University of North Carolina students wait outside of Woolen Gym on the Chapel Hill campus as they wait to enter for a fitness class Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, just before the announcement for virtual classes was made.
CNN  — 

It took just one week into the fall semester for multiple Covid-19 clusters to emerge at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – prompting the school to send students packing and make classes remote.

UNC-Chapel Hill is not alone. Across the nation, many colleges and universities that have reopened amid a global pandemic have experienced a similar fate: They opted for in-person learning, with safety precautions in place, but were still hit by Covid.

Some colleges and universities have opted to stick to virtual learning. Yet, others have said they still plan on going forward with their plans for in-person learning, or do a hybrid model that consists of a mixture of in-person and remote classes.

And students – some who are enthusiastic about being back, others who are worried about the safety risks – are still showing up.

Although states across the US are now seeing a decline in coronavirus cases, health officials have warned that “could turn around very quickly.” Those outside these colleges and universities have wondered: Why are they taking the risk?

The answer, according to education experts, is simple: their options are limited. They can reopen, and impose safety measures to try and curb the spread of the virus, or they can continue to conduct remote learning only, and risk financial devastation.

Terry Hartle, who is senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, described the situation to CNN as “a perfect storm for colleges and universities.”

The big argument for going back

In the early days of the pandemic, colleges and universities had to shift to remote learning as states began imposing mandatory stay-at-home orders.

What they – and many others – didn’t anticipate was how long the pandemic would last, and how quickly Covid-19 would spread. Lacking a nationwide mandate, many schools were left to figure out the rapidly changing situation for themselves, amidst external pressure.

Suddenly, schools were losing billions of dollars off room and board charges alone – and they were also saddled with additional costs of moving to online teaching, Hartle said.

Darlene Genander loads up her vehicle as she helps junior UNC-Chapel Hill student Caitlin Sockin move out of Alderman Residence Hall in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020.

Other revenue also disappeared. Over the summer, for example, many schools are accustomed to hosting alumni events and other types of gatherings, Hartle noted. But all that auxiliary money evaporated as the world screeched to a halt.

Meanwhile, the cost of keeping faculty and staff employed did not go down. And most colleges typically spend 60-70% of their budget on human resources, Hartle said.

“The biggest thing colleges spend money on is faculty and staff,” he said. “Laying these people off is not something anyone wants to do, because it’s the equivalent of throwing away seed corn.”

This is arguably the main reason so many colleges and universities are pushing to reopen. A reopened campus means football games (a source of revenue), parking fees (one school, Hartle said, is losing $2 million a month in parking revenue), and – of course – housing.

“We’re not yet seeing widespread furloughs and layoffs, but if financial challenges continue, those I am afraid will be unavoidable.”

Every college is being affected differently, Hartle said. Schools that have already been seeing declining enrollment are the ones that may face an existential crisis. Public schools, at least, get a significant amount of support from the state government. Private schools get significant backing from donations and gifts.

Still, the effects of the pandemic on universities are already visible.

Stanford University, for example, offers its prestigious Stegner fellowship every year for creative writing. Typically, fellows have the opportunity to apply for lectureships after the program is over. This year, an addendum has been made to the fellowship’s page: “Due to the pandemic, positions may not be available in the next few years.”

Remote learning, less earning

Daniele Struppa, the president of Chapman University, told CNN that the pandemic has already taken a toll on the institution financially.

The private liberal arts school, which is in Orange County, California, made the decision earlier this month to keep classes virtual for the fall semester.

“While we continue to operate without guidance from Gov. Newsom, we need to provide as much clarity as we are able,” Struppa said in a statement to the Chapman community on August 4. “Due to the high unlikelihood that in-person instruction will be allowed beyond the very limited activities … we have decided to begin fall with remote instruction for all remaining Chapman graduate and undergraduate programs at both Orange and Rinker campuses.”

“This is not the news we wanted, nor the plan we have been working toward for the past several months,” he wrote.

The decision came after California became the state with the most reported cases in the US, with more than 650,00 cases and over 11,000 deaths reported as of Thursday, according to Johns Hopkins University data. Other schools in the state, including the California State University system, had also already made the call to cancel nearly all in-person classes through the fall semester to reduce spread of the coronavirus.

But now, Chapman is looking at a deficit of upwards of $110 million, Struppa told CNN.

Chapman University President Daniele Struppa is seen in 2018 in Orange, California.

About 82% of Chapman’s revenue comes from tuition and fees. Some students, Struppa said, are deciding to take a semester off or deferring their enrollment because they’d rather return post-Covid.

Going remote also means the university won’t make any money off of on-campus housing, which will cost Chapman a whopping $40 million, Struppa said. The school also spent over $2 million in new technology to enhance remote learning.

The reduction in enrollment is also costing about $36 million, plus an extra $15 million the school allotted to extra financial aid due to the recession. That, plus all the small ways universities make money (think parking, bookstores, etc), adds up to about $110 million.

And Chapman isn’t unique, he said. The majority of universities have a similar business model.

Are the safety precautions enough?

Universities and colleges can, for the most part, control what happens on its campuses. They can require face masks, enforce social distancing and set up mandatory testing.

Many institutions that have made the decision to keep in-person classes have done that and then some, pouring money and resources into ensuring student safety upon their return to campus.

At Boston University, students are even getting involved in encouraging their peers to hold each other accountable when it comes to enforcing social distancing guidelines.

Ahead of the fall term, a group of students launched a public health campaign called “F*ck It Won’t Cut It,” which through TikTok videos, Instagram posts, and infographics will “communicate an urgent reality: that if the entire student body does not take social distancing, masking up, and other COVID-19 preventive measures seriously when they return, campus life will cease to exist,” according to an article in BU Today.

But even with help from vigilant students, school officials can’t necessarily control the off-campus gatherings, where rules are more likely to be ignored and the virus more likely to spread.

For example, earlier this week, Oklahoma State University said that an off-campus sorority house is under quarantine after 23 members tested positive for Covid-19.

University of Idaho students wear face masks while playing a game outside of Sigma Nu fraternity during fraternity bid day, the final day of the recruitment process, on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020, in Moscow, Idaho.

“I know every Chad and Brad isn’t going to do their part,” Ally Owens, a senior at the University of Michigan, told CNN. “I’m hoping for the best, but expecting the worst.”

The university is scheduled to start the semester on August 31 with a hybrid model in place. There are rules about masks, social distancing – all the buzzwords that have become ubiquitous on campuses nationwide.

But it’s feels like the university is checking off boxes, Owens said. Meanwhile, she’s already heard rumors about opening week parties, particularly within Greek life, where the university seems to be “turning a blind eye.”

When the virus spreads among students, it also puts faculty and staff at risk.

Linda Bolin, a professor at the College of Nursing at East Carolina University, is teaching her classes online this year.

But as a resident of Greenville, North Carolina, where the school is based, she said she still worries about students following guidelines outside of the classroom.

“I just don’t go out,” she told CNN.

‘A gamble with our lives’

For many, the fall semester already feels like a lose-lose situation.

Some students who returned to their respective college campuses said they are frustrated by how their school is handling coronavirus.

“I see an institution that I love so much making a gamble with our lives, and ultimately failing,” Payton Tysinger, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, told CNN.

Tysinger said he was not surprised by the Covid clusters that popped up on campus. Nor was he surprised when the university – one week later – announced it would switch to virtual learning entirely. At that point, more than 100 people in the campus community had tested positive.

But he was disappointed.

When asked for comment about student concerns, a spokesperson for UNC-Chapel Hill pointed CNN to a statement from its Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz.

“We understand the concern and frustrations these changes will raise with many students and parents,” Guskiewicz wrote when announcing the school would switch back to entirely remote classes.

“As much as we believe we have worked diligently to help create a healthy and safe campus living and learning environment, we believe the current data presents an untenable situation. As we have always said, the health and safety of our campus community are paramount, and we will continue to modify and adapt our plan when necessary.”

Other students said they are excited about being back at school.

For María Luisa Paúl, a senior at Notre Dame University in Indiana, the possibility of a semi-normal semester – even if it meant replacing bars and parties with masks and hand sanitizer – was better than remote learning.

“As a senior I’d love to go to bars, I’d love to hug people, I’d love to have a normal semester,” she told CNN. “But I can’t, and it’s something we have to deal with. With protocols, we can get a semester that’s a bit more normal than just being online.”

The University of Notre Dame, which like UNC-Chapel Hill kicked off the fall semester on August 10, now has more than 300 cases, according to the university’s Covid-19 tracker. As a result, the school announced it will conduct two weeks of remote instruction. School officials haven’t canceled the semester yet, but some are speculating it’ll happen.

When asked for comment, a Notre Dame spokesperson referred CNN to a video released on August 18 to the university community in which University President Rev. John I. Jenkins said the “spike in cases is very serious.”

However, he said after receiving encouragement and advice from a medical expert, the university “decided to take steps, short of sending students home, at least for the time being.”

Meanwhile, those who are stuck at home for remote learning miss the college experience. Some also feel they aren’t getting their money’s worth – there are already a handful of class-action lawsuits filed against universities by students who argue the schools have failed to adequately refund or reimburse students for tuition and other fees they paid to have in-person, on-campus classes and other activities.

A student studies Tuesday outside the closed Wilson Library on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Still, the consensus among students CNN interviewed was that safety should remain a priority for colleges and universities.

“We really don’t know in the long run how coronavirus will affect people,” Daisy Sosa, a sophomore at Queen’s University in Charlotte, North Carolina, told CNN. The school announced recently that it would “move to 100% virtual instruction for the fall semester.”

“Even if people are young, they might not die,” Sosa said, “but it could still affect them in the long run or could get someone sick who’s vulnerable.”

Tysinger said before UNC-Chapel Hill reversed course, there was a gathering at a dorm called Hinton James. Video footage that circulated online showed a group of about 20 students all sliding down a slip-and-side outside.

“I just really can’t wrap my mind around how anyone saw a slip-and-slide being rolled outside a residence hall and thought it was a good idea,” he said. “It looked like coronavirus.”

Not long after spotting the slip-and-slide gathering, Tysinger received a text alert from the university: A cluster of cases had been identified at Hinton James.