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ACHE leader: Remote learning for universities’ summer semester possible; Community colleges will finish semester online

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

The executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education said Alabama’s universities may continue off-campus classes this summer because of ongoing COVID-19 concerns.

In a letter to university presidents this week, Jim Purcell said institutions need to communicate with students and their families about what summer courses, which begin in mid-May, may look like. 

“As April approaches, you are no doubt considering how to conduct campus operations over the course of the summer,” Purcell wrote. “We all know that there are many factors in play in making this decision and not all of these are academic. Health of our communities, students, faculty and students must be paramount. 

“While many unknowns remain, it is important that institutions provide clarity for students, families, and the public so that they can plan to continue or begin their studies over the summer. I would support maintaining the online/remote instructional environment through the summer 2020 terms.”

As of midday Friday, about 570 Alabamians have confirmed cases of COVID-19 and at least three deaths have been reported. Some health leaders in the state have said they don’t expect the pandemic to peak in this state until late April or early May.

Alabama’s K-12 public school students will not be returning to their schools this year, officials announced Thursday. They’ll complete the school year remotely, ending it on June 5.

Meanwhile, the Alabama Community College System announced Friday that its about 174,000 students will not finish their current semester on campus, but through online work. Earlier this month, community college campuses were closed until April 3.

“Every decision concerning the operations of Alabama’s community colleges is being made with the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff, and administrators at the forefront,” ACCS Chancellor Jimmy H. Baker said in a written statement. “While we couldn’t have imagined what this semester would look like for our colleges, I am incredibly grateful for the creativity, resilience, and commitment to learning shown by our faculty, staff, and students during this difficult time.”

Graduation ceremonies have been postponed.

A decision has not been made about whether summer courses will be in-person or online.

Going online

For the rest of the current semester, Alabama’s universities moved their classes online and to other remote delivery options.

“I do believe we should commend the campuses for converting to online so quickly,” Purcell told Alabama Daily News this week. “Normally, higher education doesn’t move at such a speed.” 

It’s also a tremendous change for many students and faculty, Purcell said. He cited The Chronicle of Higher Education data that said in 2017, 68% percent of college undergrads were not enrolled in any online courses.

Meanwhile, 85% of lower division and 78% of upper division faculty only teach in-person.

Alabama’s K-12 and higher education institutions are waiting to see what the coronavirus and efforts to control it do to their state funding. The state’s 2021 education budget last month was estimated to be about $7.5 billion. But its two largest sources — sales and income taxes — are expected to be hit hard by social distancing measures that keep people in their homes and close businesses.

Campus closures also mean lost revenue for auxiliary services, including cafeterias and bookstores. Surrounding communities are also impacted.

Continued closures could also pose a challenge for university recruitment efforts.

The Chronicle of Higher Education this month reported that in fall 2019, six in ten colleges missed their fall enrollment goals and two-thirds of colleges failed to meet their revenue goals

“Making sure you have new enrollment is important to the institutions in the state,” Purcell said. 

Margaret Gunter, ACHE’s government relations director, said the U.S. Senate’s $2.2 trillion proposed coronavirus stimulus bill includes for higher education: emergency aid to students and institutions; access to low-cost capital; technology implementation funding; and temporary regulatory flexibility.

A vote by the U.S. House is expected today.

Local decisions

Limiting access to campus premises, Alabama universities and colleges have made independent decisions pertaining to on-campus housing, dining and other campus facilities. 

Both Athens State University and University of North Alabama have closed their on-campus housing facilities. Housing at Jacksonville State University will remain open.

For international students, many universities are making accommodations for students who cannot return home to stay on campus or find alternative housing.

The International House and Programs at JSU has created a frequently asked questions page for current international students. The categories are divided into immigration, housing and meal plans, employment and travel.  

With on-campus housing remaining open, Jacksonville State University left the choice to students to return to campus. According to its website, students who wish to permanently move out early will not receive a refund. 

With campuses adjusting to the needs of their community, universities and colleges face the decision on whether or not to cancel or postpone spring commencement ceremonies. Some universities have already canceled or postponed their ceremonies, while others are awaiting a final decision. 

“No decision has been made at this time regarding commencement,” Athens State University wrote in a press release. “We will update the campus community once a final decision has been made.”

The University of Alabama canceled on-campus activities for the remainder of the semester, including commencement.

“We are actively exploring and hope to provide alternative means of recognizing the significant achievements of graduates and students earning honors, but it is too early to make those plans firm,” a university statement to students said.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham canceled its traditional graduation ceremonies, saying it would choose to do an alternative or online format. The university has said that they plan to release the details soon.

The university says it has not made a decision on summer classes and will assess the situation at a later date.

Auburn University moved to remote classes for the remainder of this semester and requested that students who live on campus not come back after spring break. Commencement hasn’t been canceled yet and the university says that they will release more info on that in the coming days.

For students looking at summer courses at Auburn, the university has said that students are encouraged to work with their academic advisors to develop a plan. No details have come out on whether Auburn will have on-campus classes or remote classes for the summer semester.

Alabama Daily News interns Abby Driggers and Devin Pavlou contributed to this report.

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