Colleges, universities prepare for social distancing in fall, potential drop in enrollment

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- As colleges and universities prepare for the upcoming fall semester, there's no doubt things will look a bit different.

"Housing might be more students staying in single rooms as opposed to doubles and triples. It might mean changes in scheduling where students would go to class one day a week instead of two or three days a week and do the rest of their lessons online," said Texas Higher Education commissioner Harrison Keller.

He said the biggest challenge facing colleges is uncertainty coupled with potential drops in enrollment.

According to Virginia-based consulting firm Simpson Scarborough, roughly 20 percent of high school seniors said it's likely they won't attend college in the fall because of COVID-19 and financial uncertainty.

"That drop in enrollment not only affects the state support that institutions receive, but of course, it also affects the kind of tuition dollars that they receive and other kinds of revenues," Keller said.

University of St. Thomas President Richard Ludwick said they've already begun addressing that issue by offering a 60 percent discount for summer classes and free tuition for select associate degrees in the fall.

SEE RELATED STORY: University of St. Thomas offering free tuition to 100 students looking to earn associates degree

"We're providing the kinds of programs at the kinds of prices that are responsive to their needs and the community," Ludwick said.

The University of St. Thomas, Rice University and University of Houston said they plan to resume in-person classes in the fall with social distancing plans in place.

"Our higher education institutions, I think, across the state recognize and are committed to not only providing safe productive learning environments for their students -- they're actively involved in public health responses and they're actively involved in conversations about what the Texas recovery is going to look like," Keller said.

In a letter to faculty and staff, Rice University president David Leebron issued the following statement on Monday:

"We are cautiously optimistic that we will begin the fall semester on schedule in mid-August with all students who are able returning to campus. From now until then, depending on evolving facts and government rules, we will plan a gradual process of reopening. At each stage, however, we must be open to re-evaluating our plans as the facts and circumstances surrounding COVID-19 change."

Meanwhile, the University of Houston issued this statement about its plans for the fall semester:

"In regard to the fall semester, we expect to resume face-to-face instruction in the fall and we will continue to follow all CDC and local and state health guidelines that remain in place such as social distancing. However, we are making plans for three scenarios: fully online, fully on campus, and some form of hybrid. Depending on the public health conditions in the city, we will make that determination sometime in late May or early June.

In regard to fall enrollment, we're hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. Last month President Khator appointed three task forces: a Financial Task Force to evaluate all tools at our disposal in case of a budget shortfall - all options are on the table; a Re-Opening Task Force that addresses research labs, classes and athletics (phase 1 of our re-opening actually began today with a phasing-in of research labs); and a New Normal Task Force to evaluate new, perhaps more innovative strategies for achieving the university's academic and research mission with greater precision and efficiency."

The University of Houston Downtown also released a statement on resuming classes:

"Right now, I can say that summer classes will continue online. An announcement regarding fall is forthcoming. Any decision to resume classes on campus will be made with the health and safety of our students as the top priority. The University has initiated three separate task forces with UHD leadership, faculty and staff to plan a phased return to campus starting this summer. Any initial return to UHD will likely begin with staff members and not students. It is too early to say what that initial return will look like in terms of distancing and other protocols, but the University will follow guidance from state and local leaders and health professionals when bringing people back to campus."

Here's a statement from Texas Southern University on plans for the fall semester:

"Texas Southern University is working through its plans for the fall semester and we plan to make an announcement in the near future so that our TSU community can plan accordingly. The number one criteria as we develop our plans is the safety and health of our students, faculty and staff."

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