Young female student wearing protective face mask during pandemic

Daily health checks. Partially online classes. Isolation dorms for sick students. And a half-million Penn State-branded face masks.

These are just some of the things college ag majors can expect as they start a new school year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Even so, Colby Bomgardner is eager to get back on campus.

“I’m really excited because it’s almost like a sense of normal status, I guess, a sense of normalcy and just being able to look forward to something and focus on something other than news,” said Bomgardner, a junior animal science major at Penn State.

Like many universities, Penn State has ramped up its use of online teaching this semester.

Bomgardner will be doing some coursework online, especially for classes with large enrollment. But his classes with a small number of students will be held in person, as will labs and activities in the university barns.

Bomgardner suspects he’d have even more online classes if he were a sophomore still trying to knock out general education courses, which often have large class sizes.

As a junior, Bomgardner will mainly be taking classes for his major.

Like other schools, Penn State has issued a stack of health guidelines for this semester, which include wearing a mask and, if necessary, self-isolating and participating in contact tracing.

For his part, Bomgardner plans to wear a mask. It’s for the good of himself and others, he said.

He’s optimistic that other Penn State students will comply with the rules too — if only to avoid a repeat of the spring semester, when in-person classes were canceled as the pandemic began.

“We don’t want to get stuck online again because that kind of takes out the fun of the college experience,” Bomgardner said.

Besides missing opportunities to meet new people at college, Bomgardner said he was too easily distracted at the end of last semester, learning from home on his family’s farm in Annville, Pennsylvania.

Getting all college students to do their part may be wishful thinking, though, if Happy Valley turns out like several college towns across the South.

The Washington Post reported this week that Georgia, Alabama and Oklahoma have seen large gatherings of students flouting mask and social distancing rules, raising worries about outbreaks.

For now, Penn State and many ag schools in the Northeast are moving ahead cautiously with plans to hold in-person instruction through Thanksgiving break and then have students finish the semester online from home.

The strategy is apparently designed to minimize the risk of students bringing the virus back to school and to keep students off campus in case a second wave of infections hits this fall.

But even the old college try might not be enough to contain the virus.

This week the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced that it was moving all undergraduate courses online after a spike in students testing positive. School had been in session for just a few days.

In an Aug. 9 message, Virginia Tech President Tim Sands said students’ time in residence halls and classrooms appears to carry lower risks of virus transmission than do activities such as off-campus parties and visits to virus hot spots.

The university has a major incentive to make in-person learning work as long as possible. Switching to online learning for the fall semester would cost Virginia Tech up to $210 million in additional expenses and lost revenue, Sands said.

Rules limit how heavily the university could tap its endowment to cover such a shortfall, and pay cuts and furloughs wouldn’t make up the difference either, Sands said.

Even if Penn State shifts to online classes during the school year, Bomgardner said he plans to stay in State College rather than go home. He signed a one-year lease on an apartment and doesn’t want to waste his money.

In short, there’s a lot riding on this semester, for both students and their schools.

Following are highlights from the reopening plans, current as of the beginning of this week, for land-grant and agricultural universities from Maine to Virginia.

Cornell University: In-person, online and hybrid teaching will be used. Residential instruction with virus testing will begin Sept. 2. Students will return home for Thanksgiving and finish the semester remotely.

Delaware State University: Classes will shift online after Thanksgiving break. Face coverings will be required indoors and outdoors where social distancing is not possible. Students must fill out a symptom monitoring questionnaire before coming to campus or leaving their residence hall each day.

Delaware Valley University: Students will be on campus through Thanksgiving and finish the semester remotely.

Students in the E360 program, which provides on-the-job experience, are to follow the university’s guidelines for masking and other health practices even if those expectations exceed those of the work site.

Ohio State: Masks must be worn indoors and outdoors, even when social distancing can be maintained. Students will receive masks and sanitizer when they arrive on campus.

People who have virus symptoms or were exposed to a sick person will be tested, as will a random sampling of asymptomatic undergrads. The maximum in-person class size has been reduced from 100 to 50.

Penn State: All on-campus students must agree to wear face coverings in campus buildings and comply with testing, contact tracing, self-quarantine and social distancing requirements. The agreement was modified slightly after some students interpreted it as a liability waiver.

The university has ordered 500,000 reusable Penn State-branded cloth face masks and will give two to every student, faculty and staff member. People should have their own masks when they arrive on campus.

Rutgers: The university is offering testing for asymptomatic students and employees; those with COVID-19 symptoms should self-isolate. Face coverings must be worn in public buildings and outdoors when in the presence of others.

SUNY Cobleskill: A mix of in-person, online and hybrid classes will be used. Density will be reduced in classrooms and dorms. Testing and contact tracing will be used.

SUNY Morrisville: Students moved in by assignment this week and begin classes Aug. 24. No breaks are planned until Thanksgiving to maximize teaching time and minimize off-campus travel. Classes will finish remotely.

Students, employees and guests must wear masks at all times unless they are in a private office or dorm room. Classroom, lab and dining hall seating will be spaced out. A limited supply of reusable masks will be available. Students with virus symptoms will be tested.

University of Connecticut: A mix of in-person, online and hybrid classes will be offered. All residential students are be tested when they arrive on campus.

University of Delaware: Classes begin Sept. 1, most of them online. Courses that have an in-person component will go fully online after Thanksgiving break. On-campus living will be limited, and a block of vacant dorm rooms will be kept for quarantine and isolation.

University of Maine: Out-of-state students will be tested on arrival and in some cases must initially self-isolate. Students and employees must wear face coverings except when alone.

University of Maryland, College Park: Classes begin Aug. 31 online; in-person instruction for undergraduates will start Sept. 14. If there’s a resurgence of the virus in late fall, classes could be shifted entirely online.

University of Maryland Eastern Shore: Faculty, staff and students will be screened daily when entering campus. Masks must be worn in all public areas and have been provided to faculty, staff and students. Dorms are limited to one student per bedroom.

University of Massachusetts: Many out-of-state students must self-quarantine for 14 days. Isolation and quarantine space will be available to on-campus students.

Classrooms will be adjusted to support social distancing. Face coverings will be required. Before each class, students and faculty must wipe down their chairs and frequently touched surfaces.

University of New Hampshire: All students will be tested on campus at the start of the semester and throughout the semester. Students are moving in over three weeks that began Aug. 10. Classes begin Aug. 31 and shift online Nov. 23.

Dedicated quarantine housing, limited density in public places and required face coverings are also part of the plan.

University of Rhode Island: Classes start Sept. 9 and shift online after Thanksgiving. Students must wear masks outside their dorm rooms. Most dining will initially be take-out with tent and outdoor seating. Limited indoor seating may be offered later in the semester.

University of Vermont: Some out-of-state students will be required to quarantine upon arrival, and all students must complete a health screening when they get to campus. Classes will shift online after Thanksgiving.

To aid contact tracing, students are encouraged to keep a log of people they have been in close contact with each day.

Virginia Tech: Students can use the new Hokie Ready app to perform a daily check for virus symptoms. If the app says not to attend class in person, the student will be directed to the health center for further screening. Should app data indicate a growing number of people with symptoms, the university may adjust campus activities.

Virginia State University: Students are being sent test kits at home, and will also be tested when they arrive at school. Each student will receive hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, gloves, thermometers and a face mask. Dining halls will offer grab-and-go options.

West Virginia University: Many courses will be offered online; others will be in-person or a hybrid. Students must complete a COVID-19 training module before arriving at campus and will be tested for the virus when they get there. Face coverings will be required.

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