Much of the debate about reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic focuses on K-12 classrooms and the safety of younger children.
But educators at the nation’s colleges and universities face their own difficult decisions as they prepare for the fall semester. Should courses be taught online or in person? How will student housing, dining services, and extracurricular activities be handled? What health protocols can best keep students, faculty, and staff safe from a highly contagious virus? And how will these new realities impact their institutional bottom lines?
“This puts us in dire straits financially,” says Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education President Aaron Thompson.
When the pandemic hit in mid-March, the state’s public universities, private colleges, and the community and technical college system had to turn on a dime. Within days, the schools shuttered campuses, sent students home, and shifted to virtual class work.
“It was a semester that no one saw coming, and no one could prepare for it adequately,” says Melissa Bell, vice president of academic affairs and student success at CPE.
Thousands of courses transitioned to what’s called emergency remote instruction, which Bell says is different than true online courses. Schools also had to figure out how to deliver counseling and advising services virtually, and how to refund housing and food service money to students no longer using those plans.
“Higher education is built on closeness, it’s built on that face-to-face interaction,” says Thompson. “So what we were called to do... is to actually change the culture of higher education on its heels.”
Pandemic Brings Financial Hits to Higher Education
As a result, the commonwealth’s eight public universities lost almost $145 million from spending plans that were already stretched thin by 11 years of state budget cuts. The Kentucky Community and Technical College System incurred at least $20 million in pandemic-related expenses.
The public institutions won’t be able to recoup those costs through tuition increases. Thompson says the average tuition increase for Kentucky universities and community colleges in the new academic year will be less than 1 percent. He says the premium charged for online courses has also been removed.
“We realized that we were at a threshold with our tuition and fees that we couldn’t go much farther,” says Thompson. “We have to, yes, have a viable educational system in place.... but we also didn’t want to actually out-price the needs of our students.”
The public schools did receive some emergency relief from the federal CARES Act enacted in late March. Several of the state’s private colleges also received Paycheck Protection Program funds, according to O.J. Oleka, president of the Association of Independent Kentucky Colleges and Universities.
The new aid package being debated by Congress could include $30 billion more for the nation’s colleges and universities. That sounds like a lot of money, but Thompson warns it may not be enough to help institutions of higher education nationwide offset the new expenses they are incurring to provide instruction and student services remotely.
“We’re really creating a lot of other items that cost us money that we used to do face to face on our campuses,” says Thompson. “This is going to help us be innovative in the future, but... we don’t know what the costs are going to fully be yet. We just know that they are mounting, and this CARES money helped tremendously.”
KCTCS President Jay Box says additional federal relief will be nice but may not be enough to help Kentucky schools.
“Our concern is what is going to happen in the state,” says Box. “Is the state revenue going to continue to lag behind, which may require the governor and the General Assembly to have to reduce funding of state appropriations.”
Schools Plan for Reopening
CPE has created overall health and safety standards for Kentucky universities based on guidance from state public health officials and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From that, Thompson says each institution is developing specific plans for their students and campuses. For example, schools will have COVID-19 testing available but may not require it. Contact tracers will help identify students and staff who may have been exposed to someone who has the virus. Campuses will also have space for students to quarantine if they’ve come from a known pandemic hotspot of if they test positive for the coronavirus.
“We are taking every precaution there is,” says Thompson. “Although there’s no amount of money that can guarantee safeness, we’re spending a lot of money to guarantee that our campuses can be as safe as possible.”
For those schools that will continue to offer some classes virtually, Bell says faculty have been busily working over the summer to improve the online instructional experience.
“A lot of the emphases on the campuses right now are how to make these courses more engaging,” says Bell. “Faculty-student interaction, and also student-to-student engagement, and engagement with the materials.”
While the pandemic has prompted some students to avoid college all together and take a so-called “gap year,” Thompson says many young people are eager to return to campus life. Some state schools are even expecting record enrollments for the new academic year.
Here are highlights of the reopening plans for the state’s universities and colleges:
University of Kentucky: President Eli Capilouto says all students will be tested when they arrive on campus. UK will also provide a smartphone app for students, faculty, and staff to do daily COVID-19 symptom checks. He says plans are being made for a range of teaching scenarios from classroom and online instruction. “We’re going to be monitoring this quite closely,” says Capilouto. “It will be a day-to-day observation of what’s going on and if we have to pivot and pivot quickly, we will.”
University of Louisville: Provost Beth Boehm says testing will be available for students, faculty, and staff, but not required. Priority will be given to those with symptoms or who have been exposed to a COVID-positive person. There will also be daily symptom checks. Students living on campus must make an appointment to move into to housing the week before school starts on Aug. 17. “We are planning for being here, but we are also planning for the possibility of having to go remote,” says Boehm.
Northern Kentucky University: President Ashish Vaidya says his school has created a COVID preparedness team in partnership with St. Elizabeth Healthcare and Gravity Diagnostics, a testing lab in Covington. Instruction will vary from face to face, to online, to a hybrid model. Student housing will be cut by about half; students will live in single rooms where possible, and common spaces will be eliminated. “We are prioritizing the experience for our first-year students, the class of 2024, so that all of them will have at least some on-campus experience,” says Vaidya.
Eastern Kentucky University: President David McFaddin says EKU plans to follow state guidelines for masking, social distancing, and personal hygiene. The school has also strengthened cleaning protocols for residence halls and dining venues. About three-quarters of classes will be conducted through face-to-face instruction. ”So we have designed classes to be taught in a socially distanced way using every space on campus possible,” McFaddin says. But he adds those courses are designed to also be portable for those students who can’t come to the classroom.
Western Kentucky University: “The way for us to get back to something that looks like normal is to do something that’s completely different,” says President Timothy Caboni. Student housing capacity will be reduced and residence halls will have an intensive cleaning schedule. A third of classes will be offered online, while the other courses will be face-to-face instruction or a mixture of online and in person. Coronavirus tests will be available to anyone who wants one. Like many of the other state schools, WKU will not have Labor Day or fall breaks, and will conclude their semester by Thanksgiving.
Morehead State University: President Jay Morgan says in-person class sizes will be reduced as will the number of students living in campus housing. “Not only does it lower some of the pressure you that might see in any given fall semester in the residence halls, but we think it also lets our students spread out quite a bit,” says Morgan. The school will partner with St. Claire HealthCare on a mobile-response unit to quickly provide testing or address any virus outbreaks.
Murray State University: President Robert Jackson says 200 people from the campus community crafted a Racer Restart Plan for the school. Instructional spaces have been resized to allow for greater spacing among students. Private rooms will be available for students who want them, and cleaning protocols have been tightened. “In this abnormal environment, we’re going to try to have as normal a fall as we possibly can with a lot of tweaks and changes – and there’ll be more to come,” says Jackson.
Kentucky State University: President M. Christopher Brown says all fall classes will be hybrid or completely online. Those classes that have some face-to-face instruction, such as nursing or music, will be modified to allow proper social distancing. The semester starts August 7 and concludes just before Thanksgiving, and finals will be given online. Campus food services will be carry-out only. “We’re really excited about the ways in which we’ve been able to reinvent our delivery of service in compliance with the CDC guidelines,” says Brown.
KCTCS: Box says since none of his students live on campus, the community colleges will not provide testing services. But students will be required to do a daily self-health assessment via a smartphone app. Classes will be offered through online, face-to-face, and hybrid models. He says KCTCS is well suited to helping people who have lost jobs due to the pandemic. “We can provide you the educational background that can probably get you back to work,” says Box. “We have short-term credentialed programs that can get you back there.”
Private and Independent Colleges: Oleka says his association represents 18 schools across Kentucky that serve more than 56,000 students, employ 7,000 people, and generate more than $700 million in economic activity. Although each college has its own reopening plan, Oleka says they all include testing, masking, and social distancing. Resident housing will be done on a “family model” to limit a student’s exposure to other people. While students can learn online, Oleka says his schools believe it’s important for young people to have the experience of studying with and living among people from a range of backgrounds. “Students need this experience, they need this opportunity to be around people who are different from them, and that’s the type of thing that our institutions are trying to provide,” he says.