Colleges and universities in New Jersey have already made significant progress planning for fall learning in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

But in the back of their minds, college officials know the next semester is still several weeks away and the behavior of the virus and the general public could turn those plans upside down.

"We are very serious about the nature and the power of COVID-19," Kathryn Foster, president of The College of New Jersey, said during a hearing held by the Assembly Higher Education Committee.

For that reason, TCNJ has already scrapped high-contact sports for the fall. And beyond instituting efforts to reduce density within instruction spaces, the college is also making it known that no student will be required to learn on campus in order to make progress toward a degree.

Citing a backslide among individuals in New Jersey and elsewhere when it comes to respecting social distancing recommendations and wearing face coverings to limit the spread of the virus, Foster voiced her concerns over whether the entire college community can maintain rigorous attention to these preventive measures.

"We know it takes only a few resulting cases to create a community spread and a surge," Foster said. "That could shut down the campus entirely."

At least 14 days before their instruction is expected to begin, colleges and universities must submit their restart plans to the Office of the Secretary of Higher Education for review. The Office on June 18 issued standards that align with the stages of New Jersey's "The Road Back" plan.

"Should we move to phase 3, we do anticipate having about 50% percent of our students here on campus — first and foremost our freshmen and sophomores," said New Jersey Institute of Technology President Joel Bloom.

During the virtual legislative hearing, Bloom showed participants the institute's "pandemic recovery plan" binder that features more than 570 pages.

"We have done massive physical changes, as well as technology changes, on our campus to get ready for the fall semester," Bloom said.

Before the hearing, committee chairwoman Mila Jasey indicated that no matter what's said in terms of restart plans, "things may change" before the fall term.

"New Jersey has always set higher education as a top priority and this pandemic will not change our commitment to students," Jasey, D-Essex, added.

A number of higher education institutions in the state have already revealed plans to run a hybrid model of learning, offering both online and in-person instruction, and in some cases rotating staff schedules to reduce the number of people on campus at one time.

"None of us can give complete assurances around COVID-19," said Richard Helldobler, president of William Paterson University. "We can certainly mitigate and reduce the risk at this point, but we can't eliminate it. And I think that weighs on me and my presidential college colleagues."

Contact reporter Dino Flammia at dino.flammia@townsquaremedia.com.