WASHINGTON >> The Education Department has moved to ease rules on colleges and universities looking to shift their classes onto the internet, as closures of campuses cascaded today with the hastening spread of the coronavirus.
With fears growing in higher education, the department has granted what it said was “broad approval” to schools seeking relief from federal standards as they activated “distance learning” programs that still must comply with higher education laws. A guidance document released on Thursday promised colleges and universities flexibility to adjust calendars and course schedules to accommodate students who cannot meet enrollment requirements or complete internships or study abroad programs.
The department will also allow schools to maintain financial aid eligibility for students who qualify for federal work-study and Pell grants, even if they are not on campus.
Those moves helped push higher education to the forefront of virus containment. Harvard, American, Syracuse, Cornell and Ohio State universities announced today that they would transition to online classes in the coming days, as did Smith College in Massachusetts.
Colleges see themselves as natural hotbeds for viral transmission because they host large groups of people who live and work together for long periods.
“The decision to move to virtual instruction was not made lightly,” Lawrence S. Bacow, Harvard’s president, wrote in a letter to the university community, announcing that the school would begin online courses by March 23, after its spring recess.
“Despite our best efforts to bring the university’s resources to bear on this virus, we are still faced with uncertainty — and the considerable unease brought on by uncertainty,” Bacow wrote. “It will take time for researchers, a good many of them who are our colleagues, to understand enough about this disease to mount a reliable defense against it.”
The list of schools that have announced plans to cancel in-person classes has topped more than two dozen, and higher education officials expect more announcements throughout the week. Among other schools that have announced they will transition to remote instruction are Stanford, Columbia, Princeton, the University of Washington and New York University. Some have said they will not reopen this semester.
“It isn’t an exaggeration to say that this is the biggest shock to the higher education system in a generation,” said Ted Mitchell, the president of the American Council on Education, which represents presidents and administrators at more than 1,700 colleges, universities and related organizations.
And with many students preparing to travel for spring break, university leaders said the risk of infection was rising.
“We know that many people will travel widely during spring break, no matter how hard we try to discourage it,” wrote Biddy Martin, the president of Amherst College, which announced Monday that students should not plan to return after spring break. “The risk of having hundreds of people return from their travels to the campus is too great.”
For similar reasons, Smith College, in Massachusetts, announced that all students must move out of their campus housing by March 20, and should plan to not return to campus for the rest of the semester.
The rapid shutdown of so many campuses has not been easy. Higher education institutions that take federal funding must comply with a web of regulations and educational standards, from rules for campus security to strict reporting standards for financial aid. The Education Department’s guidance allowed schools to respond “decisively” and be “innovative and creative,” Mitchell said.
“Higher education is often seen as a slow-moving enterprise, and I think the last week has put that to rest,” he added.
For many college students, the transition will be difficult, higher education experts and leaders cautioned. Smaller and poorer schools have not been able to invest heavily in technology to deliver online courses. And some students cannot easily book a flight home when a campus suddenly shuts down. Princeton announced that it would keep its residence and dining hall open for students who cannot get home.
Higher education officials are also concerned about the effect that in-person class cancellations will have on international students. Most online courses do not count toward a foreign student’s visa requirements, raising concern that some students will violate the terms of their visas before campuses reopen.
After Northeastern University administrators raised alarms with the Department of Homeland Security, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said it would allow foreign students to take online courses, as long as their university notifies ICE of the change within 10 days, said Carissa Cutrell, a spokeswoman for the agency, which runs the student visa program.
The program “intends to be flexible with temporary adaptations,” Cutrell said.
Cutrell did warn that students forced to return home because of the coronavirus should contact school officials to see if the time away from school would violate what is known as the five-month rule. That rule holds that foreign students who have been outside the United States for more than five months need to re-enroll in the visa program.
Theresa Cardinal Brown, the director of immigration and cross-border policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said universities should advise foreign students on how to comply with their visa requirements as the virus spreads.
“There are changes being made that are not the students’ fault,” said Brown, who is a former director of the Immigration Legislation Task Force in the Department of Homeland Security. “It’s out of their control, but they’re responsible for maintaining their status.”
“How do they know? Who is communicating with them on what to do?” she asked. “Because the system is unforgiving.”
The Education Department is expected to release similar guidance this week for primary and secondary schools, which serve nearly double the number of students. Closures of those schools will be more complex and consequential because they will involve issues such as child care, special education services and free and reduced-price meals.
The department has signaled that schools will be allowed to use grants usually dedicated to technology to help implement emergency operations plans. The pending guidance is intended to help elementary and secondary schools manage a raft of thorny problems, such as meeting federal requirements on testing and absenteeism, safeguarding student privacy and continuing education for students with disabilities.
As of today, more than 1,000 primary and secondary schools have been closed or are scheduled to close, including public schools in Fulton County, Georgia, and the Seattle area. Those closures have affected nearly 800,000 students, according to Education Week.