed to remain in campus housing, and dining facilities will keep operating.

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