On June 30, the University of Connecticut will make a decision about whether the fall semester will be held on campus or online.
“Our goal is to fully resume operations in the fall, and we are planning for this. However, if public health circumstances do not allow for this or if the state or the university are unable to meet the criteria for reopening spelled out in [the May 6] report, a more limited or scaled-back opening would be pursued,” explained UConn President Thomas Katsouleas in a letter to the UConn community on May 7.
UConn, like other colleges and universities across the state, has been operating as an online school since mid-March, in the process losing $30 million to housing and dining refunds during that time. If the school were to continue to stay closed come fall 2020, the state’s flagship university could lose as much as another $121.6 million, said Stephanie Reitz, a spokesperson for the university.
To prevent any more financial losses, the emphasis for colleges and universities in Connecticut is on reopening, and what that will look like during what may turn into a lengthy health crisis.
“I’ve asked the faculty to prepare for being full online, but the administrative team is focusing completely on what it could like being back in full with all students. We are designing toward that possibility,” Katsouleas said.
At Wesleyan, a private liberal arts college in Middletown, Connecticut, the emphasis is much the same.
“Wesleyan will be open in the fall, and we very much hope that with appropriate safety measures on campus we can be residential,” said Lauren Rubenstein, director of media and public relations for Wesleyan University.
Currently, the state’s plan for a phased reopening allows research programs and administrative function to begin on May 20. In late June, community colleges and workforce development programs, including nursing clinicals that were required for degrees earned this spring, will resume.
“It’s reasonable to think of community colleges as we think of businesses. Residential programs pose a significantly higher risk,” said Rick Levin, former president of Yale University and co-chair of the education committee of the Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group.
In mid-July, nonresidential educational programs are expected to return, as well as a few pilot residential programs.
“By the end of the summer, in preparation for the fall semester, if prevailing health conditions make it possible, undergraduate residential institutions may reopen if they choose,” according to the Governor’s Office.
Levin and co-chair Linda Lorimer, former vice president of global and strategic initiatives at Yale University, stressed that these are simply guidelines and that each school should make an independent decision about how to safely open.
“It will be inevitable that students will contract the virus, but then there needs to be a plan for containment,” Lorimer said. “Universities need to be thinking about how they will test, and retest all students ahead of time.”
Following the guidelines, Lorimer said, will allow universities and colleges to avoid potential COVID-19-related lawsuits.
As of yet, neither of the state’s testing partners – Yale-New Haven Health or Jackson Laboratory – have partnered with any institution to plan for testing sites on campus.
Reopening universities and colleges would bring 129,000 students and 45,000 Connecticut residents back to work.
The Class of 2024
It’s not just colleges and universities that have suffered financially.
“There is a lot of concern among institutions that there will be a decline in enrollment,” Levin said. “International students are unlikely to come back and some students we think will want to take a gap year. There will be some reduction in enrollment and that will be a budget problem.”
But in Connecticut at least, school administrators report that enrollments appear healthy for the fall.
“We had a larger number of acceptances than we expected both from our domestic students, particularly in-state students, and also overseas students … When we measured a point in time at the start of May, UConn had more admissions offers accepted than it did at the same time last year,” Reitz said. The acceptance deadline, however, was extended until June 1 for regional campuses, so final numbers are not yet available.
The same is true for Wesleyan.
“As of the May 1 decision deadline, we have seen more students accept our offers of admission than last year at this same point, although those plans could still be impacted as the pandemic continues to unfold,” said Lauren Rubenstein, director of media and public relations for Wesleyan University.
Those numbers are a great relief for universities and colleges expecting another year of financial hardship. The best case scenario for UConn, Retiz said, will be a $29 million loss stemming from a decline in the international student population.
Increased need for financial aid
Both incoming and returning students will likely be requesting increased financial aid from universities and colleges across the state, and schools that can afford to are adding to their financial aid budgets.
“Wesleyan will continue to meet the full-demonstrated need of financial aid recipients for the duration of their Wesleyan careers and is adding $2 million to our financial aid budget as we anticipate that families’ financial circumstances may have changed,” Rubenstein said. “In addition, because of the economic downturn, Wesleyan will waive the summer earning contributions for students on financial aid this year, and qualifying students will receive additional grant support to replace this expectation.”
From the community colleges to private liberal arts schools to Yale and UConn, school officials said that they would be developing a mix of in-person and online options to offer students choices that feel safe.
“Residential institutions are going to try to have face-face instruction when possible because we think it’s the best way to teach, to offer the education that we offer,” said Joanne Berger-Sweeney, president of Trinity College. For those students with underlying health conditions other accommodations will be made.
“What we’ve all tried to do is provide the best sort of online support we can – not just academically, but also support,” said Mark Ojakian, president of Connecticut State Colleges and Universities.
Schools have transitioned health centers, counseling services and advising services to offer virtual appointments in order to ensure students are given the same opportunities they would have during traditional times.