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U.K. Universities, Including Cambridge, To Welcome Students Back In The Fall


What might life look like on college campuses this fall? Some American universities have said they are determined to reopen. Some may need to reopen to keep from going out of business - the question is, how? In the U.K., academics and students at one of the world's most famous schools, Cambridge University, are trying to come up with a plan. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Graham Virgo, who oversees education at Cambridge, says it's hard to predict conditions when the school reopens in early October.

GRAHAM VIRGO: We are planning for the worst and hoping for the best. We still want students to come, but we realized pretty early on we just can't accommodate students in those lecture theaters in the ordinary way.

LANGFITT: Virgo says the general plan is this - large lectures will go online, students in smaller lecture courses could spread out and use large lecture halls, and wherever possible, professors plan to teach seminars and small groups face to face, socially distanced.

VIRGO: They would go into a professor's, academic's room, and the size of that group will vary, but it's typically two to four students and one academic.

LANGFITT: Feeding everyone will be a challenge, but Cambridge already has some experience. After in-person teaching ended in the spring, 4,000 students stayed on campus, and the university adapted.

VIRGO: Sometimes they've been doing takeout food, and some of them have actually divided up the dining hall, taken out a lot of chairs, put down markers where there is a safe space between students. And it's not ideal, but it's workable.

LANGFITT: Of course, universities offer much more than just classroom learning.

EDWARD PARKER HUMPHREYS: A huge part of the university experience is coming up to university, meeting new people, making friends.

LANGFITT: Edward Parker Humphreys leads the Cambridge Students' Union.

HUMPHREYS: And that's not going to happen in quite the same way if we still have social distancing. So we're putting a lot of thought at the moment into, how do you allow some of that activity to carry on, whether that's online or in person but with social distancing?

LANGFITT: Seyoung Jeon is anxious about the coming year.

SEYOUNG JEON: I was obviously really looking forward to attending, but I'm a little bit concerned now.

LANGFITT: Jeon, who's Canadian, recently graduated from Amherst College and plans to study for a master's in politics and international studies at Cambridge this fall. Jeon's tuition and fees at Cambridge will exceed $40,000. If there's a second coronavirus wave, she worries all learning will shift online.

JEON: I'm hesitant to make the decision yet because I really don't think just receiving online instruction will be the same as having face-to-face classes.

LANGFITT: Jeon spent her final months at Amherst studying online and says the quality of learning really dropped off.

JEON: I noticed that, even with relatively small seminar groups, there were constant tech issues with people lagging, and it was very difficult to actually hold a discussion because we never knew who was speaking next. And, oftentimes, people just couldn't hear the audio, and it would cut out frequently.

LANGFITT: Graham Virgo says even if there's a second wave of infections, teaching will continue in some form, and students will be able to stay on campus and study, even under a lockdown.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NILS FRAHM'S "SUNSON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.