The global novel coronavirus pandemic cut short a semester of activities and sports and forced students to attend classes remotely.
For high school juniors considering enrolling in college, June is the prime time for campus visits and tours. Most colleges and universities have virtual tours available. However, higher learning officials say they understand it’s hard to get a sense of a place through a screen.
“It’s not the same, but we’re hoping that once they can put their feet on the soil, they say,' this is where I belong,'” said Denise McDowell, vice president of enrollment management and student life at Winona State University.
Seeing a campus in person is usually the deal maker or breaker for prospective students, said Brian Jones, director of admissions at Minnesota State University, Mankato.
“Getting a feel for the people, for the place, you can’t replace that,” Jones said.
However, just as students have had to adjust to remote classwork and uncertainty, so have higher education institutions.
Jones and the rest of the admissions staff of 18 are all working remotely.
“We’re going through this just like they are,” Jones said.
McDowell said she understands students weren’t practicing remote learning so much as they had to pivot to a remote environment in a hurry.
Winona State implemented a “Smiles” program to keep in touch with students, gauge how they were doing and ensure they had direct contact with people from the school, McDowell said.
Prospective college students are also uncertain what their college applications will look like.
On the other side of the process, colleges are uncertain what their student bodies will look like.
College administrators are uncertain whether in-person classes will be held, reduced in size or even outright cancelled.
Each outcome would affect fall enrollment differently, McDowell said.
“Some students need to have that feel and cadence of being on campus -- they get energy from the students around them,” McDowell said. “If we can’t have in-person classes, those students might take the year off.”
Other students would be fine not having to put on shoes to attend class. For them and students who are concerned about being around too many people, they might opt out this coming fall.
“It’s a spectrum of who people are,” McDowell said, adding the challenge is an opportunity to be more responsive to students’ needs, she said.
“It gives us an opportunity to discover what works for each individual and help us be nimble for all students,” she said. “This gives higher education an opportunity to really look at our business model and ask ourselves, what are we good at, what can we improve?”
Both schools anticipate a phased-in return to campus this fall, but even that’s uncertain right now. Some restrictions of public events might allow smaller, distanced campus tours as long as students and staff feel comfortable
“We have work to do to ensure there’s a level of safety for students and faculty but also the community,” McDowell said.