Questions Remain As NJ Universities Plan For A Return To Campus

Montana Samuels, Patch Staff

Posted Thu, Apr 1, 2021

As some New Jersey colleges celebrate an expected return to normalcy this fall, others plan for the new semester with cautious optimism.


NEW JERSEY — As state officials expand access to coronavirus vaccines, college and university decision makers are beginning to sort through a return to in-person learning this fall.

Some of the Garden State's most esteemed universities have already informed staff they should prepare to be in the classroom full-time, while others continue to ask a familiar question: just how normal can a "return to normal" look?

A memo sent to faculty and staff at Princeton University informed them that those working remotely would return to campus "on a rolling basis," but that all of them should plan to be on campus in the fall. Read more: Princeton University Plans For In-Person Return In Fall

Though Princeton is a private university, this guidance from top administrators falls in line with recent comments by Gov. Phil Murphy about remote learning at New Jersey's public school districts. Read more: NJ School Remote Learning Amid COVID Stops Next Year: Gov. Murphy

When asked if parents would have the option to enroll their children in remote learning at the start of the next school year, Murphy said he wanted to be "unequivocal" in his response.

"As we're sitting here now, no," Murphy said during his Wednesday news conference. "We are expecting Monday through Friday in-person. Every school, every district."

Then there's Rutgers.

The largest university in New Jersey is perhaps the first in the nation to put forth a mandate that students be vaccinated before returning to in-person classes this fall, stirring up much debate about vaccine efficacy and personal choice.

Here's what we know about what universities have already implemented, what they're planning, and what it took to get here.

Mandatory Vaccines

Rutgers University is the first to announce they'd require students to be vaccinated before they returned to campus for in-person learning, but it hasn't come without opposition.

Administrators said they're following guidance from public health officials, but critics of the move say it limits personal choice. (Students will still have the option to take online courses.)

"I have asked for a bill to be drawn up that any school that takes state funding cannot mandate a vaccine," said state Assemblywoman Serena DiMaso (R), who represents New Jersey's 13th Legislative district. "It's not that I don't believe in the vaccine; I got the vaccine. I just don't believe we should mandate people to get it, especially kids."

Gov. Phil Murphy said he was "very impressed" with Rutgers' decision, but he hasn't issued guidance for other colleges and universities, according to a Patch report. Read more: GOP Lawmaker Said She Plans To Fight Rutgers' Vaccine Mandate

Rutgers may be the first university in the country to issue a vaccine mandate, Association of American Colleges and Universities President Lynn Pasquerella told, but she expects others to follow now that someone has made the first move.

None have gone as far as Rutgers just yet, but Drew University President Tom Schwarz "strongly encouraged" the university community to get vaccinated.

"Having as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible is our best defense against the virus and gives us the greatest chance for a normal fall semester," he said.

Joe Cardona, Rowan University's vice president of university relations, told Patch that the college isn't requiring a vaccine "at this moment," but is "working on plans to get students who meet NJ's eligibility requirements vaccinated as soon as possible."

A Fairleigh Dickinson spokesperson told Patch that while the university is planning for a return to campus in the fall, college officials have yet to finalize a vaccination mandate.

Return to Campus

Most New Jersey colleges and universities find themselves in the same place as Fairleigh Dickinson.

Rowan University President Ali Houshmand said he was hopeful the school could reopen in the fall, Montclair State officials confirmed that students would return in the fall, and the New Jersey Institute of Technology is planning for "primarily in-person learning."

Rider University President Gregory G. Dell'Omo and Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs DonnaJean Fredeen perhaps defined the feeling best, saying they were "cautiously optimistic" about a return to campus. The College Of New Jersey President Kathryn Foster offered a similar sentiment, saying the intention "is to return to an on-campus semester," but noting that those plans are "necessarily qualified at this point."

In all cases, these institutions have acknowledged that a return to campus doesn't mean a return to life before the coronavirus. At least not yet.

Stockton University is among those planning for in-person learning this fall, but also maintaining certain levels of COVID-19 protocols.

"We have missed the energy our almost 10,000 students bring to campus," said President Harvey Kesselman. "We are excited to welcome them back, but we will also continue to implement whatever measures are necessary to protect the health and safety of our faculty, staff and students."

How We Got Here

March 12 marked the one-year anniversary of the shift to remote learning at Mahwah's Ramapo College. Two days later the college recorded their first case of the coronavirus.

Dean of Students Melissa Van Der Wall shared that 200 students and employees contracted the virus since that date, and the coronavirus pandemic has "touched Ramapo in more ways than one."

In his final state of the college address, President Peter Mercer addressed the fiscal strain the coronavirus pandemic has had on the college.

He praised Ramapo employees and staff for adapting quickly in the face of the pandemic, but said it didn't come without hardship.

"From both the Human Resources and fiscal standpoint, that adaptation was and continues to be painful," said Mercer.

"Financially, we have suffered significant losses but we budgeted in a way which has enabled us to recoup some of those and to 'flatten out the curve.'"

Ramapo officials are also in the process of creating a return to learning plan for the fall that will implement "increased levels of on-campus activity."

Colleges and universities say they'll use these experiences for plans that allow students to feel safe, but also provide a return to normalcy.

Stockton's University Resilience Operations Committee (UROC), a collaborative team of students, faculty and staff will continue to meet to address any ongoing issues as fall plans are finalized.

"The past year has been an incredibly challenging time for all members of our community, and the pandemic has exacerbated inequities among different populations," said Professor of Writing and First-Year Studies Emari DiGiorgio, who is also co-chair of the UROC. "Through UROC, we've learned a lot about what Stockton does best and how we can improve. As we return to campus, it will be important to identify and respond to the new normal and to listen to our students and colleagues."

At most universities it's still unclear how many students will be back on campus, how many classes will include a hybrid learning option and, most importantly, where New Jersey will be in the quest toward herd immunity.

But masks or no masks, in-person learning is in the plans for 2021.

Here's what 14 New Jersey colleges and universities have released about the fall semester so far:

Princeton University

According to a memo sent to faculty and staff members, university officials said staff currently working remotely "will return to campus on a rolling basis."

"All staff members should anticipate being back at work on campus no later than the start of the 2021-2022 academic year," the memo said.

Rutgers University

Rutgers intends to fully reopen dorms and classes this September, and is pushing to require students who want to attend in-person classes to be vaccinated.

The College of New Jersey

President Kathryn Foster said the "current intention is to return to an on-campus semester, with in-person classes and events, and students living in residence. Programs and courses regularly delivered in a blended or online modality, such as the MBA program, will be offered in these modes."

Drew University

President Tom Schwarz said the university is planning for a return to in-person activities, and "encourages" the Drew community to be vaccinated.

"We are hopeful and actively planning for a return this fall to a more traditional on-campus experience, complete with robust, in-person academic, research, living, and learning opportunities," said Schwarz.

Fairleigh Dickinson

FDU officials are planning for a return to campus, and are also recommending vaccines to their community. However, a college spokesperson told Patch that there is currently no mandate for vaccines.

Rowan University

Joe Cardona, Rowan University's vice president of university relations, told Patch that the college isn't requiring a vaccine "at this moment," but is "working on plans to get students who meet NJ's eligibility requirements vaccinated as soon as possible."

Rowan University President Ali Houshmand previously said he was hopeful the university would fully reopen in the fall following the approval of three vaccines.

Montclair State University

Montclair State will offer a "full-range" of in-person instruction and other student services in the fall of 2021.

Students were told on March 24 that the University is developing plans to provide a "new normal" experience.

New Jersey Institute of Technology

NJIT will return to "primarily in-person learning" thanks in some part to the expansion of vaccines in New Jersey.

"In light of the trajectory we are on as a university, as a state, and as a nation with regard to vaccine rollout, I am pleased to announce that NJIT is planning for a fall 2021 semester that returns us to primarily in-person instruction with full residence halls, in-person activities, active research labs, and our buildings and other facilities operating at full or nearly full capacity," said President Joel Bloom.

Rider University

Cautious optimism is the phrase of choice at Rider as officials plan for a return to in-person learning in the fall of 2021.

President Gregory G. Dell'Omo and Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs DonnaJean Fredeen used the phrase to describe their feelings about a re-opened campus, but said a final plan will be determined by how the state is handling the coronavirus pandemic.

Stockton University

Stockton officials said fall of 2021 should reopen at full capacity in classrooms, housing and student activities. However, the university will continue to implement whatever coronavirus-related safety protocols are applicable.

Ramapo College

Ramapo College officials are hopeful they can reopen to some degree in the fall, but have added caveats in each communication with the collge community. Still, there's hope.

"The senior team and I are optimistic that we can begin to prepare for a fall semester that safely brings with it an increased number of courses that will hold face-to-face class meetings on campus as well as a broadened range of on-campus student experiences," wrote President Peter Mercer.

Seton Hall

President Joseph Nyre said the university is picturing a fall semester with much more face-to-face interaction in almost every aspect of college life.

"We are planning a fall semester that is primarily in person and look forward to welcoming students back to campus. We are creating a schedule that anticipates in-person classes and activities with a considerable number of faculty, staff and administrators on every campus. And we are anticipating that our physical infrastructure (academic buildings, residence halls, dining, athletic and recreational facilities, and the University Center) will return to full or nearly full operation," he wrote.

William Paterson University

Thanks to the number of vaccinations happening in the state, William Paterson officials are optimistic that they can return students to campus full-time by the fall or sooner.

"With vaccine eligibility expanding and vaccination rates accelerating, I am excited to announce that William Paterson University plans to fully welcome students, faculty, and staff back to campus for the Fall 2021 semester. Of course, we will continue to adhere to all State and federal guidelines and regulations, but all signs suggest that conditions will allow for a return to normal operations by the fall, if not sooner," wrote President Richard Helldobler.

Kean University

Kean officials recently announced they would be scheduling almost all classes for an on-campus environment starting Sept. 1.

"I am pleased to announce that Kean University plans to fully return to in-person instruction, research, residential life and activities in Fall 2021. This decision comes as COVID-19 vaccinations increase and the country moves toward herd immunity," said President Lamont Repollet.

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-04-02 03:37:09 -0700