The Nebraska State College System will start classes one week earlier than planned this fall, with the goal of wrapping up the fall semester by Thanksgiving.
The more than 10,000 undergraduate and graduate students at the college system's campuses in Peru, Wayne and Chadron will start Aug. 17 and complete finals Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.
There will be no fall break, which had initially been scheduled for Oct. 19-20, and winter graduation ceremonies will be scheduled at a later date in line with the latest public health directives.
"The unique nature of the state colleges allows us to be flexible and provide this new option for our students to stay on track to complete their degree on time or early at an affordable rate," Chancellor Paul Turman said in a statement.
Dozens of public and private colleges and universities across the country, including Creighton University in Omaha, have opted to start and end their fall semesters early this year ahead of a potential second wave of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S.
The altered schedule would allow students to once more receive in-person instruction after schools canceled on-campus classes in March and moved their education to remote learning.
It would also prevent students who leave campus for Thanksgiving celebrations and return to finish the semester from potentially bringing the coronavirus back to campus with them where it could spread quickly in dormitories or crowded lecture halls.
Turman said the state college system had been exploring eliminating fall and spring breaks and implementing a compressed calendar even before the coronavirus pandemic began as a way to better meet the needs of its students.
"The timing was really moved up by the pandemic," he said in a phone interview Tuesday.
In addition to cutting back on students' travel between their campuses and homes, squeezing the semester in before Thanksgiving will allow state college students to participate in a new three-week December term scheduled for Nov. 30-Dec. 18 or complete an internship.
Cole Martinez, a junior from David City attending Chadron State, said he'll look at taking a class during the December term to make up what was lost in the spring semester.
A family and consumer sciences education major, Martinez said he believes the new calendar is the best approach for the state college system to take under the "new normal" of the coronavirus.
"No college has faced something like this, and now we're trying to come up with a solution and I think this is the best option under the current guidelines," Martinez said.
Ashley Jackson, a junior vocal education major from Mitchell, said after finishing out the spring semester online — a transition difficult for a lot of music and art students — she, too, is looking forward to being back on Chadron State's campus this fall.
But, while she appreciates the goal of the new schedule in keeping students, faculty and staff safe, Jackson said there is still a lot of uncertainty in what campus life will be like.
"I'm a vocal music major, so I'm not sure how we're going to have choirs," she said, referring to news reports of COVID-19 spreading quickly through a choir in Washington state at the outset of the pandemic in March.
Many events have already been canceled, including music festivals and concerts, Jackson added, and she worries about having to make the transition once more to remote learning.
"I feel like, and it's not just with Chadron State, but with colleges across the nation, that arts majors have been a bit of an afterthought," the aspiring vocal music teacher said. "It's not easy to transition to online."
Turman said the college system is working under public health guidelines set by the state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is following a reopening framework developed at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in its planning to have students on campus this fall.
More details from the college system's plan, including how traffic flows through campus buildings will work, social-distancing parameters in dining halls, and use of classroom space will be made available soon, he said.
Athletic teams are preparing to start practices again, Turman said, and art and music programs are also working out how they will operate.
The goal of the calendar, however, is to begin to prepare students for new life on campus.
"It will allow us to get the semester done as quickly as possible, while if we have to go remote again, ensure that experience is going to be as short as possible for our students," Turman said.
At Creighton, classes will also start Aug. 17 and conclude the day before Thanksgiving, cutting down on "the need for students to make multiple trips should coronavirus cases increase with the start of the winter flu season," the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson wrote to students May 8.
The Jesuit school will also spread out its move-in dates over more days and make other adjustments to alleviate large gatherings.
While the University of Nebraska announced its intentions to hold in-person classes this fall at its campuses in Lincoln, Omaha and Kearney in combination with online learning, just what shape the fall semester takes remains to be seen.
NU President Ted Carter said last week the university has been reviewing its academic calendar "for a number of weeks" and will make an announcement shortly.
Chancellors will have some latitude to tailor a calendar that works best for their campuses, a spokeswoman said, but any change would need approval from the Board of Regents.