NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Colleges in Louisiana are preparing for a second full semester of adjustments to the coronavirus pandemic, with many canceling spring breaks and shuffling start dates to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks on campus.
The alterations come amid uncertainty about a range of issues, including the continued spread of the virus, fluctuating infection rates and public health restrictions and the ultimate timeline and effectiveness of a potential vaccine, any of which could require more tweaks to the academic calendar.
“We’re all making plans, but the underlying theme here is that everything could change,” University of New Orleans President John Nicklow said.
Some universities so far plan no changes at all. Those that are making adjustments in the New Orleans area have been consulting with one another and are largely following a similar path: shortening the second semester and minimizing vacations where students could travel and bring back infections to their classmates and professors.
Tulane University officials learned valuable lessons from the beginning of the first semester when they implemented an ambitious plan for in-person instruction, complete with newly built outdoor classrooms, regular screening protocols and contracts with hotels to house students who were forced to quarantine because of exposure, President Michael Fitts said. That’s led to low case rates at Tulane, he said.
“Obviously everyone in the world is struggling with COVID-19, and we’ve handled it certainly better than most other universities,” Fitts said. “And we’ve learned a lot from the fall.”
Like in the fall, students at Tulane will undergo screening for the virus before they’re even allowed to step foot on campus for the second semester, Fitts said. So while Tulane’s first day classes is unchanged for the second semester, Jan. 19, students will be scheduled to return a week earlier to start the process at the university’s off-campus arrival center. It opens Jan. 8.
Tulane will observe the Carnival break on Feb. 15 and 16, in keeping with the city of New Orleans’ holiday schedule, Fitts said. However, the school will join other universities in forgoing spring break.
“We draw students from all over the country and the world. Before we come to campus, we test everyone,” Fitts said. “When they come, they’ll start with no cases, but obviously there’s a certain risk when someone travels.”
In lieu of the spring break, Fitts said Tulane will give two or three additional days with no classes spread throughout the semester. Commencement will take place May 22, as originally scheduled, he said.
“These are the broad brushstrokes of our upcoming semester. There will be many more details to come in following weeks, and all of our plans are contingent on local, state and federal safety recommendations and requirements,” Fitts said.
UNO will be following a similar plan, starting classes about a week later than normal, on Jan. 29, to let officials get a sense of how things are playing out in January before students return to classes, Nicklow said. The later start will also allow for a full winter semester, he said.
For the first two weeks, those classes will also be held online to provide time for adjustments and so that students and faculty can get a sense of how the logistics of the semester will play out, he said.
In-person classes will resume on Ash Wednesday, after the university takes off Lundi Gras and Mardi Gras, Nicklow said.
“Cancelling Mardi Gras from a university perspective would be like cancelling Christmas: It’s just not reasonable in this town,” said Nicklow, although he said a return to in-person classes on Ash Wednesday is contingent on how things go during Carnival.
Like other universities, UNO is cancelling spring break and replacing it with isolated days off during the semester when needed to prevent campus burnout, he said.
A key to UNO’s strategy is avoiding scheduling breaks that students could use to plan large trips, potentially to areas with higher infection rates. “We’re not necessarily announcing single days off in advance. We don’t want people to line up trips. We don’t want people to go off to the beach or going to large gatherings and then coming back,” he said.
With fewer breaks, the school plans to wrap up about a week early, with commencement on May 20.
Other schools in the University of Louisiana system are still finalizing their schedules.
LSU announced it is cutting down both spring break and the Mardi Gras holiday to one day each and adding a day off in March. That would give the school the ability to end the semester a week earlier than normal, according to a statement from interim President Tom Galligan and provost Stacia Haynie.
The university is also switching to a virtual commencement for December graduation, to avoid risks associated with students returning home for Thanksgiving then coming back to campus. Traditional ceremonies for those graduates, as well as those who missed out on traditional ceremonies at the end of the 2019-20 academic year, will be planned for next year “as soon as it is safe to do so.”
“We want to celebrate with all our 2020 graduates in person, and we pledge to make the event a special day for graduates and their families,” Galligan and Haynie said.
Loyola University is also planning a semester without a spring break and expects to provide single days off to students and faculty and a later start, on Jan. 20.
“It remains dangerous for us to disperse for a spring break and then return to campus with new exposures,” Loyola President Tania Tetlow said.
Southern University at New Orleans will have a spring break of just two days.
Dillard University will be getting a late start, with the semester beginning on Jan. 19, communications director Eddie Francis said. Students and faculty will still have off Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday and an Easter break from April 1 through April 5. The baccalaureate and commencement ceremonies will be held on May 14 and 15.
Not all schools have implemented changes. Southern University in Baton Rouge plans none, and at Delgado Community College communications director Tony Cook said the schedule will be similar to years past. Delgado has more of a “spring holiday” than spring break, Cook said, that being a long weekend built into the schedule. The last day of spring semester will be May 13, a similar date to previous years, he said.
The University of Holy Cross plans no schedule changes for the spring semester. That’s largely because it will be following the model it used for the fall: moving 65% of classes online, minimizing the risk of infection, President Stanton McNeely said. Most in-person classes are in nursing and health sciences, where in-person learning is important, McNeely said.
“That has worked very well for us in the fall,” he said, adding that the school has a 1% test positivity rate and has had no major incidents or outbreaks.
Officials with Xavier University didn’t respond to requests for comment.
At Tulane, Fitts said university officials won’t be letting their guards down, even as the school celebrated low COVID-19 case numbers. Tulane plans to maintain its recently increased testing, which is now up to twice a week for undergraduates and every two weeks for graduate students.
“All of our health safety protocols, including face coverings, social distancing hand hygiene and restrictions on large gatherings will continue as before. They are the means that keep us safe,” Fitts said.