Seton Hall University announced on Thursday that it would shift its primary mode of course delivery online for the beginning of the fall semester, citing New Jersey's recent slowdown of its three-stage reopening plan.
The move comes as three other New Jersey colleges – Drew University, The College of New Jersey, and Rowan University – announced earlier this week that they would pivot to remote learning for their fall semesters, citing similar factors.
Despite the rollback of in-person classes, Seton Hall will still allow students to move into residence halls as previously planned on Aug. 16 but will require COVID-19 entry testing for all residents. According to the University, the tests will be administered by its own Health Services department and will be free of charge to all students, regardless of health insurance status.
The University will also provide students arriving from one of the 35 states listed on New Jersey's voluntary self-quarantine list with single occupancy rooms to isolate for the 14-day period.
Currently, it is unclear when or if in-person classes could begin as colleges and universities across the state remain bound by guidelines from New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy's office, which mandate that widespread in-person classes may not begin until Stage Three of the state's economic reopening. Murphy recently began retightening social distancing restrictions, citing the state's increasing rate of transmission and daily case count for the coronavirus.
Giving the clearest sign yet that the state was grinding its Stage Two reopening to a halt, Murphy announced on Monday that he was lowering the limit on indoor gatherings to 25% of a room's capacity, with a maximum of 25 people – down from 100.
"Whether before or after the academic year begins, when New Jersey reaches Stage Three or government health directives allow, the University plans to pivot to the HyFlex model of on-campus, in-person instruction," University President Dr. Joseph Nyre said in an email to students announcing the decision.
Some classes, such as labs, clinicals and certain technical and hands-on instructional courses, are permitted to continue in-person under Stage Two, according to state guidance, and will take place as planned at Seton Hall.
"I know beginning the semester with mostly remote instruction is a disappointment to everyone, myself included," Nyre said. "Yet our months of multivariate planning have prepared the University well for this moment. We are equally prepared to pivot to in-person instruction when it is possible to do so."
The announcement is one of several in the last week as colleges nationwide are being forced to grapple with state and local health restrictions, rising COVID-19 case counts and the financial repercussions of a primarily online semester.
"My initial reaction is it's about time for this to happen. It's a very aggressive reopening, and it really does put the onus on the Governor," Dr. Robert Kelchen, a higher education expert and associate professor at Seton Hall, said of the University's announcement.
"Seton Hall's return is one of the most aggressive proposed returns that I've seen, and it seems like they want to move as soon as they can, while a lot of other colleges that have announced delays announced delays for at least several weeks," He said.
Roughly 29% of colleges across the country are currently planning for primarily or fully online semesters, according to Chronicle of Higher Education tracker, with 40% of colleges still planning for hybrid, primarily and fully in-person classes.
According to Kelchen, New Jersey universities eager to reopen their doors for in-person classes have been already lobbying the state to enter Stage Three for weeks but notes that effort will likely continue, though from a different group desperate to move the state's economic reopening forward: parents of K-12 students.
"With the two most influential universities in the state, Rutgers and Princeton, already primarily online, the big lobbying effort is going to come from K-12 at this point, where parents are going to be pushing for in-person, and unions are going to be pushing for online," Kelchen noted, "And then there will also be probably some pushback at Seton Hall about this plan to reopen quickly."