B-Schools Balance Safety, Flexibility, and Innovation

As business schools continue to adapt to COVID-19, they work to alleviate students’ anxieties and ensure safety by offering an expanded range of educational options.

Illustration of students wearing masks sitting on textbooks

BUSINESS SCHOOLS worldwide are gearing up to start an academic year that is like no other in recent memory. With the pandemic still in force, universities continue to weigh the risks of re-opening their campuses for the start of the 2020–2021 school year. In July, Simpson Scarborough, a higher education research firm based in Alexandria, Virginia, analyzed school reopening plans across the U.S., using data gathered by The Chronicle of Higher Education and the National Center for Education Statistics. The firm found that 48 percent of higher education institutions in the U.S. plan to reopen this fall, 13 percent plan to deliver programs fully online, and 35 percent are planning to adopt a hybrid option.

At business schools planning to resume face-to-face classes, at least in part, administrators are adopting strategies that will prioritize safety while meeting the wide-ranging needs of their students and staff:

Offering flexible delivery options. Warwick Business School in the United Kingdom will rely on its proprietary learning platform to enable students to switch seamlessly between online and face-to-face learning. The flexibility in delivery is intended to alleviate students’ three biggest worries surrounding the pandemic: whether they can be present physically for the start of the academic year, whether they feel safe traveling, and whether there will be another spike in COVID-19 cases.

The school’s teaching materials, interactive spaces, and online classrooms are all available to students through the my.wbs platform. The platform enables interaction in live lectures, discussions, and syndicate groups; it also allows students to test themselves, access lessons and lecture recordings, submit assignments, and connect with other students and academics.

As schools reopen, it will be imperative that they remain responsive to students’ concerns surrounding the pandemic, says Andy Lockett, dean of WBS. “We cannot control events,” he says, “but we can be flexible so that students can come to Warwick not just when governments and scientists feel it is safe, but when they feel it is safe as well.”

Designing a gap year experience. Adelphi University in Hempstead, New York, will start its fall semester on schedule and hold on-campus classes until November 25. At that point, it will close its residence halls and deliver all final exams remotely. The town of Hempstead provided the university with a US$2 million grant to fund the school’s reopening process. This funding is part of $133 million the municipality received from the U.S. federal government’s Coronavirus Aid Relief and Economic Stimulus (CARES) Act. Hempstead awarded similar grants to three other local institutions, including Hofstra University, Molloy College, and Nassau Community College.

Adelphi University has used its grant to redesign spaces within its residence halls, dining areas, and library so that these buildings can better accommodate occupancy limits and allow for social distancing. In addition, it will require students to wear masks and participate in daily health check-ins on a mobile app.

Adelphi students who are uncomfortable attending classes in person can opt to take courses in one of four formats: in-person, hybrid/blended, fully online, or “hyflex.” Similar to the approach at Warwick Business School, the hyflex option at Adelphi will allow students to take courses online or in-person as they choose. To support this option, in-person courses will be both live-streamed and recorded.

Even with these safety measures, university leaders realize that not all students will want to return to campus. According to a poll of 487 college students conducted by the consulting firm Art & Science Group, one in six incoming freshmen are likely to change their plans to attend college in person this fall—of this group, 16 percent indicate that they plan to take a gap year.

Students normally use their gap years to pursue travel, internships, or volunteer opportunities—all made more difficult by COVID-19. For this reason, Adelphi has created a new Gap Year Experience. The program is open to individuals who planned to enroll in college in the fall—whether at Adelphi or any other school in the world—as well as those undecided about their higher education plans. The program is designed to keep students engaged in educational pursuits, via remote projects, even if they are not enrolled in classes.

The 11-week program will be offered twice: once from September 7 through November 20 and once from February 1 through April 16. Each Gap Year Experience begins with three weeks of training that will include a guest speaker series and lectures. Then, students will form multidisciplinary teams of four to eight students each to work on projects for organizations ranging from Fortune 500 companies to startups. Students can opt to work with either domestic or international partners on projects related to areas such as business strategy, marketing, social work, and healthcare.

Because these students will be working remotely, they can be located anywhere in the world. According to the school, the Gap Year Experience is designed to provide students with an opportunity similar to an internship, while also strengthening their technological skills and allowing them to “test drive” different college majors as they explore potential career paths.

Reopening in phases.While Adelphi is providing students with a gap year option, Grenoble Ecole de Management, based in France, is easing students into the academic year over three two-month phases.

In phase 1, from September 1 to October 31, students attending classes at all 12 of GEM's campuses worldwide will take courses fully online. (Before they begin, the school will ask students to complete an e-learning module that will prepare them to make the most of online course delivery.) During this time period, some workshops, group projects, career-building activities, and other extracurricular activities will be delivered face-to-face. The school recommends students to be in the cities of their chosen campuses so that they can take advantage of these options. However, they can choose to take courses remotely from wherever they are.


In phase 2, November 1 through December 31, faculty will begin some face-to-face instruction, although some courses might continue in online or blended formats. At this point, students will be required to be in their campus cities in person. In phase 3, starting January 2021, school administrators hope to be able to resume “normal” events such as the school’s Recruitment Forum and Parents’ Day. Faculty will continue online and blended course delivery as appropriate.

“This agile and flexible system will allow us to easily switch back to face-to-face classes if conditions allow it or to continue hybrid teaching methods according to the health rules in force,” says Jean-François Fiorina, GEM’s vice dean, on the school’s website.

Adopting a rotation system for in-class instruction. Other campuses in Europe already have been open for several months. That includes Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL) at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland. EHL reopened its campus at the beginning of June, after being closed for two months. For the coming semester, EHL also will offer students the option of taking courses via a hyflex model. To maintain social distancing, the school has designed a rotation system in which approximately one third of students will attend courses in person and two-thirds will attend remotely at any one time.

According to EHL’s FAQ page regarding the reopening of its campus, this model “allows the best combination for students to take advantage of remote study, campus life, and classroom presence,” while complying with government safety restrictions. The model also “allows flexibility to increase or decrease the presence on site as the situation of the pandemic may evolve.”

While the school has adopted the hyflex format because of COVID-19, it might continue to offer the option even once the crisis has been controlled. “While the COVID pandemic has accelerated our digitalization plans,” note school officials on EHL’s website, “HyFlex constitutes an essential step towards a more comprehensive digitalization of all our programs.”

Offering flexible start dates and additional funding. Leaders at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business in Charlottesville currently plan to start the school’s full-time MBA program as planned in August, with in-person courses, pending the university’s final decision on course delivery. Faculty are prepared to teach courses in hybrid or fully online formats if the university is forced to restrict access to its campus again, or close it altogether.

If circumstances require faculty to deliver courses virtually for a quarter or more during the 2020–2021 academic year, the school plans to offer students additional opportunities to pursue in-person learning once circumstances permit. To provide additional support, Darden has formed an administrative team to help students secure housing and offset the cost of meals, and it will offer additional need-based financial aid to students facing financial hardship due to the pandemic.

However, full-time MBA students who require additional time to prepare for their programs—whether due to challenges in their work or personal lives or difficulties in securing visas—will be allowed to delay the start of their programs until January 2021. These students will begin career-building activities prior to their arrival and will complete abbreviated internships or field projects during the summer of 2021.


Other business schools and universities are applying different strategies to support a safe campus reopening. For example, Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, has partnered with Rutgers University and Vault Health to deliver and deploy in-home COVID-19 testing for all students who elect to attend classes in person. Georgetown University and its McDonough School of Business in Washington, D.C., will continue to teach courses fully online until further notice. Although the university announced in early July that it would bring undergraduates back to campus in the fall, university officials reversed that decision “based on current pandemic conditions.”

In early July, Yale School of Management in New Haven, Connecticut, invited a cohort of 77 executive MBA students to its campus for a nine-day residency, according to an article in Poets & Quants. As the only students on campus, this group helped the school pilot and perfect its approach for a larger reopening plan. Yale University has announced that it will ask students to alternate between in-person and online courses. It also will require all students returning to its campus to sign a “Community Compact.” By doing so, they commit to following all of the school’s safety guidelines for preventing the spread of COVID-19. This will include participating in a safety training program, wearing masks, engaging in social distancing and hygiene measures, agreeing to regular testing and contract tracing, and being vaccinated once a vaccine is available.

Schools in some parts of the world must follow strict government guidelines to bring students to campus and resume activities. This includes Nanyang Technological University and NTU Business School in Singapore, a country that has adopted one of the world’s most aggressive approaches to containing the spread of the virus. As of May, it requires visitors to all facilities to participate in SafeEntry, a national digital check-in system.

At NTU, this means that everyone who comes to campus must use a handful of designated entry and exit points, where they will have their temperatures checked. Then, they will have either a QR code on their mobile phones or their ID cards scanned. Data collected in this process will be used for contact tracing should someone test positive for COVID-19. In addition, travelers coming from overseas must complete a 14-day quarantine at a dedicated facility before returning to campus.

Although business schools and their universities are adopting different strategies for reopening, their plans all have one thing in common—they include provisions for schools to pivot to a different plan at a moment’s notice should circumstances change.

“We recognize that many students began planning their MBA journeys and applying to Darden before the coronavirus pandemic, and initial plans may have changed dramatically,” says Scott Beardsley, dean of UVA's business school. “While no one has a crystal ball about what the months ahead will hold, we hope the steps outlined today will reduce uncertainty and open additional pathways for the Class of 2022 while ensuring an uncompromised student experience.”