Every two years, New Jersey’s higher-education secretary expects the state’s school administrators to present contingency plans for disaster scenarios. Dorm fires, mass shootings, extreme weather events—all types of threats are considered by these college representatives. University presidents, deans, and others in essential management roles have color-coordinated charts and go bags stashed in their offices. They conduct tabletop exercises: When do we cancel classes? Should we send students home? But these leaders weren’t adequately prepared for the onset of a pandemic, nor for the large-scale, indefinite shutdown that has taken place.
Overall, colleges have responded quickly to the multifaceted coronavirus threat. Universities swiftly moved classes online, canceled spring sports, and instructed students to vacate their dorm rooms. (Some institutions refunded fees for on-campus housing, or found ways to get study-abroad students home.) Still, shutting down was the easy part. Now administrators have to figure what their institutions will do once this semester ends. “If you were to design a place to make sure that everyone gets the virus, it would look like a nursing home or a campus,” Paul LeBlanc, the president of Southern New Hampshire University, which has more than 130,000 students enrolled online, told me yesterday.