(TNS) - The health and economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is a watershed moment for colleges and universities state and nationwide, Commissioner of Higher Education Harrison Keller said.
In a May 28 phone interview, Keller said there have been a lot of articles about digital learning and about the cost institutions are facing.
“ This is the most significant disruption to campus operations since World War II. but higher education is going to have a special role and responsibility to play in driving the recovery, so it’s not exactly like any other part of the state budget because this isn’t just a cost center,” he said. “We know that a lot of the jobs that folks have lost aren’t coming back and we have a lot of people who are going to need to reskill and upskill to be able to get back on their feet and help drive the recovery. I do think we have a strong collection of higher education leaders from community and technical colleges to universities to university systems that recognize (that) and they are already talking about what their responsibilities will be in driving the recovery.”
Another way colleges and universities will play a role is through people going back to school to finish a degree or picking up a short-term work credential that helps them get a better or more stable job.
“ And we’re not talking within years, we’re talking within months,” Keller said.
“ That’s going to be really important for communities (from) Midland and Odessa to Houston to Dallas, across the state. (This) is going to be the time when we’re going to lean into some of these issues; how do we unlock the potential of Texas talent and what (do) those kind of credentials need to look like that will help us be competitive in the future? I think we have people who really are deeply committed to helping the drive to recovery. That’s going to be important,” he added.
Texas institutions have done a terrific job responding to the coronavirus creatively to ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff, Keller said.
“ They converted nearly all their courses to online delivery in the space of about two weeks and they’ve been standing up emergency aid for students and they’ve been partnering in community public health responses …,” he said.
There has been cost associated with moving courses on line and to working remotely, such as buying additional software licenses and purchasing laptops and hotspots for students and faculty who didn’t have internet access.
Because most students had to move off campus, universities also provided prorated refunds to students for room and board.
“That happened at the same time the institutions saw a simultaneous collapse across multiple revenue streams, not only those housing and food service contracts but also events and athletics and then they saw a decline in philanthropy as well,” Keller said.
There was an old criticism of higher education that it was resistant to change and resistant to technology, he said.
“Well all of that got blown up in the space of about two weeks,” Keller observed.
In retrospect, this will be an important watershed for higher education, but at the same time, he said, higher education has to start thinking about long-term recovery, what operations are going to look like in the fall for students, faculty and staff to stay safe, but also have courses designed so they can go online quickly if there is another outbreak.
“That’s going to be more costly and more complicated to engineer …,” Keller said.
He added that this comes at the same time that state revenues have been hit hard.
“… The state leaders have asked all of the universities and state agencies to prepare plans for 5 percent cuts in their state appropriation for the current biennium and the universities are also preparing those plans right now,” Keller said.
What do they do now? A lot of contingency planning.
“… All the institutional leaders I’ve been talking to are planning for multiple scenarios because, of course, we don’t know what’s going to happen. Everybody’s planning and hoping to be able to open up in the fall, but you have to plan for multiple scenarios so the intent of almost all the Texas campuses is to have students on campus in the fall and you make accommodations around room scheduling and around course design and even around housing arrangements so that you can reduce the risk of infection to students but also for faculty and staff who work at the institution,” Keller said.
Housing will be especially challenging.
“We’re working right now on some guidance for institutions to help support their planning efforts for the fall … I know a number of campuses are aiming to have more students in single rooms, instead of double rooms or maybe double rooms instead of triple rooms that kind of thing. But then you have to house students somewhere and so that is going to be very challenging to resolve,” Keller said.
University of Texas at Austin and some other schools around the country, including Notre Dame, have announced that they’re not coming back after Thanksgiving.
“Part of the idea there is you can make these adjustments around class schedules and make sure that rooms and equipment are sanitized and you’re testing students on campus. But when you have everyone go away for Thanksgiving and interact with people and then come back, it creates a risk and so it’s more manageable if you could adjust your schedule so students don’t come back after Thanksgiving,” Keller said.
“I think there’s going to be different approaches (in) different places. I think that’s actually a good thing on two fronts. One is as we’re learning more about the virus and campuses are developing different kinds of plans and then sharing those plans with each other across the state and beyond, then there are different approaches that might work better for different populations of different students or different kinds of programs or different communities,” he added.
If a program requires face-to-face interaction, some campuses were thinking about breaking their labs up into smaller sections where students could complete their labs in two or three weeks rather than a longer time span.
“Other campuses are considering other kinds of strategies, so I think the longer term silver lining in this is that there are some really creative and interesting ideas that are being developed and the campuses are going to be testing (them) over the next several months …,” Keller said.
He added that this time period could change the way higher education thinks about using technology, teaching and learning, calendars and the way physical space is used.
“… Even as we open up the economy, there are new habits and new ideas and new ways of working that we may not want to go back to the way we were doing it before exactly. That could be a good thing,” Keller said.
Asked whether there is any discussion of using the state’s rainy day fund to fill in budget gaps, Keller said he knows there are a lot of discussions already among the legislative leadership and the governor’s office.
“… They’re looking ahead to the next session and there will be active conversations about rainy day funds. There will be active conversations about what the appropriate use of federal stimulus funds will be; about potential spending cuts in different areas. This will be a very challenging budget session. Of course, we’ll get through it. I have a lot of confidence in the governor’s office and the legislative leadership, but we’re anticipating a very challenging budget session.”
Something he doesn’t think has gotten enough attention during the pandemic is the role colleges and universities have played in public health responses.
“… I’ve seen colleges and universities actively participating in public health responses. That’s been from donating PPE (personal protective equipment), donating respirators, 3-D printing, face shields to of course in a research university. Even while the rest of the campus was nearly shut down, we’ve had dozens and dozens of faculty members who come in every day with their graduate students and with others on their research team working the frontiers of expanding our testing capacity and working to find potential treatments and vaccine research. I think that hasn’t gotten enough attention in general in these conversations,” Keller said.
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