The lawns, trees and regal buildings of many college campuses can hook a prospective student, prompting them to envision striding along the pathways wearing a backpack.
After about three months of hosting remote tours by computer, some colleges have decided it’s time to offer on-campus visits again to prospective students and their parents.
The issue reflects differing notions about reopening businesses and organizations in the coronavirus pandemic. New COVID-19 cases in Nebraska have trended down for several weeks. But many states are showing steady increases.
In the competitive world of higher education, colleges seek an edge or don’t want to be left behind. Smaller colleges also generally don’t have to deal with the big numbers of visitors that the University of Nebraska-Lincoln or Iowa State might have to handle when hosting in-person visits. Neither of those institutions has resumed in-person prospective student visits.
“The competitive part of it didn’t play a part in this decision,” said Steph Peters, admissions director at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, where on-campus visits resumed in late May. “I want to make sure that everyone feels safe and that we’re taking precautions.”
At the same time, she said, there’s no better way to sell a campus than with its greenery and stately views. “It was scary to miss out on having visitors for two months,” she said.
Even some fairly large schools, like Creighton and the University of Nebraska at Kearney, plan to start on-campus visits soon or already have begun.
They say on-campus tours give them a good trial run for bringing students back for classes in August.
Some colleges in the region will encourage or insist that visitors and staffers wear masks. They will keep student tour groups small. Some will take their visitors’ temperatures or ask that they do it beforehand, and ask that they undergo a brief verbal screening.
“With this job, you worry about everything all the time,” Chris Schukei, Hastings College’s dean of admissions, said last week. But he believes a mask requirement, limiting tours to one family of four and meticulous facility cleaning will enable tours to proceed safely.
“These are scenarios that I don’t think anybody could have ever predicted,” Schukei said of the pandemic. “So we are all just trying to figure things out.”
At the University of Nebraska at Omaha, an assistant vice chancellor said by email that “the soonest we would consider resuming in-person visits will likely be in the fall semester.”
Even that will hinge on public health officials’ guidance and on direction provided by a 22-page higher education pandemic guide produced by the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said UNO’s Kristina Cammarano.
That guidebook takes a reader through three steps on the way to reopening fully. The first calls for cases in a community to have stabilized for more than 14 days. The guide also provides extensive checklists of safety measures.
Dr. Jeffrey Gold, chancellor of UNMC and UNO, said institutions must be prepared for the picture to change. Gold helped write the UNMC higher education pandemic guide.
“We’re in significant levels of concern at a national level,” Gold said Friday. “All of these decisions have to be made with an abundance of caution.”
At the same time, Gold said the booklet is “a guide and not a prescription.”
“It’s not an all-or-nothing phenomenon,” Gold said of reopening for campus visits. “It depends on how they do it. … I don’t know that I’d categorize it as a mistake.” He said that if a competitive swimmer wants to see UNO’s swimming pool or a student interested in science wants to see the labs, the university arranges that for the student and his parents.
Plenty of colleges say they are ready for small tour groups, including Midland University in Fremont, Concordia University in Seward, Union College in Lincoln and Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa. Bellevue University resumed individual tours in mid-June.
Nebraska Wesleyan in Lincoln expects to start on-campus visits soon, Crete’s Doane University in mid-July and Omaha’s College of St. Mary in August. Nebraska’s state college system has started in-person prospective student visits. Peru and Chadron State Colleges resumed in June and Wayne State on July 1.
Lyette Darville, who will be a Hastings College junior next semester, is on the college’s list of tour guides and will get started Monday. Darville looks forward to resuming the job. She likes to show prospective students around, in part because she enrolled at Hastings College without visiting from her native Bahamas.
“I actually love giving tours,” Darville said. “I don’t have a problem wearing a mask. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”
Schukei said Hastings worked with the local health department and used UNMC’s guidebook in deciding to have in-person visits.
And at Creighton, spokeswoman Cindy Workman said prospective students and their families will have their temperatures taken before the tour, in addition to undergoing a verbal coronavirus screening.
She said those who don’t feel well or who have a high temperature won’t take the tour.
Most colleges will retain their virtual-tour options indefinitely. UNO’s Cammarano said she was pleased with how those have gone. Further, they are more convenient for out-of-state students and those from rural Nebraska, she said.
At Concordia University in Seward, family tours are expected to start Monday. Visitors will fill out an online questionnaire about how they are feeling. Lunch in the dining hall has been removed from the menu, said Scott Seevers, Concordia’s senior vice president for enrollment and marketing.
Buildings will be cleaned twice a day and meeting areas wiped down immediately after a visit, he said. Seevers said he was worried about pent-up demand for visits, and the college will offer Saturday visits as needed.
Masks at Concordia are optional, he said, although if a person wants everyone who participates in a family tour (including guide and faculty members or coaches) to mask up, that will be done. He said he is confident Concordia is ready for the visits.
Tours will visit academic buildings but not residence halls, Seevers said. He said the tours will give the college a nice test for when classes begin in August.