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University plans for reopening in the fall

Since face-to-face classes were cancelled in March, many were left wondering what would happen in future semesters.  

While Pittsburg State continued the cancellation of face-to-face classes during the summer session, they announced that it is intended that courses will resume on campus in the fall including opening residence halls and a resumption of student life activities. However, there will be modifications.  

Three groups were formed to consider all possibilities and to come up with alternative and new structures for various areas regarding the return in the fall.  

The academics group is led by Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Howard Smith. This group will look into safely resuming face-to-face instruction. The second group is student life which is being led by Vice President for Student Life Steve Erwin and this group will examine ways to safely return students to university housing and look at access to student life resources and activities. The third and final group is the budget and finance group which is led by Chief Financial Officer Doug Ball. This group will address the impact that COVID-19 had on PSU from a financial standpoint as well as examine revenue opportunities for the future. 

According to Smith, the groups are working to consider all of the possibilities and challenges that could arise in the fall.    

“…Right now, our planning has to do with ‘what if?’,” Smith said. “Probably one of the most frustrating things about this situation that we’re in is the unknown and so we need to talk through and work through the kinds of things that might potentially happen and then try to have at least a plan in place that we could address some things that we could share with people so they would at least have some expectation of what might occur… if there were some kind of catalyst for that. Probably one of the things that people really want right now is they want definitive answers to things, and we don’t have those in place. So, we’re …  talking about things like should there be a recurrence and possibly new local orders or state orders that would cause us to have to operate in a different manner.” 

The teams began less than two weeks ago and are still in the beginning of working through all the considerations. 

“…We’re evaluating our own situation and our own circumstances, how our housing is configured… and all those kinds of things,” Erwin said. “We’re looking at what other institutions are doing and obviously then looking at what (the) CDC and other groups are recommending in terms of reopening and things like that. Really… the university’s established the working groups to look at a whole range of things, university housing and residence halls will fall under the student life one most directly. We’re very much in the initial phases of that.”  

Student life resources and activities have been a big part of PSU for a long time and Erwin says that whether or not those will be available during the fall semester has not yet been determined.  

“Well, that kind of covers the range of things on campus from facilities to programs beyond the classroom and beyond academic buildings that students would normally use,” Erwin said. “So, within the student life working group… our first efforts.., which really started about a week ago, were to outline all the different aspects so whether its student recreation and their physical facility there and how people use those to the programs they offer for intramural sports and recreation and fitness and the entirety of that through the Overman Student Center and the daily activities that happen there and the programs that come out of campus activities and out of Student Government and out of Gorilla Activity Board. So, those people in charge of those areas are taking the initial lead of outlining all of those kinds of things and how we might or might not be able to continue those depending on the circumstances that we find ourselves in come start of the fall semester and recognizing that there will be some things that people expect us to do to lessen risk and that will probably happen regardless but maybe the circumstances we find ourselves in locally in terms of the level of occurrences to things that we might outright have to modify from our current practices and delivery a different way or not be able to deliver at all for a period of time. So.., everybody’s kind of doing their part to get it in front of our group, let the group begin to react to it, and it will be a work in progress honestly, I think, right up until the time that we begin to utilize it and much of it will depend on the circumstances that we face at the time. One of the things I said to my group was that… the work you do now to project all these different scenarios won’t be wasted because its guaranteed that you’ll put some of it into action and it may just be a matter of… it’ll need some slight modifications as we approach the time to use it or even we begin to use it and see that it needs to be modified.”  

According to Ball, the entirety of the financial impact of COVID-19 on PSU is still unknown but they do know a few things.  

“Well, we’re still very much assessing that and trying to understand all of the impacts,” Ball said. “There are some impacts that we know about and have quantified today. Those would include things like the refund of housing and dining fees, the expenses we’ve incurred related to cleaning supplies and equipment that we needed to allow the transition to online courses. We’ve also had some events cancelled and so there were lost revenues related to those events. We have a number of things like that that have been quantified today. There are a number of unknowns that are still coming together.” 

None of the groups were formed with a single goal in mind. Each group was asked to explore all possibilities, address all concerns and possibilities and make recommendations to the president for solutions, corrections and/or modifications.  

“So, the question that’s been asked of that team is to look at our tuition and fee structure for both summer and fall and to understand what options exist and whether it would be wise for the university to consider any changes,” Ball said. “There aren’t any specific items that have been identified so far but one of that committees’ jobs is to consider what is allowable, what is possible, and explore the positives, the benefits, and the cost associated with making any adjustments and make recommendations back to the president on anything he should consider. So, I don’t believe that part of the team’s charter was created with some specific thing in mind. It was just to go do some research and evaluate it and what should be considered.” 

The loss or reduction of university appropriations is the budget and finance groups’ primary concern.  

“The only other thing that I would add is from a financial perspective, I think our number one concern is the potential impact to the state appropriations the university receives from the state,” Ball said. “We know from a couple of weeks ago that the state announced that their revenue expectations are lower than they were before. As a result of that, there is certainly some risk, probably some serious risk, that our appropriation could be reduced and possibly by a material amount. So, that’s number one on our concern list in terms of lower revenues to the university and the impact that that could have on the university budget, university operations. So, monitoring that situation and understanding that is number one of both our list of concerns and our list of areas to focus on. I just mention that as kind of a key financial issues. A number of these other issues… are important but probably secondary in the impact and magnitude to the question of what’s gonna happen to our appropriation.” 

According to Smith, many university members, students and people in the community have the opportunity to give some input.  

“I just add that we do have stakeholder groups looking at this, there’s student input, faculty input, staff input (and) community input,” Smith said. “So, we’re trying our best to involve people in the process and we’re gonna move as expeditiously as we can but certainly with caution to make sure that whatever we do keeps safety first as well as operations.” 

While no decisions have been made yet, everyone is working hard to come up with alternatives and plans, according to Erwin.   

“…We’re really working hard to set structures in place and to do things that do allow us to be here in the fall and to be back to some level of normalcy,” Erwin said. “We don’t know what’s yet to come exactly but that’s certainly what we’re striving for as we work each day here between now and then.”

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