Education leaders brace for changes as fall planning evolves

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AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Bradley Wilson didn’t want to sound cliché, but he couldn’t help saying he is taking each day “one day at a time.”

Wilson, an associate professor in the communications department at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, is not sure what the fall semester will bring when the university intends to resume in-person classes.

The state’s major university systems — the University of Texas, Texas Tech and Texas A&M — all announced they plan to bring in-person classes back in the fall, with a public health caveat should conditions worsen. Some classes would remain online or in different formats. Several other higher educations have come out with their own announcements about intending to have students return to campus in the fall.

A chief concern for these programs is how to find the funding to keep them afloat. Some schools face enrollment shortfalls. Others are cutting some extra-curriculars.

“The COVID-19 crisis has been more disruptive to our Texas higher education institutions than anything else we’ve seen since the end of the second World War,” Harrison Keller, Commissioner of the Texas higher Education Coordinating Board, said. “So it’s hard to overstate the impact of COVID-19 on our colleges and universities.”

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board launched a public/private partnership to bring emergency aid grants to the state’s two- and four-year colleges. They set a goal of $2 million for campus needs, to be distributed alongside federal CARES Act funding approved by Congress.

“These funds are going to help supplement with a little additional direct aid to students, they’re going to be able to help provide some indirect aid that campuses that run, for example, food banks or clothes closets that students and their families depend on,” Keller said.

“The campuses can also use these to help them stand up better campus capabilities so that they can get that emergency aid out in ways that are more targeted,” Keller explained.

Texas House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, said April 30 state leaders have having conversations about these challenges “every single day.”

“All our institutions are struggling because the reality of it is — we are concerned, enrollment numbers are going down,” Bonnen said. “We don’t want fewer Texans being educated in Texas. We want to remove as many of those hurdles and obstacles to our students continuing their education or very importantly, beginning that education.”

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said he had a recent conversation with Dr. Deborah Birx, Coronavirus Response Coordinator for the White House Coronavirus Task Force, about how to minimize risk when students return to school.

One suggestion discussed was starting the school year earlier and leaving more time for Winter Break.

“…with the concerns-slash-anticipation being that whether it be the common flu, or the common flu combined with a resurgence of COVID, there may need to be a longer period of time during the winter break, to not have students gather all together at one time,” Abbott said Tuesday.

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, chairman of the state’s House Higher Education Committee, applauded institutions who reacted quickly to shift systems to online-learning.

“Until there is a vaccine for this virus, everyone agrees some measure of social distancing is going to have to be observed,” Turner said. “So there’s going to have to be precautions taken to minimize risk to students and faculty and staff.”

Turner said he anticipated university leaders would need to spend the next several months ironing out details for a safe return.

“College campuses, particularly the dorms, do have potential to be breeding grounds for this virus, and we don’t want to have situation where things flare up,” Turner said.

“Sanitation is going to be very important. Hygiene is going to be very important, minimizing large numbers of students or people in general in one place is going to be important,” he added. “That will probably affect some classroom layouts, and other instructional setting layouts.”

Turner said colleges will be forced to maximize financial aid opportunities, beyond the federal funding, sharing that he hopes state lawmakers prioritize financial aid when they return to the Capitol in January.

“This will be an ongoing crisis and will affect students several years out financially,” he stated. “We need to redouble our efforts to increase student financial aid in Texas.”

“We have some of the best universities and colleges in the world here in Texas, and we want Texans to be able to access them and achieve that goal of a higher education,” he said.

One of the gaps in education continues to be a digital divide, State Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, said.

“What I’m really concerned about it the equity in education access,” González, the newest appointee to the state’s Legislative Budget Board said.

“If you have communities that… are able to overcome the digital divide, and you have communities that don’t, but then we’re going to next year assess them on the same level?” she questioned. “So we need to really start thinking about what what was lost— and when in this process— and how can we make sure that students are still treated equitably?”

One of the key points in the struggle for some students and teachers is the trauma those in González’s district and in the greater El Paso region have faced over the last year. A gunman killed nearly two-dozen people at a Walmart in El Paso in August.

“They started the school year in El Paso right after the shooting, so through a traumatic experience, and now they’re ending their school year and another traumatic experience,” González said. “The amount of trauma that has been experienced by my community in the last year is just enough for a lifetime.”

Regardless of how state leaders work to prevent compromised communities in the education realm, these institutions will look different moving forward, Keller said.

“I don’t think anybody’s expecting that we would be able to go back in the fall semester, and have it be just business as usual,” Keller said. “There’s gonna have to be some changes just to make sure that we can keep people safe and they won’t be sick.”

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