College leaders cautiously optimistic about having bounce-back year on campus

LOCAL COLLEGES, such as Brown University, pictured, are optimistic in having a rebound academic year starting in the fall after the COVID-19 pandemic upended campus life for 18 months. / AP FILE PHOTO/STEVEN SENNE
LOCAL COLLEGES, such as Brown University, pictured above, are optimistic they will have a rebound academic year starting in the fall after the COVID-19 pandemic upended campus life for 18 months. / AP FILE PHOTO/STEVEN SENNE

PROVIDENCE – With college students expected to soon return to campuses in Rhode Island, there is cautious optimism that the 2021-22 academic year will be a return to normalcy after nearly 18 months.

Since March 2020, college students, faculty and staff have had to constantly adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, including having to be tested on a regular basis, converting all in-person classes into a hybrid setup, and dealing with limits on campus activity. Some colleges also have dealt with brief on-campus virus outbreaks, requiring them to shift all classes to online for short periods.

Now, the delta variant, which has caused another rise in cases across Rhode Island, is under the watchful eye of college administrators in the event that plans for the upcoming fall semester need to be altered.

“I think they’re preparing for any scenario, but hoping for the best scenario and the higher vaccination rates on campus will keep any spread and breakthroughs much smaller that what we’ve seen in scope,” said Daniel Egan, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island.

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With vaccination rates on campus being higher than the state’s current overall rate and enrollments either at or exceeding last year’s marks, multiple college leaders have expressed a positive outlook on the upcoming academic year that includes a return of campus activities, in-person classes and students traveling abroad.

Also, while some nearby New England colleges, such as the University of Connecticut, had a high number of students request exemptions from getting vaccinated, some Rhode Island-based colleges are reporting low exemption figures. Local colleges also have set safety policies in place for those who requested vaccine exemptions to follow while on campus.

Egan also said colleges hitting their targets for fall enrollment will greatly determine how financially stable they will be moving forward.

“If they can meet pre-pandemic marks of enrollment, I think across state institutions that will be a sign of financial stability of the sector is on flat footing and going forward in a place where they can manage past what they had to deal with last year,” he said.

Bryant University, the Community College of Rhode Island and Rhode Island College did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story.

Brown University

Brown University is expecting to hit overall enrollment of about 10,000, including being around 6,600 for full-time undergraduates as it was last year, according to spokesperson Brian Clark. Clark also said Brown will have most of its 1,800 international students on campus for classes come the fall. Final enrollment numbers won’t be available until October, he said.

The Ivy League university is also this year returning to its traditional two-semester academic schedule. Last year, as a means to de-densify the campus, Brown used a trimester schedule with different classes starting their academics at various points.

Brown is also bringing back most of its study-abroad programs starting in the fall, Clark said, but each will depend on the location it is in and the readiness of the institutions that host the programs.

“Progressively, we’ll see the rest of the programs come back online over the course of the next couple semesters. It all depends on the nature of that particular program,” Clark said.

Clark said Brown is bringing back its mandatory testing procedures for all on campus, including those vaccinated, after initially deciding to not test vaccinated individuals going forward. Although, those who are vaccinated – 88.4% of students and 93.9% of faculty and staff – will be tested less frequently, Clark said. Brown does not have available data as to how many on campus requested exemptions.

Masks were previously optional for fully vaccinated people at Brown and required for those who received exemptions. However, Brown announced Aug. 3 that it will once again require masks for everyone, vaccinated or not, while indoors due to concerns about the Delta variant. The university is also now bringing employees who had worked remotely back to campus in phases through Sept. 13. Initially, all Brown employees who were remote had to return to work in person by Aug. 16.

Johnson & Wales University

About 5,700 students, including 4,600 full-time undergraduates, are expected to be enrolled at Johnson & Wales this year, which is “status quo” to last year, JWU Providence President Marie Bernardo-Sousa said. She also said student vaccination rates are currently more than 80%, and expects it to be about 85% to 90% when classes start. JWU declined to share how many individuals received vaccine exemptions as it is still currently collecting vaccination proof.

Bernardo-Sousa said students who were surveyed last year said they wanted to be back on campus in a traditional setting, hence JWU’s decision to hold classes in person. If the need arises, JWU’s faculty and staff will have the flexibility to offer classes online, she said.

“They will be back on campus, back in the classroom and we couldn’t be happier about that,” Bernardo-Sousa said.

JWU is also launching this fall five study-abroad programs, most of them in Europe. If some programs get cancelled or postponed, Bernardo-Sousa said JWU will work with students to schedule appropriate academic credits for them.

New England Institute of Technology

While fall classes don’t start until October, New England Institute of Technology Executive Vice President Scott Freund believes the undergraduate enrollment will be about 80%, or “not quite” fully back to the 2,000-plus students the technical college saw before the pandemic. But, he said New England Tech is looking at a large number of students re-entering the school for certain programs after temporarily dropping out during the college’s online learning phase.

“It was difficult because we’re such a hands-on school with the trade programs,” Freund said. “It’s pretty hard to teach automotive repair virtually.”

About 75% of New England Tech’s students are fully vaccinated to date, about a month before their first vaccine due dates, Freund said. He said that helps considering a third of the school’s students are studying health care – and clinicals require vaccinations. Less than 1% of New England Tech’s upcoming enrollment requested vaccine exemptions.

Freund said New England Tech still allows optional mask wearing for vaccinated people on campus, but that is currently under review. A decision on that will be announced at the end of August, he said.

New England Tech will still have some rooms available for quarantining, surveillance testing for students and faculty – possibly increasing testing – and social-distancing requirements, Freund said.

Providence College

Providence College’s first-year enrollment will increase by 2.8%, from 1,023 to 1,052 students, this year, according to Ann Manchester-Molak, PC’s executive vice president. Along with maintaining its average of about 4,020 undergraduate day students, PC also expects to have close to 67 international students this year, similar to what the number was last year, Manchester-Molak said. She said the pandemic and some policies implemented by former President Donald Trump caused international enrollment to drop.

PC is also requiring all off-campus students to be vaccinated, as well, Manchester-Molak said. This is in response to PC’s outbreak last fall where more than 200 cases of COVID-19 were identified with off-campus students and the college had to temporarily shift to online learning to get the outbreak under control.

It is currently unclear what PC’s student vaccination rate is. Manchester-Molak said PC’s deadline for students to report their vaccination status is Aug. 9 and a complete picture of what the college’s student vaccination rate is not yet available. Students who are not vaccinated, for any reason, must wear masks and be regularly tested, she said. PC did not immediately respond as to how many on campus are exempted from vaccinations.

Study-abroad programs in Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom will resume in the fall, Manchester-Molak said.

Rhode Island School of Design

Overall enrollment at Rhode Island School of Design will increase from about 2,200 last year to approximately 2,500 this fall, RISD Interim President David Proulx said, returning the arts school’s enrollment to pre-pandemic levels.

Additionally, RISD’s community vaccination rate is about 83%, exceeding its 80% threshold for a safe campus environment, Proulx said. He also said the school is still assessing health and safety measures to be implemented for the fall and those will be announced “shortly,” although some health measures include mandatory testing for individuals who are unvaccinated or who have not disclosed their vaccine status.

“Our decision-making has been – and will continue to be – guided by three primary goals: community health and safety, academic integrity and financial viability, in that order,” Proulx said. “Successfully getting through the past year has been a true community effort and we are confident that our continued diligence and commitment will lead to a successful year ahead.”

Less than 2% of RISD’s entire campus community have requested vaccine exemptions, but the school did not have individual numbers to share.

Proulx also said RISD-sponsored international travel is currently not permitted and will be supported only in exceptional circumstances. RISD is evaluating its protocols for winter and spring based on health guidance, he said.

Roger Williams University

Student vaccination rates at Roger Williams University is slated to be well north of 90% and the university’s new student enrollment – a mix of freshmen and transfers – is up by 3% over last year, RWU Chief of Staff Brian Williams said. That new student enrollment figure brings RWU back to its pre-pandemic size. Less than 3% of RWU’s campus community requested vaccine exemptions.

“Enrollment stability and faculty and staff to be back in teaching, it gives you great hope and momentum that we can deliver the education our students want and deserve,” Williams said. He also said RWU’s upcoming enrollment is “right in that window” of 3,800 and 4,000 undergraduate students, about where it was last year.

Unlike some other colleges, RWU plans to bring back its study-abroad programs in the spring semester. Williams said the spring offers the more viable opportunity for students to study abroad when vaccinations and control over the pandemic is more global.

Masks will be required for students, faculty and staff on campus at RWU who are exempt from the vaccine and “encouraged” for all others on campus, Williams said. He also noted that RWU will still have residence hall space in case someone needs to isolate or quarantine.

Salve Regina University

In addition to having student vaccination rates north of 90%, Salve Regina President Kelli J. Armstrong said the Newport-based institution’s upcoming enrollment will return to pre-pandemic levels, which is close to 2,100 undergraduate students.

While Salve students have signed up to study abroad, Armstrong said the university is watching guidelines country by country because some countries may not have high enough vaccination rates.

“There’s still a few months where we would make that call,” she said. “We anticipate there may be fewer students studying abroad this coming year than we would normally see. But, we won’t know that until we’re underway.”

To date, 1,479 students and 478 faculty and staff at Salve are vaccinated. Only 95 students and 12 faculty and staff requested exemptions.

Salve will continue symptomatic testing, as well as require both unvaccinated students and student athletes to be regularly tested, Armstrong said. She also said the university made sure this year to not over-enroll its residence halls in order to have more space. Also, Salve set aside some housing for isolation and quarantining, if needed.

“I hope we don’t [need it], but we have the space if we need it,” Armstrong said.

University of Rhode Island

University of Rhode Island is slated to exceed its 3,280 new-student target for this year by “a few hundred,” URI Provost Donald DeHayes said. He also hopes that the university’s student retention rate across all populations will be at around 87%.

“Despite all the complications in the world today, students remain very interested coming to URI and we’re pleased about that,” DeHayes said. “I’ll say we’re strongly encouraged that this is going to be a great year at URI.”

Thus far, about 95% of the 7,000 students who have submitted documentation to the university are vaccinated, DeHayes said. He said the numbers will change by the Aug. 16 deadline but the university is still encouraged by that figure. URI is also holding several on-campus vaccination clinics through Sept. 30 to get people vaccinated by the fall.

URI did not immediately respond as to how many on campus are exempt from vaccinations.

DeHayes said URI is optimistic that it will be delivering most of its classes in person, and the university is also giving faculty the option to require students to wear masks while attending their classes.

Vaccinated people on campus will not be subjected to regular testing or required to wear masks, DeHayes said, but guidance is subject to change. If unvaccinated students test positive, DeHayes said they will be asked to leave the campus as URI won’t have isolation space for them.

“Last year, we created spaces off campus through hotels. But the hotels now are back in business with clients, and they won’t be available now,” DeHayes said.

(CORRECTION: Rhode Island School of Design’s community vaccination rate, which includes students, faculty and staff, is 83%.)

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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