How Are Christian Colleges Planning for the Fall?

Yesterday I shared some tentative plans I’ve made for fall classes, given that Bethel will be welcoming students back to campus in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. Even as I wrote, two of our peer institutions in Southern California — Azusa Pacific and Pepperdine — announced that they would move online for the semester.

Azusa Pacific University entrance sign Creative Commons (JR Salazar)

At least in the case of APU, that reflected a significant change in plans. In mid-June, President Paul Ferguson had announced a return to campus that involved many of the same elements I described yesterday — plus a million-dollar COVID testing center funded by donors. But yesterday’s announced pivot back to remote learning cited surging infection and hospitalization rates that prompted California governor Gavin Newsom to require K-12 schools in counties on a state watch list to start the fall online. The California State system had already opted for online academics back in May; earlier this week the University of California campuses in Berkeley and Merced joined that list, and at least two of the Claremont private colleges have done likewise.

It got me wondering what our peer institutions in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) have in mind for the fall. Are APU and Pepperdine the first to move online? Are most implementing something like Bethel’s — or APU’s earlier — plan?

So I spent some time this morning with the College Crisis Initiative, a brand new database hosted by Davidson College (a historically Presbyterian liberal arts school in North Carolina) that catalogues the plans from almost 1,500 four-year colleges and universities in the United States. Now, I’m not sure that all CCCU members are included in this database. But of those that are… only one is listed in the “fully online” category: Southern Wesleyan University.

But as you listen to SWU’s provost talk about academics, it becomes clear that students will not only be on campus, but learning in classrooms designed with some of the same measures as what we’re planning at Bethel.

Likewise, while I counted a dozen CCCU schools among the 275 the database currently lists as “primarily online,” most — like Ouachita Baptist — are clearly trying to do “as much face-to-face classroom instruction as possible.” Then another 323 schools are listed as “hybrid,” including Davidson itself (whose faculty and students are being allowed to choose from online, hybrid, and “flex” modes of teaching and learning) and many CCCU schools (e.g., Crown, Houston Baptist, Messiah, Southeastern, and Taylor). Only 42 are categorized as preparing for a “fully in person” fall, including five from the CCCU: Dordt, Kuyper, Lee, MidAmerican Nazarene, and Oklahoma Baptist. Another 446 are “primarily in person,” including Abilene Christian, Calvin, Colorado Christian, Emmanuel, Whitworth, and, yes, Bethel.

In the end, the boundaries between the database’s categories seem so fuzzy as to be nearly meaningless. “Fully in person” Dordt, for example, has actually gone a step further than “primarily in person” Bethel and adjusted its academic calendar; unlike my school, it has eliminated fall break.

So I’m back to thinking that Azusa Pacific and Pepperdine are the only CCCU schools currently planning for an online fall. (Please correct me in the comments section or on social media.) But they might not be the last to make that change relatively late in the summer, given how much of the consortium’s membership is located in Sun Belt states where COVID cases are increasing most dramatically. At least ten other CCCU schools are in counties on the same California watch list as APU and Pepperdine, including Biola, Fresno Pacific, Point Loma Nazarene, and Westmont. In addition to the 10 consortium members in Texas, 4 in Georgia, and 3 each in Alabama and Florida, both Belhaven University and Mississippi College are in Hinds County, which had almost 750 new COVID cases last week, 200 more than the week before.

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