President Smatresk outlines COVID-19 strategies at digital State of the University

Article Originally Published by Carter Mize on North Texas Daily

President Neal Smatresk went into detail about the university’s COVID-19 response strategy and plans to become a “next-generation institution” during the first-ever digital State of the University address Thursday afternoon.

The 30-minute video included several segments featuring faculty, staff and students outlining specific ways the university has responded to the pandemic. Smatresk said most students are following safety precautions and the university has demonstrated adequate testing procedures with the capacity to conduct 200 rapid COVID-19 tests each day.

“Today, we’ve seen a modest increase in the number of active cases on and off-campus,” Smatresk said. “Thankfully, the total number of active infections is far lower than any we are seeing in many of our other Texas campuses.”

Despite the pandemic, the university reached a new enrollment record of 40,796 students, attributed in part to greater retention and increased international and graduate student applications.

But COVID-19 may lower future totals significantly, Smatresk said. The university anticipates depressed enrollment in the coming semesters due to the pandemic, which is already creating revenue shortfalls of $30-50 million and increasing the need for emergency tuition aid.

“We saw a decline in freshmen and transfer students who were hit hard economically by COVID,” Smatresk said. “It’s hard to know right now if this is part of a sea change in college-going behavior, but it’s a fact we need to attend to now by redesigning how we enroll and retain students.”

Federal funding through several programs like the CARES Act has provided ways for the university to fund itself and assist students struggling financially. Some of those funds have gone directly to students in the form of tuition aid or refunds.

“UNT received about fourteen and a half million dollars to distribute to our students through emergency grants and aid,” Student Financial Services Director Chris Foster said. “To date, we’ve awarded over $12 million to students, mostly from the CARES Act but also from institutional funds and generous donations through Advancement. We’ve assisted around 14,000 students.”

The pandemic has also altered how the university is conducting classes, not only during the pandemic but possibly in the future as well. Around 55 percent of all courses are now fully online due to the pandemic, with in-person or hybrid classes making up the other 45 percent. Smatresk said telecommuting could be “here to stay” in some circumstances.

Most classes retaining some element of physical interaction involve “experiential learning,” Smatresk said, like in art, music or labs and classes for freshmen.

“In order to meet the six-foot social distancing guidelines for campus, we had to go out into approximately 400 different classrooms on campus, field measure every single one of them,” Neely Shirey, senior project manager for Facilities, said. “We’ve put up about 7,000 ‘Do not perch’ stickers. We have moved approximately 4-5,000 chairs. We’ve moved approximately 2,000 tables.”

Smatresk ended the address with several questions about UNT’s future in the midst of COVID and as a minority-serving institution, but said he would address more UNT strategies in a second State of the University sometime in January.

“Thank you all so much for everything you do for our students and for each other,” Smatresk said. “I believe the Mean Green family is stronger than ever, and look forward to the year to come knowing that I get to serve one of the most caring communities I’ve ever seen.”

Courtesy University of North Texas

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Source: North Texas Daily