Universities across New York City brace for new realities during COVID-19

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Third-level education institutions and their students in New York City face a lot of uncertainty as the pandemic is slate to continue into the summer and is almost certainly going to affect the fall semester.

As colleges and universities wrap up an unprecedented spring semester that was forced to move remotely as of March, faculty and administrative staff are working to create ways to continue education and research in September.

“I know none of you signed up for this, but you should all be proud of the strength you have shown,” said Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, chancellor of the City University of New York in a May 11 message.

The City University of New York has been grappling with the health crisis ever since it closed down its 25 campuses across the five boroughs and has moved all its classes online for its 275,000 students.

CUNY leaders have decided to move all summer classes online, but are still awaiting guidance from the state’s Education Department on how to proceed for the fall.

Private universities in the city have been more emphatic about reopening fully in the fall, likely fearing a drop in applications, but to what extent they will do that depends on the institution.

Consultant firm McKinsey — which Governor Andrew Cuomo tapped to develop an economic reopening plan for the state — in April released a five-point plan for institutions on how to operate remotely in the coming months.

The plans focus on allowing all students and staff access to the technology they need to learn remotely, including laptops and a good internet connection, as well as other services that universities provide such as food, housing, and mental health services.

Remote learning has exposed a digital divide between wealthier and lower-income students, with well-heeled pupils more likely to have laptops, a good wifi connection, and other gadgets to help learn via the web. Universities need to nip these challenges in the bud, according to a Harvard Business Review report.

The institutions should also help staff learn about the new technology in the summer months with boot camps, IT support, and cyber defense so that the new digital infrastructure works across the board and is safe for all who use it, according to McKinsey consultants.

The McKinsey report urges colleges to maintain student life and campus communities outside of the classroom with online events, discussions, and other virtual gatherings that could be organized through an online student center.

NYU has already launched a series of virtual events to help incoming students connect with the university’s community, including virtual tours of its campuses and Ask Me Anything sessions with current students via Instagram.

Using online platforms like Zoom has already allowed teachers to host classes with students scattered in different time zones. Some lecturers at NYU have become more creative with their online classes, like one teacher who used the social media platform Tik Tok as a teaching aid.

University education faces many challenges and disruptions in the coming months and years, but college leaders are working hard to forge the path that lies ahead.

“As disjointed as this moment has come to feel, as filled as it is with deep uncertainties, we must move forward,” said the president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, in a May 14 statement. “This has been a spring for the ages, and my deepest hope is that the goodwill and collective effort manifested in this crisis will continue to sustain us in the months and years ahead.”