COVID-19 FAQs and Resources

Published September 25, 2020 | By Jennifer King Logan

students wearing masks 6 feet apart in a classroom

COVID-19 has impacted every facet of life, including how college students pursue their educations. Current and prospective college students are wondering how to proceed in this dynamic, evolving environment. That’s why OnlineU.com has created this resource to answer the most frequently asked questions about going to college during the coronavirus pandemic.

Online and On-Campus Programs

Students have many pertinent questions about how online and on campus programs are addressing instruction, campus safety, tuition, financial aid, and visiting campuses during the pandemic. Students may also be considering new options, such as taking a gap year or attending an online school. For students who choose to attend an online program, there are many tips for choosing a program and succeeding at online learning that they should consider.

What are schools doing this fall? Are any schools offering in-person instruction, or is everything online?

In light of the steadily increasing number of new cases of COVID-19 across the U.S. and the experience of some colleges over the summer, where small numbers of students returning to campus resulted in outbreaks of the virus, schools are having to re-evaluate how to handle this unprecedented situation. Many schools are opting to conduct classes exclusively online or create some type of hybrid program for the Fall 2020 semester, while others have elected to postpone their on-campus start dates. Since the COVID-19 pandemic is ongoing and continuing to evolve, it’s best for students to check with their schools directly for the most up-to-date information.

How are schools that are reopening planning to keep students safe in classrooms and dorms?

Students who are returning to college campuses may find things looking and operating very differently than they have in the past. To protect students from COVID-19, many schools are adopting new practices and protocols. For example, some schools have shut down dining facilities and gyms, removed some furniture to encourage social distancing, and constructed barriers and shields in classrooms and labs. Some schools have also limited in-person access to administrative staff, so students may find themselves conducting most of their school-related business online.

In classrooms, dormitories, and labs, colleges and universities are also implementing a range of new safety protocols. Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces is a major priority, as is enforcing social distancing by limiting the number of students. Students are strongly encouraged, if not required, to engage in personal safety measures, such as wearing face masks, maintaining a six-foot distance from fellow students, and washing hands frequently.

All students who are returning to college campuses this fall should check with their schools for specific instructions, requirements, and protocols. Students should also monitor their own health, avoid going to class if they think they might be sick, and know who to contact on campus if they have any symptoms of coronavirus, such as a fever, cough, or shortness of breath.

What should I do about going to college—go back to school, go to school online, or take a gap year?

In the current environment, students may find it challenging to make decisions about their education. For students who are already enrolled in a program, this decision may be determined largely by the college or university. Many students won’t want to transfer to a different school midway through a program, and will thus follow the guidelines their school recommends. However, these students may want to check to see if the courses they want to take this semester are available online, as some schools are offering courses at discounted rates.

Students who haven’t yet started their degree, however, have more options. They can choose to attend an online or on-campus school based on their preferences, needs, and career goals, or, if they can afford it, they could choose to postpone the start of their college education with a gap year.

Although relatively few students overall are opting for time off, it is actually encouraged by some of the more prestigious schools like Harvard and MIT. Historically, students have used gap years to expand their horizons through travel or work experience, neither of which may be feasible options in the current environment. But that doesn’t mean a gap year is a waste of time. Students can still utilize this refresher period to build on skills and knowledge through online courses like Coursera or The Great Courses, through teleworking, or through online internships.

I’ve decided to go to school online. How do I choose a program?

No matter what subject a student has decided to major in, there could be significant differences in the programs offered by colleges and universities, so online students need to spend some time evaluating their options. It is essential to thoroughly research each prospective degree program in order to choose the one that best fits the student’s interests and career goals. OnlineU.com’s accredited program pages are a great place to start looking into what each program entails, such as course of study and areas of concentration.

OnlineU.com’s program pages also provide a wealth of information students can use to assess whether a program fits their personal needs and preferences, such as schedule of classes, part-time options, duration of the program, financial aid and scholarship availability, and whether the program requires any type of field experience, on-campus residencies, or internships. Applicants may also want to consult each school’s website for data about the school's graduation rates, hiring percentages, and faculty credentials.

One final consideration is accreditation, which is a process by which educational institutions are evaluated by independent agencies for their ability to meet standardized educational criteria. Although it is not a requirement to attend a college or university that is accredited, a school’s accreditation standing may impact an enrolled student’s ability to qualify for financial aid, transfer credits to another institution, earn certifications or licenses, and qualify for specific job opportunities in the future.

What can I do to succeed in my online college classes?

Although taking college courses online is a very different experience than going to school on campus, it can be every bit as rewarding and informative. But because it is different, online students have found it useful to practice the following seven tips for success:

  1. Know what to expect. Some students assume that online courses are somehow easier or less demanding than on-campus classes, but this is simply not true. Course content and materials are generally the same, and online instructors have equally high expectations for academic rigor and advanced learning outcomes as traditional instructors. Just as they would with bricks-and-mortar classes, students will get as much out of online courses as they invest into them.
  2. Make a time commitment. Perhaps because students are often not required to show up to class at certain times, it’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking of online courses as less important and letting coursework slide. But to succeed, students should make coursework one of their top priorities. For the most part, online students will want to set their own schedules by setting aside consistent times each week for lectures, reading, studying, interacting with classmates, and doing homework. The benefit of asynchronous classes is that there is flexibility when it’s needed, but successful students will always map out an alternate plan for the week to make sure they stay on top of their game.
  3. Focus. Online students often report that they can get a lot accomplished in a relatively short amount of time when they block out routine study periods, eliminate distractions (like phones and social media), and get down to business. This is especially beneficial when students choose to do this during their most productive times of the day.
  4. Connect with others. Some students perceive online learning as a solitary—perhaps even isolating—endeavor, but it doesn’t have to be. Discussion boards, message boards, social media, and online organizations all provide avenues for connecting with fellow students. Not only is it important to establish a supportive network of friends throughout the college experience, it can be useful in creating a professional network for career growth in the future.
  5. Play to your strengths. Every student has a preferred learning style, which could involve reading, listening, or viewing. Many online course instructors utilize learning materials that appeal to multiple learning styles. At the start of each course, students should explore the learning options available to them. For example, there may be narrated Powerpoint lecture notes available, the instructor may offer lectures as both audio recordings and written transcripts, and some e-textbooks may also be available as audio recordings.
  6. Reach out for help. Regardless of the learning environment, every student needs information, advice, and other kinds of assistance from time to time. Online students will find that instructors and classmates are often available through the class’s message boards when there is a question about the course material or assignments. Beyond that, online instructors usually have “office hours” by phone or email, in which they’re happy to provide further instruction. Finally, most schools offer the same resources and assistance to their online students as they do for their on-campus students. Librarians, tutors, counselors, and advisors are usually available for support.
  7. Maintain a healthy lifestyle. Spending long hours in front of the computer can take a toll on a student’s physical health, so it’s important to offset the negative effects by resting the eyes, stretching, and taking short breaks to walk around. Beyond that, eating a healthy diet, getting sufficient exercise and rest, and balancing the demands of school with fun activities all help to keep the mind sharp.

How is COVID-19 impacting tuition costs?

COVID-19’s effect on tuition costs has been the subject of a great deal of debate in higher education circles this year, and it has even generated a number of lawsuits. For a variety of reasons, some students and their families feel that tuition costs should be reduced at schools that are going online, and some institutions are doing just that. However, other colleges and universities point out that their operating costs have remained the same or perhaps increased due to the sudden provisions they’re making to adapt for COVID, and thus they are unable to lower tuition costs, even temporarily. (Read more about this issue here.) Students should check with their schools directly to determine how the pandemic is affecting tuition and living expenses, and to learn whether each school may be offering special discounts on lab fees, student services, and other charges.

Are there any special provisions for financial aid due to COVID-19?

With so many people either furloughed, underemployed, or unemployed due to COVID-19, more college students than ever are applying for financial aid, grants, and scholarships. While there may be increased competition for those need-based financial aid dollars, the federal government as well as many colleges, universities, and other financial organizations are trying to free up more funding for students. Some aid applicants who were previously denied financial aid may find themselves in different circumstances and should therefore reapply for aid or appeal their financial aid award. All students in need of financial assistance should check directly with the financial aid office of their schools for more information.

Also, the federal government has temporarily put all student loans in forbearance, so graduates who are currently in the process of repaying student loans will find they may not be required to make loan payments for several months. However, this is subject to change at any time, so loan holders should closely monitor this situation.

I’m trying to decide which college to attend. How can I visit college campuses and make a decision about which schools to apply to?

Visiting college campuses is a time-honored and valued tradition among prospective college students. It’s hard to imagine getting a true sense of a university or college campus—and of college life, in general—without seeing it in person. Although a few schools are still open for in-person visits by requiring everyone to practice safety precautions and social distancing protocols, many students and their families simply aren’t comfortable with the idea. Fortunately, most colleges and universities are responding with an array of creative and useful alternatives:

  • Take a virtual tour. Schools are now offering a number of different options for virtual tours, doing whatever they can to provide a detailed, realistic view of campus life. These may take the form of slide shows, videos, or even podcasts presented by current students who are part of the traditional campus visit teams. YouVisit.com offers a library of pre-made virtual campus tours, or students can contact the schools they’re interested in directly. Students may also want to use Google maps to take virtual tours of the surrounding neighborhoods and get a feel for what other resources are available nearby.
  • Interact with staff and faculty. Many schools have asked their faculty members, staff, and students to make themselves available for online meetings and/or phone calls. This creates opportunities for prospective students to ask questions from campus insiders and get a feel for what the school is all about. Additionally, because so many schools are currently offering online classes, a prospective student may be able to “sit in” on a virtual class.
  • Mine the internet. Every school has a website, and there are many additional online resources that can provide valuable information about a particular college or university. Look at data about the student population, graduation rates, faculty credentials, and more. With a little more digging, students may also be able to find candid insights on social media. For example, a student who’s looking for a school with a strong drama club or a capella singing group could hunt for social media accounts run by students involved in those activities at the schools they’re considering attending. The Ohio State University men’s hockey team’s Facebook page is just one example of many.
  • Reach out on social networks. Through family members and friends, prospective students may be able to connect with current students and alumni from the schools they’re considering, so social networking sites like LinkedIn and Facebook can become valuable resources.

Careers and the Job Market

Students and recent graduates may be experiencing new challenges as a result of the pandemic's impact on the job market. Read on to learn more about tips for job hunting and potential new career opportunities.

How has the coronavirus impacted the job market for recent graduates?

The COVID-19 pandemic has already had—and will continue to have—a significant impact on the world’s economy. The statistics in the U.S. may be disheartening for job seekers. Many economists have compared the fallout from the pandemic to the Great Recession of 2008, pointing out that overall job losses and rising unemployment rates in April and May of 2020 were far more extreme than they were even a decade ago.

The sudden economic downturn poses a major challenge for recent graduates. Federal Reserve Economic Data reveals that the jobless rate for college graduates surged to 20.4% in June of this year as many employers were forced to stop hiring and even rescind job offers they’d made to new graduates. And, as is typical in a tough economy, job candidates competing for open positions have found themselves pressured to accept lower salaries and fewer benefits or to take jobs that are not on their desired career path, all of which can cause professionals to lose traction in their career trajectories.

Despite the damaging effects of the pandemic on the 2020 graduating class and the uncertainty it presents for future graduates over the next couple of years, there is hope. Sooner or later, the economic turmoil will subside, and in the process, societal changes in response to the pandemic may create new jobs in emerging industries. In the meantime, however, new graduates may have to adjust their expectations and plans, and above all, they’ll need to remain patient and optimistic through challenging times.

How can I improve my chances of getting a job during the pandemic?

Since the early months of 2020, the pandemic has forced organizations in virtually every industry and sector to lay off employees or freeze hiring. Yet, there are still job opportunities out there for new college graduates. Experts offer the following seven tips for landing a new job during an economic downturn:

  1. Adopt a long-term mindset. No matter what kind of experience a job candidate has or what skills they can offer, job hunting during an economic slump is always a long process. Job hunters are currently reporting that they’ve submitted hundreds of résumés and applications—often without a response from the majority of the recipients—before getting an interview and job offer. Knowing what to expect can help ease some anxiety about the process.
  2. Set realistic expectations. Many job hunters, and especially new graduates, have big ideas about the kind of jobs they want and how much they’ll earn. However, when competition for jobs is fierce, candidates may have to be more open-minded in terms of the positions they’re willing to accept, the organizations where they’d like to work, and the salaries and benefits they’ll agree to.
  3. Utilize networks. Networking is essential in any job market, but perhaps more so during an economic downturn. Job hunters should tap into their networks, including extended family members, friends, fellow students, and acquaintances, and let them know what they’re looking for. Online networks, especially sites like LinkedIn, can be tremendously helpful, so candidates should make sure their online profiles are updated and present themselves in the best light possible.
  4. Be proactive. The old adage that “getting a full-time job is a full-time job” is particularly true in a recession, but the time invested pays off. Hiring and placement experts agree that job hunters need to dedicate time nearly every day to researching industries, searching the career pages of organizations where they might like to work, and reviewing options on job aggregator websites like Indeed.com. When they find openings that might work, they should customize their cover letters and résumés before submitting applications. Follow-up is equally important, and applicants should be persistent about the best-fitting opportunities.
  5. Stay physically and emotionally healthy. As important as it is to dedicate time to the search, job hunters need to balance this out with stress relievers like engaging in physical exercise, enjoying favorite hobbies, and spending time with family and friends, even if it’s done remotely.
  6. Practice doing online interviews. Perhaps one of the more unique aspects of the COVID-era job search is that practically all interviews are now conducted online. A virtual interview can make it a little harder to break the ice and pick up on subtle social cues like body language, so job interviewees should consider practicing online interviews with friends or family in preparation for real opportunities.
  7. Consider part-time or volunteer opportunities. Especially for those job hunters who are trying to break into the job market for the first time, any job can become a stepping stone to a better opportunity. Part-time or volunteer opportunities allow employees to build additional skills and make professional connections while they continue to look for more desirable full-time positions. Plus, employment of any kind shows hiring managers that the applicant is resourceful and resilient, even in the most challenging of situations.

Is the COVID-19 pandemic expected to create any new job opportunities in the future?

No one knows how long the pandemic will last or how far-reaching the repercussions will be. However, the virus has already created some new job opportunities and affected several businesses in ways that may be permanent.

For example, COVID-19 has created a need for companies that manufacture related equipment, such as face masks, protective shields, and testing kits. New job opportunities for coronavirus testers, caregivers, contact tracers, and more may become standard.

Additionally, the possibly permanent changes to the way we conduct our daily lives is bound to result in new job opportunities. Think, for example, of how much more often people may engage in online shopping, streaming content, and conducting business over the internet, and the impacts that could have on retail merchandising and IT professionals.

Health & Wellness

With the shift to remote learning environments, many students are asking how schools will handle residencies, workshops, and other typically on-campus components. In addition, students wonder what measures to take in maintaining a safe environment when completing in-person requirements and maintaining social connections with peers.

Many online programs require on-campus residencies, workshops, etc. How will these be handled?

Depending on the program, some colleges and universities require their online students to come to campus for short periods to engage in interactive learning. During the spring and summer of 2020, these schools experimented with different approaches, which in some cases involved inviting students back to campus. However, despite their best efforts to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, there were still outbreaks. Schools are now weighing their options for shifting these learning situations to an online environment, postponing them, or canceling them altogether. Students should check with their schools directly for the most up-to-date information.

Some of my online classes still require lab work, clinical experience, internships, etc. How can I stay safe while still fulfilling these requirements?

From chemistry to healthcare and beyond, many online college courses and programs still insist on students interacting with others while fulfilling essential learning requirements. In these situations, students should consider following the CDC’s top recommendations for protecting against COVID-19:

  • Wash your hands frequently, preferably with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. Students may want to get in the habit of carrying small bottles of hand sanitizer with them for those moments when hand-washing just isn’t possible.
  • Wear a mask, both for your own protection and to protect others. The CDC now states that the virus is spread whenever respiratory droplets from an infected person land in the noses or mouths of nearby people. Wearing a double-layered mask helps prevent this from happening.
  • Practice social distancing. For the same reason, students should develop the habit of maintaining approximately six feet of space between themselves and others. Healthcare students and others who must work closely with other people should follow more extensive protocols as directed by their schools or the facilities in which they’re practicing.
  • Disinfect surfaces. As much as schools and other institutions have enhanced their protocols for cleaning and disinfecting frequently used surfaces, the volume of people moving through these spaces still leaves room for the virus to be left behind. Students may want to consider stocking their backpacks with disinfecting wipes to use on doorknobs, tables, and other surfaces. Students should dispose of used wipes in trash cans and wash their hands with soap and water after disinfecting any surfaces.

How can I socialize with my college classmates if I’m going to school online?

Many of today’s college students lead busy lives. About 70% of full-time college students are working full- or part-time, and many of them have families to care for as well. For these time-constrained students, the flexibility of asynchronous classes in an online learning environment is ideal. However, this poses a challenge when it comes to forming connections with classmates. Missing out on the social aspects of a college education—from casual interactions in the campus dining hall to planned events like Homecoming, concerts, and athletic games—can be incredibly disappointing.

Despite these challenges, socializing with classmates is still an important factor in any college education. When students build relationships with their peers, they’re also building a support network that can extend into a professional network in the future. While there is no way to replicate these experiences online, there are steps students can take to make stronger connections with their classmates:

  • Maximize discussion boards. Practically all online courses require students to engage in online discussions through a learning management system like Canvas or Blackboard. While students should stay focused on using these discussion boards for their intended purpose—to discuss and apply the course content—they can also use the opportunity to learn a bit more about their classmates.
  • Engage in social media. Some instructors and colleges are dedicating time and resources to social media. Students may want to research whether their schools are involved in social media interactions, and if so, to get involved. This provides another safe way to interact with other students and develop friendships.
  • Participate in collaborative learning projects. As challenging as group projects may be—in real time or in an online environment—they are also a chance to get to know classmates. Embracing the use of web conferencing apps, collaborative projects, and virtual study groups just may be the key to an active online social life.
  • Join or start a student-led club or organization. At some online educational institutions, such as Arizona State University, students have already created peer-led organizations, usually with the purpose of creating networking and professional development opportunities for students with common interests. These groups typically hold online meetings, frequently featuring guest speakers, such as faculty members and other professionals. Joining such a group creates yet another way to meet like-minded students.

Online students will need to make more of an effort to connect with others digitally, but it is possible to meet people and develop friendships, even in an entirely online learning environment.