Coronavirus and colleges: students and universities grapple with outbreak

As schools across the country adapt to state-mandated closures and distance learning amid a global pandemic, colleges and universities have their own hurdles.

The SAT and ACT tests were canceled this spring because of the outbreak — leaving any students counting on them for their March applications in the lurch. 

In York County, schools are responding to the unraveling crisis of the coronavirus — a highly contagious and quick-spreading respiratory virus — with as much flexibility as possible.

"At this point we’re only dealing with the exceptions," said Michael Thorpe, associate vice president and director of admissions at York College.

Most high school seniors have taken these tests — typically a requirement on college applications — by now, and of those who haven't, the college is willing to work with them individually.

"I’m dealing with a student right now from Puerto Rico who is in this boat," Thorpe said.

The May SAT test was canceled, as were makeup dates scheduled in March. The April ACT test was postponed until June 13. 

More:UPDATE: State cancels standardized tests amid pandemic closures

Though she missed her March testing date, the prospective York College student will be able to take the SAT in the summer before York College's Aug. 1 move-in date.

But if that doesn't work out, officials will figure out another plan, Thorpe said.

This has been the approach of colleges and universities across the country — many of which have extended May 1 decision and housing deposit deadlines or waived testing for a year to take the stress off of students.

Penn State York is following the direction of Penn State University — to which all students apply before they choose a local campus. The university is encouraging students to submit the ACT or SAT when possible, while realizing limitations.

Signs block the entrances to York College, Thursday, March 19, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

"We understand that fulfilling all parts of the application process may be difficult at this time, so we will remain flexible and work with students on a case-by-case basis," said Penn State University spokesman Wyatt DuBois in an email.

About 1,000 schools do not require test results on their applications, and that list has been growing month to month, said Rahsaan Burroughs, a Washington, D.C.-based counselor for college counseling service Collegewise.

"We are very much living in a state that’s day to day," he said.

More:PHOTOS: American life in the age of coronavirus

A full list of testing-optional schools can be found at, and the National Association for College Admission Counseling created a tool in which students can find out the status of events, closures and deadlines for schools worldwide. 

York College has extended its housing deposit and decision deadline to June 1.

"We also know that might have to move again," Thorpe said. "We’re really in uncharted territory here, everyone is."

Temple senior Francesca Furey walks to her last face-to-face class at Temple. Class started at 5:30pm, Thursday, March 12, 2020. (Steven M. Falk/The Philadelphia Inquirer/tNS)

For the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education — 14 universities including Shippensburg and Millersville — ideas about how to adapt college admissions for coronavirus are still developing.

“We’ve had to fundamentally transform everything we do, and do that with urgency," said spokesman David Pidgeon.

The most pressing need was student health and safety, which prompted officials to shift instruction system-wide to online learning for the remainder of the school year, but officials are also cognizant of what's ahead.

More:York College to close campus, move classes online until March 30

More:Penn State extends online classes 'at least' through spring, postpones graduation

Mansfield University, a state system university in Tioga County, already waived SAT and ACT requirements for its incoming class of freshmen.

Student affairs and enrollment teams have been meeting multiple times a day to review challenges, such as admissions, Pidgeon said.

In addition to college applications, colleges and universities are grappling with decisions such as campus housing reimbursements. 

York College is working towards a solution on this front.

Some of these things are easier said than done, Pidgeon said, as the state system has third-party vendors and foundations who manage and own some of their housing.

One thing campuses have done for prospective students in lieu of visits is to expand virtual options for campus visits and admissions events. 

Signs block the entrances to York College, Thursday, March 19, 2020.
John A. Pavoncello photo

"We’re still texting and emailing, we still call," Thorpe said, noting York College is  even willing to do face-to-face meetings online, and is working on a virtual visit program.

With everyone experiencing "a world of firsts," it's best to remain flexible, said Tara Focht, high school counselor at Dover Area High School.

“At this point, I think it’s too early to speculate on what the long-term ramifications will be on all of this,” she said.