Framingham State’s COVID-19 concerns addressed at Town Hall meeting

By Evan Lee, News Editor

By Leighah Beausoleil, Asst. News Editor

FSU administrators provided COVID-19 updates and their plans going forward, while also answering questions from the public during an open Town Hall meeting held on Zoom April 13.

Over 250 members of the community attended the forum. 

Contingency planning for the Fall 2020 Semester

President F. Javier Cevallos addressed concerns about how and when the Fall 2020 semester will begin. Due to the unpredictable nature of COVID-19, he said there was no perfect answer. 

“We have been talking about the fall with our sister institutions,” Cevallos said. “And one of the things that we have agreed to is that we’re going to have the same consistent decision.”

Ideally, all nine sister institutions will be able to invite students back to campus in September, Cevallos added. But contingency plans are under development in case the virus delays openings further. 

“It’s clear to me, at least from what I can see now, that our summer courses are going to be online,” Cevallos said. 

Some contingency plans under consideration would impact collective bargaining agreements with the faculty union, according to Cevallos. Delaying the University’s opening or extending semesters would affect contracts that have already been negotiated. 

A decision for Fall 2020 has not yet been made, Cevallos said, but one will likely be announced by the end of June. 

Ellen Zimmerman, interim provost and vice president for academic affairs, said the University has an academic continuity plan in case classes in the fall must resume online.

“Something we’ll continue to do to prepare for the fall is to work with IT and the Education Technology Office,” Zimmerman added. This will ensure faculty are prepared to host online classes and will have the technical support they need in case campus must remain closed.

Workshops intended to help faculty prepare for the spring semester’s move to all online courses have been recorded and are available to re-watch on the Blackboard 101 course for faculty.  

New online course workshop sessions will begin the week of April 27, Zimmerman said. 

Administrators’ response to COVID-19 

Dean of Students Meg Nowak Borrego discussed administrators’ efforts to respond to COVID-19 and overcome challenges created by it.

She highlighted the COVID-19 Emergency Working Group, a sub-committee of the University Emergency Planning Committee, that has met daily since March 1 to discuss and recommend solutions to the virus’ impact on the University. Members represent a wide range of offices and departments around campus.

Their recommendations are enacted by executive staff and included the extension of spring break for a week and the decision to move all classes online, Nowak Borrego said.

The committee also assisted in helping more than 1,200 students move out of their residence halls while still maintaining social distance, she added. 

Recently, the group decided that May and June new student orientations, advising, and registration sessions will be offered remotely, Nowak Borrego said.

Currently, the group is working to manage the University’s day-to-day operations, respond to government advisories, and develop contingency plans for the future, she added. 

Nowak Borrego, who leads the group, said, “I’m beyond grateful for the collaboration and amazing efforts that this group has undertaken in planning for and responding to this public health emergency.”

In terms of facilities maintenance, Executive Vice President Dale Hamel said maintainers are cleaning the campus with disinfectants every day while paying close attention to high contact surfaces and restrooms. 

“This is especially true for the areas where we still have individuals on campus or periodically on campus,” Hamel said. 

After an FSU employee reported testing positive for COVID-19 April 3, Hamel said a health professional from the University contacted the Framingham Board of Health.

The employee identified all of those they were in contact with, he added. The building the employee had been in was disinfected multiple times.

With classes moving online, Connie Cabello, vice president for diversity, inclusion and community engagement (DICE), emphasized that students and faculty continue to practice inclusion and equity in virtual environments. 

DICE and the Center for Inclusive Excellence are also continuing to look for ways to engage students, faculty, and staff, she added. “Virtual processing spaces” have been created for them to gather in remotely. 

Cabello further highlighted the University’s recent donation of $10,000 in medical supplies to local hospitals and conversations about how it can support food security in the greater community.

“While we’re thinking about our internal stakeholders, we’re also thinking about how we can be good neighbors and community members at this time,” she said.

Ilene Hofrenning, director of the Health Center, highlighted that the Health and Wellness Center as well as the Counseling Center are still open to all students remotely through “telehealth” and “tele-therapy” sessions by phone. 

Financial impact on the University

Hamel addressed concerns about the University’s Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) budget.

The University has had “sound financial footing,” Hamel said, but it now faces both immediate and long-term repercussions due to COVID-19, which affect both FY20 and FY21. 

In the short term, “The net impact on FSU, after taking into account savings that we’ve identified, is approximately $4 million,” Hamel explained. 

Of that total, reimbursements to students for housing, dining, and parking represent $3 million after identifying and negotiating savings with various vendors, Hamel added. 

“This liability will result in a reduction in fund balances,” he said. These include residence halls and dining trust funds. 

The last million is largely associated with IT costs, Hamel said. The cost of “laptop expenses, licensing media for creation of virtual events, training costs, additional planning, and a host of other various costs” are included.

The net impact is “around 3.1% of the annual operating budget,” Hamel added. “So, while it’s a large dollar amount, in terms of the aggregate impact on that, it’s insignificant, and certainly one that we have addressed in the past.”

He added, “In the short term, that will be covered through college operations keeping us on balance.”

Regarding a recent federal funding stimulus bill that includes funding for higher education, “Our allocation of that is about $3.9 million,” Hamel said.

“We’ll likely only be able to use – because of the restrictions on it – 50% to cover the institutional impact,” he added. “That is the $4 million previously identified, and we’ll need to designate 50% to student financial aid.”

In terms of the economic cycle created by COVID-19, “This one could be a little different than what we’ve experienced in the past, largely because of the unknown,” Hamel said.

“At this point, we don’t know the impact on enrollment in the fall,” he explained. The current circumstances may impact students’ decisions of whether or not to start college or to continue. 

“We don’t know the impact on state appropriations,” Hamel added. 

The original FY21 budget presented to the Board of Trustees in March will need to be altered given the current situation, Hamel said. 

“We had assumed state funding at 3%,” he added. A 3.5% reduction in enrollment was also assumed. 

“We need to prepare for, probably at best, level state funding, and I know people are concerned about what that might mean,” he said. “I don’t know anything more than others.

“We should recognize there will be very tight funds available to the state,” he added. 

“There’s a lot of different variables with different impacts, and all of that really will have an impact on what the fall enrollment will be,” Hamel said. There is still planning to be done for all the potential outcomes due to the number of variables involved.

Lorretta Holloway, vice president for enrollment and student development, addressed a question pertaining to students who are experiencing financial crises. 

Holloway said the University has always had a Students in Crisis Emergency Funding Policy. 

“There’s a form on the website that if a student has a financial crisis, they can fill it out,” she said. “We have various kinds of funding depending on the student’s situation.”

There is also a “student support fund” that is financed through donations, which Holloway said she administers. 

Technology concerns after the move to online classes

Most challenges faced by students in a virtual college environment revolve around technology, said Zimmerman.

“Our students are working in very challenging circumstances … where they have either inadequate or absent internet service in their homes,” she explained. 

Another challenge is dealing with distractions in crowded homes during the stay-at-home advisory, she added.

“We can’t help them with their family situations, but what we can do is be super flexible in what we require of them,” Zimmerman said. 

She highlighted efforts by the Academic Policies Committee and the All University Committee that allowed a new Pass/Fail Policy to be instituted. Deadlines for incomplete work as well as class withdrawals have also been extended.

Holloway discussed efforts to expand her existing laptop loaner program to help students without access to computers at home. It has received newly refurbished laptops from the IT department. 

“Not everyone has equal access to technology,” she said. The program has loaned out all but one of its laptops, with one being shipped out to a student as of the meeting. 

“We also have students who are concerned about their internet access,” Holloway added. “They might not have been concerned before, but might be more concerned now just because there are so many people at home working remotely and using the internet.”

Holloway said she is working with IT to order “MiFis,” wireless devices that allow users access to the internet on the go, to provide to students who lack internet access at home. 

But given the circumstances, technological devices are taking time to deliver, she added. “We are hoping that those will be coming soon.”

New college to form at the University

As part of the proposed Academic Affairs restructuring plan, the University will form a new college, said Zimmerman.

Education as well as social and behavioral sciences currently represent two separate colleges, but the restructuring plan combines them into one, Zimmerman explained. The three other colleges of Arts & Humanities, Business, and Science, Technology, Engineering & Math remain unchanged. 

This brings the University to four colleges in total. 

Fundraising, alumni matters, and events for seniors

Eric Gustafson, vice president of development and alumni relations, said, “We’ve refocused our fundraising almost entirely on emergency financial support for students.”

Alumni and friends of the University are concerned about students in economic crisis during this time, he said. They’ve replenished funds supporting students who have lost jobs or other means of affording school.

As fundraising events can no longer be held in person due to nationwide restrictions on large gatherings, Gustafson said engagement efforts have taken place online. These include expanded social media efforts, webinars, and programs such as a new online book club.

During this time, individual contact with alumni has also remained a focus for his department. “We’re attempting to personally call every alumna who’s already celebrated their 50th reunion,” he said. 

“They’re really our most vulnerable alumni in terms of age,” he added. “What we really want to do is check in on them, and make sure they’re doing all right.”

His department seeks to connect these alumni with resources that may help them through the pandemic and “if nothing else, just provide friendly conversations.” 

Another focus has been on bringing senior events online, Gustafson said. 

“This is, we all know, a very unfortunate situation for the Class of 2020,” he said. “All of the rites of passage that come with graduating from college are gone.”

His office hopes to provide some of the events seniors would have been invited to attend on campus, such as the Senior Toast Tradition, virtually as they are welcomed to the Alumni Association. 

Additionally, displays and collections at the currently closed Danforth Art Museum have been posted for viewing online, Gustafson said. They can be found on the Danforth’s social media accounts and website. 

“One interesting note is today is actually the one-year anniversary of the reopening of the Danforth as part of Framingham State University,” he added.

“It’s not the way we planned to celebrate it, but there is a special video that just went online today celebrating that one-year anniversary,” he added.

Holloway said, “There is a bright side to what we’re doing, even though right now, it seems that we’re in a very dark place.

“All the work and the collaborations between Academic Affairs, and PTO, and IT, and Student Affairs – it really makes me hopeful,” she said. 

“Everyone can act well when things are good,” she added. “It really shows character when you act well when things are not good. And I have to say, I’m really proud of the way everyone has been acting and I thank you for helping us do our jobs.”