Returning to Campus in the Fall of 2021
In early 2020, the coronavirus pandemic brought on-campus college life to a standstill. Dorms, campus quads, and sports arenas fell silent. Classes moved from lecture halls to digital screens. As the pandemic continued, students wondered what the rest of their college experience would look like. The pandemic even deprived some students of a milestone moment — the opportunity to walk across the stage at their college graduation.
As one example of how colleges are affected by COVID, spring 2021 college enrollment dropped to 16.9 million students from 17.5 million, a one year decline of 3.5%, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That decline equates to approximately 603,000 students.
The estimated enrollment drop confirms "the pandemic's severe impact on students and colleges this year," the organization's executive director said in a statement. "How long that impact lasts will depend on how many of the missing students, particularly at community colleges, will be able to make their way back to school for the coming fall."
In the pandemic's beginning weeks, most schools pivoted to online-only learning. The move left many students wondering when will campus reopen? Now, after months of adjusting to and living in the new normal, students have answers. Keep reading to learn how schools nationwide plan to proceed with college campus reopenings for the upcoming semester.
As part of college campus reopenings for the fall 2021 semester, many schools will require COVID-19 vaccinations for students who want to study or live on campus. More than 500 public and private colleges had student vaccine mandates in effect as of June 15, according to a database compiled by the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Among schools requiring COVID vaccinations is the University of Virginia. "We will require all students who come to study in person to be fully vaccinated before they do," spokesperson Brian Coy said in an email to Affordable Colleges Online. "We do expect employees to get vaccinated, however if they do not, they will be subject to prevalence testing requirements." All UVA students who plan to live, study, or work on campus must be fully vaccinated. Students must upload their proof of vaccination to a digital portal by July 1.
The University of Notre Dame will also require full vaccination for all students for the upcoming fall semester. In a message to the university community, President Rev. John I. Jenkins said the vaccination policy "will enhance public health at Notre Dame and in our community, while also contributing to our ability to return to a more vibrant campus environment."
Maintaining a safe campus environment with opportunities for pre-pandemic experiences is a central reason why the University of the District of Columbia also plans to require proof of vaccination to attend class or work on campus, President Ronald Mason Jr. said in an email shared by a UDC spokesperson. "We are taking this approach because it poses the least health risk for all involved, and a campus-wide survey indicated that most people will be comfortable returning only if everyone is vaccinated," Mason said.
Leaders at other large schools, like Penn State, decided to encourage but not mandate COVID vaccination. The University of Alabama plans to offer on-campus vaccines but to keep vaccinations optional for students, although getting one "is strongly encouraged." The University of Minnesota will also not require vaccines for students or employees. In a June 15 message to the university's five campuses, President Joan Gabel said even with a mandate "a 100% vaccination rate is not possible in any situation," and the best strategy to stop the disease is "access and information."
Reopening Plan Details
Plans for college campus reopenings at most U.S. schools include in-person learning, and the opportunity to live on campus. Below, we offer a brief look at how six schools plan to approach academics and campus life this fall.
At UDC, the only public university in America's capital city, "fall '21 will be an enhanced normal," Mason said. "In-classroom instruction will be the default mode of instruction, however, more online and hybrid, and limited hyper flex options will be available. Staff will have more alternative work schedule and telework options for up to two days per week."
Coy echoed UDC's sentiment on what the fall semester will look like at UVA. "It would be fair to say we will operate as close to normal as possible, with some new requirements and measures to keep people healthy and safe," he said.
UVA said in May that student vaccinations "will allow for a return to in-person academic instruction, without the strict limitations on spacing and capacity that we have had to employ this year. We expect that most classes will be offered in-person only, without a concurrent virtual option." The school said it will accommodate students and instructions with "unique circumstances" who cannot meet the health mandates.
Residential life at UVA will also return to a more familiar pre-pandemic experience. The school plans to reinstate the requirement for first-year students to live on campus. School leaders also said that most aspects of campus life, such as student clubs, organizations, performing arts, and intramural sports "will also be able to return to more normal ways of meeting, performing, and playing together in person."
At UCLA, school officials said in June that they expect to offer about 80% of courses in person this fall. "Our expectation is that every student will receive at least some in-person instruction," the school said in a statement. They also noted that the campus will develop contingency plans "to reduce in-person learning and other activities should that become necessary."
This fall, UCLA plans to offer triple capacity rooms in on-campus housing. First-year and transfer students, along with foster youth, veterans, and other students who meet specific criteria, will have priority of on-campus housing.
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, "at some level, I expect that the safety protocols of the past year will remain with us," Chancellor Rebecca Blank said in a March blog post. With those protocols in place — subject to change if the health situation changes — the school plans to offer mostly in-person classes. UW-Madison "plans to have all of its residence halls open for the 2021-22 academic year."
At the University of Kansas, things will return to the pre-pandemic normal as much as possible. In-person instruction will return and "we will continue with important COVID-19 health and safety measures to protect ourselves and our community," school officials said in May.
On-campus sports will also look closer to the pre-pandemic normal. Many schools plan to reopen arenas and stadiums to partial or full capacity. Schools making this move include Notre Dame, which announced in May the availability of all 77,622 seats in its football stadium this fall.
Returning to in-person learning, living, social activities, and sports has students excited about going back to school. At the same time, some acknowledge the emotional toll of once again adjusting to so many changes to daily norms and routines.
"I'm really looking forward to going back and getting my life back in a sense, and getting to feel like just a college student again, rather than having the pressure and responsibility of the pandemic to deal with," said Yasmin Horner, a second year UVA student.
As a result of the sustained disruption to daily routines, some college students experienced mental health challenges during the pandemic. As students transition back to campus this fall, Cassandra Gatica, internal vice president of the Undergraduate Students Association Council, told The Daily Bruin she will work with UCLA's Counseling and Psychological Services and its Bruin Mental Health Advisory Committee to ensure increased access to mental health resources.
Claudia Wu, a third year marketing student at the University of Texas at Austin, said she felt stressed this spring by the uncertainty of not knowing how classes would meet this fall. "Any time there's a major shift in the structure of something that we're used to, it will always create a transition period," she told The Daily Texan. "But I think that in itself should not deter people from going to in-person classes." The school later announced plans to operate classrooms and labs at 100% capacity for the upcoming semester.
Nate Delesline III
Nate Delesline III is a Virginia-based writer covering higher education. He has more than a decade of experience as a newspaper journalist covering public safety, local government, business, transportation, and K-12 and higher education.
AffordableCollegesOnline.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.
Do this for you
Explore your possibilities- find schools with programs you’re interested in and clear a path for your future.