U.S. colleges stick with reopening plans despite outbreak fears

"Students want to be at Tulane. They want the experience of being at Tulane."

Michael Fitts is the president at Tulane University in New Orleans and he’s got an ambitious plan: To bring all 14,000 students back to campus with some adjustments.

“The interest in sort of a classic undergraduate, on-ground experience has never been stronger… Obviously, that experience is going to be a little bit different than in the past."

Wearing masks and social distancing are a must. Temporary classrooms and marked seating are being added to spread out students. Tulane is also planning widespread testing.

(Tulane President Michael Fitts): “We're testing everybody before they come back, before they enter and then surveillance testing constantly to make sure that we pick up anything that might be a problem.”

While some colleges are backtracking, cancelling reopening plans and going fully online, others like Tulane are pushing ahead, bringing students back to campus with a mix of in-person and remote learning, despite objections from some community members and employees.

College leaders say public health is their top concern, but industry observers see a financial motivation to bringing students back.

(Higher education investor Ryan Craig): “Colleges and universities have an impossible choice to make.”

Ryan Craig, a higher education investor in New York, says that financial burden makes the decision very difficult for colleges.

He’s a skeptic, predicting that universities that reopen now will close again later in the Fall once there are outbreaks.

“Unfortunately, too many are not being honest with students or are engaging in what I call magical thinking, hoping that it's going to it's going to work out with proper planning. But unfortunately, you can't plan, you can't plan around the behavior of college students. And we know that 100% are not going to be compliant with social distancing and masking."

But despite the new rules, students like Lauren Biegel at Rice University are ready to be at school.

“I mean, I'm excited just to,like, get to be at the starting line. We've been preparing to be at the starting line for months now. Pretty much all we've thought about since March. So definitely excited to get here."

It’s perhaps the biggest experiment ever for higher education, and challenges abound.

The University of California at Berkeley, for example, backtracked on resuming in-person after reporting 47 new COVID-19 cases in a single week, resulting primarily from a series of parties in July at fraternities and sororities.

In late May, about 66 percent of U.S. colleges and universities were planning for some in-person instruction, but that number has slowly declined to about 50 percent as of late July.