Salma Ramirez of San Marcos is taking virtual tours of college campuses since real tours are canceled. (Photo courtesy of EdSource)

Los Angeles high school senior Arely Valencia already has collected an impressive bunch of acceptance letters to universities in California and elsewhere and is awaiting decisions from a few more. But she is uncertain and worried about what will happen next on her path to college because of the coronavirus crisis.

The health emergency makes it difficult to choose where to enroll because the campus visits to UC Irvine and other schools she is considering are now canceled. Worse, she is concerned that her acceptances could be rescinded if online replacements for her regular high school classes do not meet universities’ requirements.

Throughout California and the nation, high school seniors, their parents and counselors are waiting for more instructions from colleges on how to handle what is a sensitive time in the college admissions cycle in the best of years, let alone one filled with health anxieties and school closures. Valencia and many other students hope colleges will extend deadlines for enrollment commitment and deposits by a month, until June 1.

“It’s scary. Colleges should understand the situation we are in and give us more time,” said Valencia, who is a senior at the Math, Science and Technology Magnet Academy at Roosevelt High school in Boyle Heights and is part of the community-based College Track program that helps guide low-income students to and through college.

California’s public universities and many private colleges are largely standing by their May 1 deadlines for deposits or commitments, although they promise flexibility for hardships and may reconsider the timing.

About 300 colleges and universities across the nation have reported that they have extended deposit deadlines, usually to June 1, according to a survey by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). In California, those include Cal State San Bernardino, Whittier College, Mills College and Cal Lutheran University. But 481 of those surveyed said they would not, including UCLA, University of Southern California, Cal State Fullerton and Pepperdine University.

With so many students isolated, it is important for them to know that most other college applicants have similar fears and that answers will be forthcoming on enrollment questions, according to Jayne Caflin Fonash, NACAC president. She expects colleges will be satisfied with grades earned up to a senior’s winter or spring breaks.

Due to family concerns about health and distances, some students may drop plans to attend colleges far from home and choose closer ones, she said. But for now, students should stay calm and keep informed so they “are able to make the best decision you can for your future.”

Beyond the acceptance deadline, incoming students also are worried about other issues, such as whether universities will accept high school grades earned until early March or want the traditional full year’s transcript after graduation.

The seniors have more questions on their minds as the final acceptance and rejection letters are due to arrive any day now: Will universities accept the emergency online classes instituted by most districts as substitutes for traditional courses? What if those courses are converted to pass-fail? Will colleges provide more financial aid to families who have lost jobs and income because of shutdowns of many industries?

Arely Valencia of Los Angeles with some of her university acceptance packets. She wishes campus tours were available to help her choose. (Photo courtesy of EdSource)

Colleges administrators, for their part, are concerned that they might lose potential students, particularly those now afraid to enroll at schools beyond commuting distance. Students may be reluctant to register for the fall semester when it’s not known when in-person classes will resume. Not filling their freshmen classes could cause colleges financial strains on top of the extra costs already inflicted by the virus.

To keep things progressing, campuses are pushing virtual tours online and online chats with admissions officers and current students. Many are promising to be flexible on all the enrollment steps ahead and trying to tamp down applicants’ worries.

“So much is unknown now, it’s overwhelming,” said Kirsten Barnes a counselor at Hanford West High School in Hanford, in the San Joaquin Valley south of Fresno. “Nobody has all the answers now.”

The timing of high school and college shutdowns due to the virus “couldn’t have been worse for college admissions,” said Katy Murphy, director of college counseling at Bellarmine College Preparatory high school, a Catholic school for boys, in San Jose. But she said she hopes and expects colleges to be accommodating to ease stress on students.

“We don’t want a kid making the wrong decision,” she said.

Many counselors expect some colleges to relax deadlines, in part for families to reassess their financial situations and possibly revise their federal and state aid applications if now hit by sudden hardships.

“If their families can’t work and their parents are strapped, some extra time could be crucial right now,” Barnes said.

Similarly, Josh Godinez, president-elect of the California Association of School Counselors, said he hopes for more time since so much is uncertain. Colleges “are trying to figure it out just as we are trying to figure out. We all need a little bit of time,” said Godinez, who is a counselor at Centennial High School in Corona, in the Riverside County portion of the Inland Empire.

The goal, he said, is to ensure “that the kids are taken care of.” Students who do not have access to the internet or computers should not be penalized for not being able to take online courses when final grades are submitted to colleges. They shouldn’t have to suffer possible acceptance revocations if they suddenly have lower grades.

Across the 23-campus California State University system, so far only CSU San Bernardino has moved its commitment deadline to June 1.

CSU officials say they are working with state K-12 and community colleges “to mitigate impacts to students caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a statement. “CSU campuses are prepared to be as flexible as possible when working with fall 2020 applicants on meeting admission requirements and selection.” This flexibility will vary by CSU campus and potentially by major.

The UC’s nine undergraduate campuses are sticking so far to the traditional May 1 commitment deadline for freshmen and June 1 for transfers. However, the system will “monitor all of the evolving set of obstacles and issues facing incoming students” and may revise those dates, said Stett Holbrook, a UC spokesman. He said UC will take into account “educational disruptions” and also suggested that students facing economic distress should request reviews of their family finances for possible extra aid.

Individual campuses report they will help applicants stay on track to UC. UC Davis, for example, is providing online resources and tours and its website says “we do not anticipate any school situations that would prevent our admitted students from normal enrollment for fall 2020.”

Canceled campus visits are upsetting many high school seniors, according to Salma Ramirez, a senior at Mission Hills High School in San Marcos, north of San Diego. She has been accepted to the University of Washington in Seattle, along with Cal State Long Beach, among others, and is wait-listed at four UC campuses.

“It is especially disappointing not to be able to check out the schools I have been admitted to,” said Ramirez. She is taking online tours, knowing that is safer for her and for her mother, whose health issues make her vulnerable to coronavirus complications.

Ramirez, who wants to study psychology or sociology, said she also is getting ready to take three Advanced Placement tests in coming weeks.

She is grappling with the changes recently announced by the College Board, including offering online tests from home, reducing tests to 45 minutes from three hours and switching answer formats. While online free prep is available, and her high school teachers are providing help, most students feel more pressure about how the tests “will fall on us.” In addition, seniors are grappling with sadness about proms and graduation ceremonies possibly delayed or canceled, she added.

High school seniors should be urged to advocate for themselves if they face hardships that hurt their grades or ability to pay, according to Lorna Contreras-Townsend, an administrator and college advisor with Students Rising Above, a San Francisco-based organization that helps low-income students in the Bay Area get ready for and through college. Seniors should tell colleges: “I am doing my best to be as successful as possible this spring semester,” she said.

The group is offering discussions and counseling via Zoom to the 79 seniors participating this year and is connecting them for advice with older students who are enrolled at campuses now off-limits for tours. Students Rising Above has opened its online hub for college admissions advice to the public too.

Program participant Brian Perez Wences, a senior at East Palo Alto Academy, has been accepted by academically strong universities, including UC San Diego and UC Santa Cruz, and is awaiting word from others.

The future mechanical engineering major has concerns about missing campus tours and how his grades and AP calculus test score will be considered. Still, he is thankful for the guidance he is receiving and feels things will work out.

“I know I am going to a college where I belong,” he said. “I know once I get into that college, things will settle down.”

Story originally published by EdSource.