How To Go Back To College In A Pandemic: Face Masks, Social Distancing And Shorter Semesters

Jun 25, 2020

WICHITA, Kansas — Gone are the days of sneaking late into a crowded lecture hall. Reading college students' disapproving faces won't be easy. And Thanksgiving is the new Christmas.

There’ll be a lot of adjustments this fall for students and professors at Kansas’ universities, institutions that have been finalizing plans for how they’ll keep everyone safe from the coronavirus when in-person instruction returns.

Some details are still being worked out, but most four-year universities have agreed on a few main policies, all of which rely on the newly classic COVID-19 prevention toolkit — face masks, social distancing and cutting back on traveling.

Credit Stephan Bisaha / freepik.com

In the classrooms, in hallways, at student unions and on the paths between buildings — face masks will be required just about everywhere on campus.

Five state universities instituted policies that masks must be worn with a few exceptions. Faculty members can ditch it if they’re alone in their office. The same goes for students in their private dorm rooms or when walking outside with no one nearby.

They’ll also be able to lose the masks while eating a salad in the dining hall (just don’t expect to make it yourself at KU — they’re doing away with all self-serving stations).

At Kansas State, students and staff must go through virtual face mask training.

And while Fort Hays State don’t have a requirement for face masks, the college highly encourages them.

Credit Stephan Bisaha / freepik.com

No matter what enrollment looks like when the semester starts, classes will still have plenty of empty seats.

Nearly all of the state universities will seat students at least six feet apart during classes. In large lecture halls where the desks are bolted down, entire rows will be left empty.

Fewer seats mean many professors will have to split their class time. For example, instead of 30 students coming in a couple times a week, half might come in on a Monday while the others tackle the online work before switching places later in the week.

Hands-on classes like lab work will be given some social distancing flexibility due to cramped equipment spaces. But universities have asked teachers to be ready to shift to online instruction in case a second wave sends students home even earlier than planned.

Credit Stephan Bisaha

Regardless of what rules universities enforce on campus, they have little control over what students do when they leave for Thanksgiving break, potentially returning to COVID-19 hotspots.

That’s why most Kansas universities are telling students not to come back after the holiday.

In-person classes will resume online the week after Thanksgiving. Some schools will provide a few more lessons online, while others will reserve the last week of November for studying ahead of finals the next week.

The traditional fall break was wrapped into Thanksgiving break in hopes that it’ll keep people from traveling during the semester. Emporia State students who live on campus will see a cheaper housing bill to reflect that shorter stay.

Only KU has laid out its plans for the spring semester — classes resume Feb. 1 and no spring break — while everyone else waits to see what the pandemic has in store.

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for KMUW and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @stevebisaha.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.