Ahead of spring break, college administrators were frantically adapting to the novel coronavirus. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Brandeis University, Bunker Hill Community College and most other schools abruptly moved their classes online, sending thousands of students packing.

As hospitals braced for a surge in patients with COVID-19, Tufts University President Tony Monaco suggested colleges with surplus dorm rooms should make them available as overflow ICU beds if needed.

“I believe this is our country’s Dunkirk moment,” Monaco said, referring to the World War II battle. “We need local efforts to help our local hospitals manage the number of patients and the spread through the community.”

The year 2020 will go down as one that reshaped the landscape for colleges, with COVID-19 and the racial reckoning changing the state's campuses. The pandemic put financial pressure on local colleges, caused enrollment to dip and largely shifted teaching and learning from in-person to online. Schools' professed commitment to diversity and inclusion turned scrutiny on how much contracting they do with businesses owned by people of color.

After a UMass Boston undergrad returning from China was the first college student in the state to be quarantined, public health officials warned we were bound to see more cases on campuses in what one observer described as “a slow-roll crisis.

Colleges reacted swiftly to the pandemic in other ways. The state changed rules to allow medical students to get certified before they graduated — a move intended to stem anticipated pressure on the health care system.

“This is no longer a drill. This is the real thing," said UMass Worcester Chancellor Michael Collins, who welcomed the relaxing of licensing rules. "That would bring thousands and thousands of workers into the workforce if we need them."

A GBH News survey this spring, though, found the state’s community colleges graduated just 63 respiratory therapists — students like Leann Ritchie of Stockbridge — who are desperately needed on the frontlines of the pandemic to operate ventilators that could save the lives of patients most seriously ill with COVID-19.

“It’s good to know that respiratory therapists are needed now and actually being recognized, instead of just doctors and nurses,” Ritchie said in April.

The first wave subsided over the summer and college administrators turned their collective attention to reopening, juggling privacy and public safety. City officials and professors criticized schools for deciding to bring students back to campus. Boston University epidemiologist Michael Siegel accused his own school of being reckless — more concerned about its bottom line than public health.

“What this really comes down to is tuition dollars,” Siegel said. “The school was concerned that if it only offered online classes that a lot of students might defer or might decide to go elsewhere.”

As the fall semester approached, colleges were facing lawsuits seeking tuition refunds and requiring that students sign either letters acknowledging risk or waivers agreeing not to sue if they contract the virus. Schools purchased plexiglass, hand sanitizer and PPE. The key, however, would be frequent testing.

Colleges like Northeastern and Boston University invested millions of dollars in their own COVID tests. Others partnered with Harvard and MIT’s Broad Institute and the virus was largely contained on campuses. The superspreading that city officials feared never happened.

“New England is crushing it,” said Chris Marsicano, who directs the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, which is tracking colleges’ COVID responses.

His research team finds that in New England, 90 percent of colleges offering some in-person classes did frequent testing before the Thanksgiving break.

“There's no region that has a greater proportion of its institutions testing weekly or bi-weekly than New England,” Marsicano said.

Broad, which has conducted much of the testing in New England, says about one to two in 1,000 on-campus tests came back positive this semester.

“Here in Massachusetts, I think we’re actually lighting the way to how to live and learn in the age of COVID,” said Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which partnered with Broad to test its students, faculty and staff on a weekly basis. Leshin's school, she said, managed to stay open with relatively low case numbers.

“I really sincerely hope that other parts of the country look to our successful model and set up a way that they can do the same because we’ve shown that it’s possible to stay open and keep operating,” she said.

Many are operating in the red. So far, the New England Board of Higher Education has estimated the pandemic has cost the region’s colleges nearly half a billion dollars in tuition and fees, and that estimate doesn’t even account for COVID-related expenses.

The number of students at two-year colleges plummeted. Accreditors put Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in Boston on notice because of its shaky finances.

Historically, these two-year schools have gained enrollment during recessions because workers return to school hoping to get a better job when the economy improves. But this year, enrollment fell by about 12 percent at the state’s community colleges. That’s compared to a 7 percent decline at its public four-year universities.

“Students are not enrolling at the same rate because this pandemic has caught all of us flat-footed,” said Bunker Hill Community College President Pam Eddinger, noting that a big reason for this devastating drop is that students who were already enrolled stopped out.

“This pandemic has too many different elements that are volatile,” Eddinger explained. “It's not just, ‘The jobs are disappearing for a little bit and you can retrain for something else.’ Restaurants are closing. My culinary students, even if I trained them some more, have nowhere to go.”

While college enrollment was down nationally, medical school applications were way up – 18 percent nationwide compared to last year. At Boston University they were up 27 percent.

Admissions experts cited the pandemic, the economy, and what behind closed doors they’re calling the “Fauci Effect.”

“If it works to get more young individuals into medical school, go ahead and use my name. Be my guest,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told GBH News.

Fauci said he sees the flood of medical school applicants as a sign that young people are thinking about their responsibility to others.

“That counterbalances, I hope, the other side of the coin, which is the fact that people have no regard at all for society and only just focusing very selfishly on themselves,” he said.

The pandemic and economic downturn weren’t the only crises reshaping colleges and admissions. Like the rest of the country, campuses also responded to the racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd in May.

As unrest gripped the world, college presidents who have long embraced diversity and inclusion pledged to do better and to address income and racial inequality. A GBH News investigation, though, found local colleges don’t spend much money with businesses owned by people of color.

This fall, Lee Pelton, Emerson College's president, called on the state’s colleges to diversify their contract spending to help close the racial wealth gap.

“We know that minority-owned businesses generate economic output not only directly, but also by buying goods and services from other businesses,” he said.

While a few colleges, including the University of Massachusetts, have recently committed to a roadmap, Pelton admits it’s hard to gain traction during the pandemic and economic downturn when college budgets are so tight and administrators are just trying to keep the lights on.

In the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston, Harvard in November again fended off a federal lawsuit alleging that its admissions process discriminated against Asian Americans. The 2-0 decision came after one member of the three-judge panel, Juan Torruella, died in late October.

While focused on the Ivy League school, the case could impact college admissions at selective schools across the country. The plaintiffs, who oppose race-conscious admissions designed to increase diversity on campus, say they will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court next year.