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Mass. Higher Education Institutions Look To Hybrid Model And Testing Ahead Of Fall Semester

BOSTON (CBS) – Home to more than 100 colleges and universities, Massachusetts is a leader in higher education.

Statewide, the network of campuses serves more than half a million students. And between operating budgets, salaries and sponsored research, these institutions generate billions and are critical to the local economy.

But the coronavirus crisis has upended the higher education model. Stay-at-home advisories sent students home and cleared college campuses. As government leaders look to re-open, the question on everyone's mind is how will the industry of higher learning adapt to a new reality.

"I'm currently on campus because I'm originally from Malaysia," said Jehan Ayesha, a rising sophomore at Emerson College.

The international student, one of less than 40 who remain on the Emerson campus, says staying stateside means she has access to the internet to continue her studies. She admits that being alone has made the transition into remote learning a challenge, especially after an abrupt end to classes.

"It's really hard to just acknowledge that mental barrier that keeps us from being productive," said Ayesha.

Also feeling a sense of loss is Maddi Ryan, who just wrapped up her senior year at Boston University.

The state ban on large gatherings put a hold on her graduation ceremony.

"BU said as soon as it's safe to do so they're going to do commencement. It feels like I'm stuck in an interim even though I've technically graduated and I'm done with all my classes," said the Methuen native.

Earlier this week, Boston College told students it plans to hold classes on campus come fall. Most other state institutions have yet to make announcements. Emerson College President Dr. Lee Pelton aimed to help continue the conversation on a path forward, in a webinar hosted by the Boston Chamber Wednesday.

"We are living and will be living in this COVID environment for quite some time. It will not end with the fall term," said Dr. Pelton.

The roundtable discussion revealed what the college experience could look like under our new normal.

"We are planning that a majority of our classes will be hybrid, remote or online, with a smaller number of on ground classes," said Bunker Hill Community College President Pam Eddinger.

Eddinger expressed concern that the set-up will not be accessible to students in under-served groups.

And will highlight the unequal distribution of academic resources.

"All of the inequities that we know have sort of been bubbling beneath the surface have broken open. This huge switch online, which holds great opportunity for us into the future, was one of the worst things I've ever experienced," Eddinger said. "To take 1700 sections and convert them online in two weeks was tough on the faculty. But it was tougher on students because they don't have laptops, wi-fi a quiet place to study, they're taking care of kids at home."

Alongside Eddinger were the presidents of Northeastern, Boston University and UMass.

All admitted that they're still working on a plan of action but are aiming towards an environment of smaller class sizes, staggered dorm arrangements and more students learning remotely.

Leaders at Boston University and Northeastern said the safety of its students is of top priority and that's why they plan to do their own testing.

"We are going to do our own testing, we are going to do our own tracking, and we are going to look at the density of everything in the university," said Northeastern President Joseph Aoun.

Meanwhile, UMass President Marty Meehan is proposing a tuition freeze in the wake of the pandemic.

The board is expected to vote on the change in July. Meehan said they'll follow state guidelines and focus on a phased return to campus.

"We are preparing for all options. We're preparing under social distancing guidelines for how we can open up our campuses," Meehan said.

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