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COVID-19 impacts loom large as Utah colleges, universities approach fall semester

By Marjorie Cortez, KSL | Posted - May 16, 2020 at 8:02 a.m.



SALT LAKE CITY — As fall approaches, college freshmen, their parents and returning students are looking to Utah’s colleges and universities for guidance whether on-campus classes will resume this fall or if distance learning will continue.

On some campuses, the uncertainty is impacting anticipated fall enrollment, although summer enrollment is up at most Utah System of Higher Education institutions. Weber State University, for one, has reported record summer enrollment.

Snow College President Brad Cook said new applications and enrollments are up, “but we’re way down on returners because a lot of our students, 53%, come from the Wasatch Front. I think that’s a critical wait-and-see to see whether we’re going to be online or whether we’re going to have face to face,” Cook said on Friday, addressing the Utah State Board of Regents.

Snow College has a practice of telephoning each of its returning students.

“The feedback is, ‘We want face to face because if it’s going to be online, then we’ll just stay home. If Snow College doesn’t have it, we’ll take it from a local place.’ So we’re actually quite concerned. It’s a football. We just don’t know how it’s going to bounce,” he said.

An added concern is students’ and families’ financial footing in the face of record unemployment and economic instability.

“There are a lot of families that are financially insecure and wondering whether even going to college this next semester is even in the cards,” Cook said.

Utah State University President Noelle Cockett said summer enrollment is down 5% to 6% and fall enrollment is down 4.1% overall, mostly among continuing students and down 1% among graduate students.

Freshman enrollment is up and the university has extended scholarship and registration windows, which may affect the numbers somewhat.

“The No. 1 question they’re asking me is, ‘Will you have in-person classes?’” Cockett said. “We will, we absolutely will. It will not be full and it will not necessarily be a class that is all in person.

“But the students basically say, ‘Should I really do the expense of moving to one of the campuses if I’m going to be online and take this class in a dorm, why not just stay home, find an alternative online and take it that way?’” Cockett said.

Some form of in-person delivery will be important to draw students to residential campuses, she said.

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Elsewhere in the system, enrollment is up for Utah Valley University’s summer term but down for fall, said UVU President Astrid Tuminez.

“Our interpretation of that is students and parents are waiting for clarity on whether fall will be purely online or face to face. We are anticipating that in about two weeks we can have that announcement, and then we’ll have a clear idea for fall,” she said.

Tuminez said the increase in summer enrollment is an encouraging indicator because enrollment for summer dipped and then rose once it became clear that all summer classes would all be online.

Leavitt Partners CEO Andrew Crowshaw briefed the board on ongoing planning to help campuses “repopulate” after shutting down during the spring term to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Leavitt Partners, a self-described health care intelligence business, is one of several entities advising Gov. Gary Herbert’s Utah Leads Together plan.

Crowshaw noted the California State University system will hold fall semester online. It is the largest university system nationwide.

Even in the same cities, universities are taking different approaches. In Boston, Harvard Medical School will conduct online classes for first-year medical, dental and graduate students. Northeastern University, meanwhile plans to reopen this fall and offer on-site instruction and residential experiences for students.

Meanwhile, all three state public universities in Arizona plan to resume in-person classes this fall.

“The conclusions that are being drawn are different based on a whole series of criteria that is specific to each state,” Crowshaw said.

Some of the most important considerations in repopulating campuses safely are monitoring for outbreaks and managing incidents when they occur, which could mean a shutdown.

“Nobody wants to think about that but these are large and complex institutions with many considerations and connections with community. So having thought through a shutdown plan is an important part of being prepared in the unlikely, but potential situation that would become necessary,” he said

Contact tracing and coronavirus testing also play a role in plans to safely reopen campuses, he said.

One option may be group testing. Saliva from a basketball team and their coaches could be collected, blended and tested.

“If that test comes back negative, you’ve just saved yourself 19 tests. If it comes back positive, you can divide that group into cohorts, let’s say groups of five and run four tests,” he said.

Crowshaw said state-level guidance for colleges and universities could be released early next week.

As public colleges and universities cope with uncertain enrollments, they are also bracing for lower-than-expected appropriations from state lawmakers as the Utah Legislature’s appropriations subcommittees plan to meet later this month to recommend cuts up to 10% from the $20 billion state budget set to take effect July 1.

Interim Utah Commissioner of Higher Education David Woostenhulme said state funding aside, state institutions’ own revenues are suffering as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One of the things that we know will go along with these plans (to reopen) is our institutions are getting hit hard financially through this COVID-19. Obviously we did receive some CARES Act money, but it’s not going to be near enough to cover the expenses and the lost revenue from our institutions. As we start to ramp up testing on campuses and so forth, we will be asking ... the governor’s office for some resources to help provide that testing as well as the contact tracing on the campuses,” he said.

If the Pac-12 is unable to offer a football season this fall, the University of Utah could lose tens of millions in revenues, said Board of Regents Chairman Harris Simmons.

“That’s just that’s one program at one school in athletics. This is going to be a tough, tough year,” he said.

Marjorie Cortez

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