The University of Hawaii plans to return to some form of in-person classes this fall, after most of its nearly 50,000 students spent much of the spring semester learning online.

But what exactly those classes will look like, and how the 10-campus system will operate under new guidelines necessary to keep the novel coronavirus at bay remains to be seen.

“We all realize that the fall will absolutely not be a return to business as usual,” UH President David Lassner wrote in a systemwide email Monday.

University of Hawaii President David Lassner, pictured in 2018, announced Monday that UH will look at ways to reopen campuses for in-person classes in the fall semester.

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The letter says the university may use a mix of in-person and online classes.

For example, lectures may be conducted online while more interactive parts of classes could be conducted in person, Lassner said at a press conference Monday.

Classrooms and labs may also need to be reconfigured to keep students and faculty at safe distances. UH is also considering how to implement distancing measures in its dorms at the Manoa and Hilo campuses.

Chaminade University and Hawaii Pacific University also announced similar plans to start in-person classes again this fall. HPU had the added condition that classes would resume in-person so long as government directives allow that to happen.

The UH president’s letter says that loaner laptops and broadband access may be provided to students. The university is also considering beefing up its online learning software.

The costs for that are not identified yet, but Lassner said the university wants to make sure that students who may not have access to computers or online learning tools get access.

Lassner’s letter also says the campuses are planning for another outbreak of COVID-19 that may require students to return to distance learning.

There are also plans in place for testing, contact tracing and quarantines across the campuses, Lassner said at the press conference.

He said he made the announcement now so that potential students on the mainland, as well as students in Hawaii, have time to prepare if they plan on attending the fall semester, which begins Aug. 24.

Nationally, universities and colleges tend to see higher levels of enrollment during economic downturns. 

Lassner said there may be more interest in attending UH from local students who might not want to travel to mainland colleges due to the pandemic. It is unknown how many out-of-state students — who pay higher tuition to attend UH — will want to travel to Hawaii this fall.

If quarantine rules are still in place when out-of-state students come to campus, Lassner said they could be quarantined in dorm rooms to comply with state rules.

University of Hawaii at Manoa campus with students walking along the ‘Mall’ during change of classes.

Unknown enrollment levels and possible budget cuts also pose problems for UH.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Tuition and fees make up a significant chunk of UH’s approximately $1 billion operating budget. About half of that budget comes from the state’s general fund, which is expected to take a significant hit next year from a fall in state tax collections.

“We are anticipating our budget will not be as robust as it has been,” Lassner said. “That’s a fact of life a lot of us are preparing for.”

He said the UH is planning for multiple budget scenarios based on enrollment and how much resources the university ends up with.

Also of concern are self-supporting parts of the university that don’t rely on general funds such as the residence halls and parking lots. Lassner said the administration is still looking at how those kinds of programs could be impacted.

Classes first moved online after UH’s spring break ended March 23. Classes for the university’s first summer session remain online.

UH changed its grading policy this semester to help students who may have struggled with the transition to online classes.

The announcement comes as universities and higher education systems across the U.S. also contemplate reopening campuses in the fall. Universities in Arizona and Nevada all plan on reopening in the fall with hybrid class models.

University of California President Janet Napolitano told CNBC that testing, contact tracing and quarantine plans need to be in place before students return in the fall.

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