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The plan for reopening college campuses safely and the need for financial assistance

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Sabrina Edwards | The Collegiate

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, colleges and universities have incurred significant unforeseen costs from having to immediately shift to online learning. 

The CARES Act, commonly referred to as the stimulus bill, that passed at the end of March allocated $14 billion to higher education, half of which went to college and universities and the other directly to students, from the $2 trillion package.

The CARES Act II or Heroes Act bill was passed in the House on May 15 with a narrow majority, 208 to 199, and was sent to the Senate. Moderate Democrats from conservative districts, 14 in total,  and nearly all Republicans, minus 1, opposed the bill and President Donald Trump has threatened to veto it should it reach his desk. 

In its current form, this bill allots $37 billion for higher education, though the academic community has said they need more, $9.6 billion more. 

Mike Hansen, President of the Michigan Community College Association (MCCA), who works with the 28 community colleges across the state, said that the first relief bill was “not always clear and sometimes inconsistent” with guidelines set forth by the U.S. Department of Education for how the money was supposed to be used which made it a bit confusing for institutions to navigate. 

Hansen wants the next bill that’s passed to provide leniency for how institutions administer those dollars. 

“The hope is that the next time… there will be much more flexibility. One of the concerns with the CARES Act was the restrictions,” Hansen said, “for example, not being able to use the money to backfill for lost revenues. And clearly that’s a big concern for many institutions who either lost money through tuition refunds or through auxiliary programs that they are now not able to run.” 

It’s difficult to predict when students will feel comfortable returning to a traditional classroom setting, Hansen said, thus leaving the upcoming semesters with a lot of unknowns. While it is important to maintain the health and safety of students and faculty, some classes simply don’t lend themselves to online learning, particularly skills training and nursing. 

Grand Rapids Community College has been closely monitoring state and local health guidelines and recommendations, according to Brian Knetl, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic and Student Affairs. He and other faculty members are determining which classes to first bring back on campus and when it is safe to do so. 

“Some of the classes that we are starting to look at for an on-campus experience are those in some of our job training, workforce development programs where they have required lab equipment and specialized lab equipment that they use,” Knetl said of the classes that are apart of the “early phases” of the campus reopening. 

GRCC has a five-phase reopening plan wherein it outlines the measures the college will take to contribute to the health and safety of students and faculty. Social distancing, providing PPE for students and staff, and other safety measures will be followed, the document describes.   

Classrooms that previously held 20 students may now only work for 10, Hansen said, which has additional costs associated. 

“For a lot of students, learning online is not in their comfort zone,” Hansen said. “They just much prefer the face-to-face and they’re more comfortable with a face-to-face classroom experiences and so we’re trying to make sure that we meet those needs as well.”

The national “ask” of $46.6 billion for higher education institutions would help to “defray some of those costs and ensure we can provide those services in the future,” Hansen said. 

Hansen said MCCA and community colleges have an “obligation” to ensure the health and safety of students, while also meeting their educational needs. 

Likewise, Knetl said, “I want students to know that going into the summer and fall that we are making the best decisions we can with the best information we have to continue to provide high-quality education, that’s a priority, while protecting the safety of our students, and our faculty, and our staff.”