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Scores of universities and colleges across the country are moving online or closing campuses amid the coronavirus outbreak, transforming U.S. higher education in a matter of days. 

At least 200 universities and colleges have canceled or postponed in-person classes, according to a list monitored by Georgetown University senior scholar Bryan Alexander.

Higher education experts call the situation “unprecedented” as the number of U.S. cases approaches 2,000. Many more are expected.

“A week ago we could not have imagined where we would be today,” said Terry W. Hartle, the senior vice president of the American Council on Education. “It’s essentially crisis management at lightspeed without a playbook.”

Higher education institutions initially shut down in-person classes in coronavirus hotspots such as Washington state, New York and California. The first major university to cancel face-to-face classes was the University of Washington, located in Seattle and King County, where 27 deaths have occurred. 

Higher education institutions should expect “profound ramifications” from their decision to move online, specifically to admission, said Lynn Pasquerella, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) president.

“There are just so many aspects of this current situation that are unprecedented,” she said, adding that she cannot “fully predict the long-term implications.”

Pasquerella said the universities and colleges need to consider several implications when deciding to go online, such as how they will adjust for underserved students who do not have access to the necessary resources and how to train its faculty to conduct online courses. Some schools might not have enough resources to move everything online, she said.

The travel bans and advisories have also affected international students, who face an unclear future as some campuses evacuate. President Trump announced a ban on most travel from Europe on Wednesday, after bans of travel from Iran and China were implemented earlier in the outbreak. 

Rachel Banks, the senior director of public policy and legislative strategy for NAFSA: Association of International Educators, said the organization has been involved in working with international students as they deal with these bans and visa restrictions.

“I think it’s too soon to know,” she said when asked what the consequences of moving fully online would be. “I mean we’ve never been in a situation like this before.”

Several higher education institutions’ announcements came either right before or during spring break, leading some schools to for now extend spring break before adjusting classes. Others have designated online classes for a limited amount of time or for the entire semester.

Some schools like Grinnell College in Iowa, Amherst College in Massachusetts and West Chester University in Pennsylvania are requiring students who live on-campus to leave, except in specific circumstances. 

Ilan Stavans, a professor of humanities and Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College, said he thought the announcements were “inevitable,” but it caused “emotional turmoil,” including “anger, disappointment, depression” and “a sense of mourning and grief” for students and faculty.

Stavans, who runs an interactive classroom, said many professors are struggling with how to use online classroom platforms and how to adapt normal class practices like students raising hands or separating into groups into the digital format. He said professors will also have to address students in very different time zones

“When we return, we’ll be different teachers,” he said, adding that after 20 years of testing online learning, professors were being “forced to deal with that in an impromptu way.” 

Fourth-year Grinnell College student Regina Logan said the situation has been “really, really hard” for students who have to leave campus. She said she’s unsure if she will have a graduation ceremony but said she’d agree with not having a formal commencement and bringing thousands of people to the “under-resourced” rural area. 

“The vast majority understand personal sacrifice,” she said.

University of California Student Association President Varsha Sarveshwar said the move to online classes is “responsible” and “proactive.”

“I think it’s unquestionable that online learning isn’t at the quality of in-person learning, and so this will be a tough couple of weeks for all of us,” she said in an email.

“This is an unprecedented situation,” she added. “And it requires grace, understanding, and compromise from everyone involved, including administrators, faculty, staff, and, yes, students.”

Higher education institutions first started to address coronavirus by canceling study abroad programs earlier this year in the attempt to get students home from countries at the epicenter of the outbreak. Colleges and universities have also aborted various prospective student programs. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance for administrations to deal with the coronavirus, asking schools without a case identified to prepare, including by updating emergency operation plans. The Department of Education also offered advice for how institutions can comply with Title IV, Higher Education Act policies for different scenarios of students affected by the virus, either directly or indirectly.

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