COVID-19, Reopening, and the Role of IR

Released June 2020

Concerns about returning to in-person instruction and campus life in fall 2020 in light of COVID-19 remain at the forefront of higher education news. The conversations, planning, strategizing, contingency modeling, and decision making that happen behind the scenes are extensive at every level. For many of us in academia, our work and how we go about it hinge on what feels like a perpetual unknown. Yet, we continue to fulfill our missions and meet our goals: to educate students and support student success.

AIR is interested to know how institutional research (IR) professionals help colleagues navigate questions about planning for fall 2020. The top concerns about reopening expressed by IR professionals in a recent AIR survey surround subsequent outbreaks of COVID-19, loss of enrollment if courses are online only, liability related to COVID-19 exposure, access to COVID-19 testing supplies, and capacity to conduct contact tracing. If face-to-face instruction resumes, apprehension about the ability to ensure people’s health and safety, including physical distancing, run the gamut from the design of courses and labs, to dining, to student activities, to living environments. The physical health of the community is a concern from nearly every angle.

IR professionals have been tapped to help institutions explore options for fall 2020. Some IR offices have been asked to produce special reports related to enrollment and retention projections; student, faculty, and staff perceptions; space density and classroom use; and guidelines for face-to-face instruction in response to relevant policies and guidelines. In addition to adding new questions to surveys, information sought to inform these studies comes from local, state, and federal governments and health agencies. 

At the time of this survey, just over half of respondents’ institutions (54%) had yet to decide whether to return to face-to-face instruction in fall 2020. Of the institutions that had made decisions, 31% were planning hybrid models (combinations of virtual and face-to-face), 14% were planning face-to-face with restrictions, and 2% were planning face-to-face without restrictions. No respondents indicated that their institutions had decided to move to virtual instruction only. 

In terms of planning hybrid delivery models, approaches vary from providing instructors the choice for how to teach (online or in-person) to requiring them to plan their courses for both online and in-person delivery. Some institutions are considering the option to rotate the students between in-person and online attendance throughout the term, and some have made changes to the length of the academic calendar.  

Design of hybrid curricula varies as well, including courses that are a mix of virtual and face-to-face instruction, classes available in both formats so that students have the choice of whether to attend in-person or online, or most courses offered online with the exception of labs.

Related concerns include the return of students coming from COVID-19 hot spots, the implementation of health and safety precautions and procedures, the effects of dropping standardized test requirements for admission, the impact of furloughs, and loss of revenue. As everything related to COVID-19 continues to evolve, the need to maintain clear communication and transparency for stakeholders is essential, yet presents a unique challenge because information becomes outdated very quickly. IR professionals are poised to assist their institutions throughout the pandemic.

Survey details: AIR was interested to understand how IR professionals are helping their institutions make decisions about reopening in fall 2020. In May–June 2020, a survey was administered to 500 individuals to explore this topic on a high level; 65 people responded (13%). Of note: the information gathered reflects the perspectives of the respondents and not necessarily of their institutions.