ALBANY — Colleges and universities are prepared to continue New Yorkers’ higher education this fall with a hybrid of in-person and remote learning as the coronavirus pandemic continues, educators said during a legislative hearing Tuesday.
New York’s higher education institutions made plans from the state’s specific guidance for universities to safely reopen this fall with some students returning to campus while others will learn completely online to reduce the number of people crowding in lecture halls and other buildings. The state senate and assembly held a joint hearing Tuesday, starting at 11 a.m. and running through the rest of the day, to determine how the pandemic will impact student enrollment, affordability and higher education’s transition to distance learning.
Lawmakers, led by Higher Education Committee chairs Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, D-16, and Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, D-66, questioned several panels of state educators and officials from the State University of New York, City University of New York, New York State United Teachers union, Commission on Independent Colleges & Universities, Cornell University and others.
College campuses closed in March because of COVID-19, resulting in the loss of access to libraries, academic labs and other educational resources. SUNY reported 1,036 positive coronavirus cases at 38 of its 64 campuses, with 11 deaths.
The pandemic has led to widespread layoffs and job losses, financially impacting students and their families. SUNY issued $300 million in prorated refunds, or credit for the fall 2020 semester, for housing and dining fees after campuses closed halfway through the term.
“As you can imagine, the undertaking of this transition has been, and continues to be, unprecedented, massive and costly,” SUNY Officer in Charge Robert Megna said. “Simply put, COVID-19 has destabilized the higher education sector across the country.”
SUNY projects a negative budget shortfall of $400 million, with the potential to soar to $1 billion in the coming months. Megna highlighted SUNY and the state’s dire need for federal assistance
“The state, in fact, no state has these kinds of resources,” Megna said. “It is incumbent on the federal government to step up and support all New Yorkers and higher education in New York state because collectively, we are crucial to future economic recovery.”
Students, faculty and staff can access COVID-19 testing on several SUNY campuses, as several work as testing sites for the general public. Campuses without a testing site will direct students, faculty and staff to local health departments.
Each campus with dormitories will have designated rooms or locations for students to quarantine if necessary, Megna said.
SUNY established a COVID-19 Resume and Restart Task Force with seven working groups focusing on academic continuity, physical preparedness, community engagement and others. Each campus has its own set of rules and guidelines, but still follow state regulations requiring social distancing and reducing capacity by 50% in all campus areas and buildings.
Faculty and staff have amended course syllabi for online learning. SUNY has worked with third-party organizations and accreditors to ensure students in programs requiring certifications and hands-on learning, such as student teaching for educators or lab experience for medical fields, meet the proper requirements to graduate with proper certification.
The detailed reopening plans depend on the state. Officials will announce their final decision about schools and universities reopening this fall the first week of August, or by Aug. 7. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this month the decision will be based on the state’s COVID-19 numbers.
SUNY officials don’t expect enrollment at its four-year institutions to drop significantly this fall, Megna said, but has seen a decline in the number of new international students coming to state colleges. Most returning international students have decided to continue their education next fall.
“That will be a significant loss,” Megna said. “SUNY’s challenges as a result of COVID-19 are only beginning.”
Enrollment at SUNY’s community colleges, such as Columbia-Greene Community College in Greenport, remains unclear, because enrollment is ongoing as classes begin. Community colleges have seen a 23% drop in enrollment in the last decade, according to SUNY.
Roberta Elins, president of the United College Employees of the Fashion Institute of Technology, spoke to lawmakers on behalf of the state teacher’s union and discussed COVID-19’s negative impact on student enrollment, the withholding of fourth quarter payments to SUNY community colleges because of budget shortfalls and the impact on student tuition.
“Rising operational costs and shrinking state revenue unfortunately force campuses to shift more of the burden onto students,” Elins said. “Actions to delay or withhold funding will serve only as a hinderance.”
CUNY, which has 275,000 students, 20,000 faculty and 28,000 staff members, purchased over 33,000 laptops and iPads for students to allow them to take courses online, Chancellor Felix Rodriguez said.
“Since the majority of CUNY students come from backgrounds of limited financial means, it became obvious that many of our students would not be able to successfully complete the spring semester without having a dedicated device they can use for academic work,” Rodriguez said.
Even with the transition to digital learning, CUNY’s summer semester enrollment increased 14.5%.
“It is still unknown how the coronavirus will impact our enrollment for the fall semester,” the chancellor said. “Ultimately, all decisions on fall classes are pending final guidelines from the governor’s office. CUNY is working to offer its academic courses and programs for as many of its academic courses and support services as is reasonably practicable in an online modality and remote format.”
Exceptions are similar to SUNY’s, such as lab work or a course that requires experiential learning, which will meet the state’s social distancing, reduced capacity and other guidelines. About 90% of CUNY courses could be taught online.
CUNY received more than $118 million for students from the federal coronavirus relief CARES Act earlier this year with an average award between $700 and $900 per student. The grant funding was used to help students with college expenses with Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund grants.
The institution received $118 million more in federal assistance for institutional COVID-19 expenses. CUNY cut about 1,900 adjuncts earlier this year after requiring its campuses to slash spending 3% in anticipation of steep budget cuts for next year. The state expects to cut education spending by 20% next year if federal lawmakers do not pass a bill providing assistance to state and local governments.
Rodriguez would not say Tuesday if the $118 million would be used to rehire adjuncts or assist with payroll.
“We have been preparing for an extremely challenging fiscal environment in the upcoming academic year,” Rodriguez said. “
Rodriguez and CUNY University Student Senate Chairman Timothy Hunter discussed increased food insecurity among students due to the pandemic. CUNY officials are working to allow enrolled students to visit food pantries on any campus — not just their home campus — so hungry students can access food close to where they live.
“COVID-19 greatly impacted our students, faculty and staff and it has highlighted the impact of structural racism and inequality on our society, our institutions and individuals,” Rodriguez said. “I stress the primary consideration in all scenarios is the safety of students, faculty and staff.”
*Editor's note: This story corrects an earlier version. The $118 million in federal CARES Act relief was paid to CUNY students this past spring to financially assist them at that time — not for the upcoming term.