Water cascades from a fountain in Lake Placida at Elizabethtown College August 16, 2017.

Many of Pennsylvania’s private colleges have survived both World Wars, the Great Depression and more historic international affairs.

Now, these schools are among the many higher education institutions preparing to accommodate their students during an unprecedented pandemic, as COVID-19 cases continue to rise throughout the country.

During a live chat between Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and Tom Foley, the president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania, Foley discussed the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on these private higher education institutions.

DePasquale hosted the live chat because he said private colleges often get overlooked in the discussion about reopening, despite serving a majority of students in Pennsylvania. Approximately 51% of all four-year college students in Pennsylvania attend private colleges, Foley said. 

The Pennsylvania College of Art & Design, Elizabethtown College and Franklin & Marshall College are all members of this association of private colleges, along with 89 other colleges and universities in Pennsylvania. Member schools have an average age of 134 years, Foley said.

These colleges need to “reimagine what the classroom is,” Foley said. Students learn material, learn from their peers and learn from their communities -- which are all things that have been dramatically changed in this environment, he added.

If students are unable to physically learn on  campus, there will be more than just an impact on their education. Students at private colleges and universities in Pennsylvania spend an additional $3.3 billion in their communities, Foley said.

While each college has prepared its own individual reopening plan, they have also prepared a plan to transition to online classes if necessary, Foley said.

“They are planning for that possibility, for how can they best handle that if they have to shut down for five days or two weeks into the semester,” he added.

Although private colleges do not receive state appropriations like the state’s public universities, the General Assembly and Gov. Tom Wolf used federal coronavirus relief package dollars to fund grants for all low-income Pennsylvania students, distributed by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency. These annual grants were slightly increased for the 2020-21 academic year, for up to $4,525 available as a maximum grant, PennLive reported.

Foley said his association is hopeful that there will be enough coronavirus testing made available to private colleges in future federal aid packages.

Franklin & Marshall College, the county’s largest private college with about 2,300 students, has seen a 4% decrease in projected first-year enrollment, from 655 students to 631, a spokesperson told LNP|LancasterOnline in June.

Millersville University, Lancaster’s only state university, announced on Monday it would pivot “primarily” online classes for Fall 2020. 

Elizabethtown College plans to continue most of its instruction in-person, but will enforce social distancing and mask-wearing in instructional spaces, according to its website.

Franklin & Marshall College will divide its two semesters per academic year into four seven-week units using a mix of in-person and online instruction. It will include an extended winter break to avoid the height of the flu season, according to its Fall 2020 academic plan.

The Pennsylvania College of Art & Design will also utilize a “hybrid” model for in-person and remote instruction, according to its website.