Presidential town hall gives insight to university’s plans for summer, fall semester

UNT Reopen Covid-19

Article Originally Published by Brooke Colombo on North Texas Daily

President Neal Smatresk held a town hall Monday with Provost Jennifer Cowley and Vice President of Student Affairs Elizabeth With to answer questions from the community about the university’s plans for the summer and fall semesters.

Smatresk said there is around a 6 percent increase in summer enrollment and 2 to 3 percent decrease in fall enrollment. As for the university’s budgetary plans for the next academic year, Smatresk said they predict a loss of $34 to 45 million.

The university received $29.01 million in federal funding — $14.5 million of which will go toward emergency grants for students — which will help with the loss. The university also received an additional $2.1 million in funding after being named a minority-serving institution.

But Smatresk said the university is asking every unit to take 5 percent sustainable cuts to avoid furloughs or layoffs.

“We can lose a lot of people, energy and momentum or we can all take a little bit of the burden so we can keep our mean green family alive and healthy,” Smatresk said. “We will not take any cuts lightly. I’m sorry people are stressed by them, but we are all in this together.”

The university plans to gradually reopen campus but will make changes in order to promote public health and social distancing.

Some classes that require face-to-face interaction — such as music or art classes — will be offered in-person over the summer. The university is also preparing to reopen research labs.

“Beginning with Summer II, which starts on July, 6, we’ll have a pilot, allowing some of our clinical operations, some in-person teaching of experiential courses and some hybrid student services to be delivered, allowing for students to access virtually or to come in person,” Cowley said. “This will then lead us to the fall, we’re planning a hybrid delivery model. That means that we’ll have a mix of in-person, remote and online classes, as well as student services available virtually or in-person.”

To prepare for students to return in the fall, the university will deep clean the buildings, set up sanitizing stations, modify furniture layouts and place floor markers to aid in social distancing.

Masks will be required for students, faculty and staff any time they may come in contact with others, but With said the university is still working out the details of this requirement.

“Right now the university is working to acquire as many masks as possible and we’ll be providing those to faculty and staff,” With said. “One of the decisions that is yet to be made is whether we’ll be requiring students to bring their own, or whether we’ll be able to supply them for all of them as well as our visitors on campus.”

When students return for the fall semester, Smatresk said there will be some differences from previous semesters to prevent the spread of disease.

“No large events will be approved until we get a green light from the federal government or have a vaccine that can treat COVID,” Smatresk said. “I believe will help to make sure that we’re healthy campus if we’re going to have a successful return to something approaching normal. If you read my letter you know that normal isn’t the same as a full-blown campus.”

Smatresk said the university is working with Conference USA and the National Committee for Quality Assurance to assess how they will approach athletics.

“I’m not sure we’ll be talking about spectator-based athletics come fall,” Smatresk said. “But I believe we will have a plan that will allow football, basketball, soccer, softball and the different Olympic sports to all continue. We may have a football season, but [it] could be truncated or a shorter season that involves more local play or championship play.”

Smatresk said the university wants to hold graduation for those finishing this semester in August, but he thinks it is more likely they will have to include them in the fall semester graduation ceremonies.

“This breaks my heart,” Smatresk said. “I’m really sad I can’t shake your hands as you walk across the stage and students won’t get to celebrate. But there are some celebrations planned at the college level. I will be sending out an announcement congratulating people and maybe there will be a special gift that comes in the mail to congratulate you in the not-too-distant future.”

In an interview with the North Texas Daily, Smatresk said there will be some changes to the delivery of classes for the fall semester to promote public health.

“We are going to be hopefully having … face-to-face classes for smaller class sizes [that are] socially distanced,” Smatresk said. “We may be capturing some of the event spaces to spread classes out so people can have lectures and the experiential classes we hope to be able to offer.”

Smatresk said larger classes, like those of 100 or 200 students, will see the biggest change in delivery.

“The big classes, for example, classes of 200 or more, will all be fully online because there is no place to accommodate that many students and still socially distance,” Smatresk said. “For classes between 100 and 200 are likely to be remote. Maybe part of the class comes to a big classroom on Tuesday and the other part comes on Thursday.”

The university will still take into account high-risk individuals and make accommodations for them to continue remote learning or telecommuting for work.

“We will be very cautious and take all the precautions necessary to preserve the health and safety of our campus community,” Smatresk said. “We will do everything we can to make sure that anyone in a high-risk group continues to stay remote or telecommutes or has very safe and protected environments because we value every single individual in our main green family.”

Cowley said the university is assessing academic programs with international students and working on a delivery plan for those who might not be able to return to the U.S. in the fall.

“I would encourage you to reach out to your department and determine what courses may be available online for a continuing student who may not be able to return,” Cowley said. “Given the embassies and some borders are closed, we’re waiting for further guidance from the federal government on borders and when our international students will be able to return to campus.”

As for graduate students, the university is preparing for some to return to work during the summer and is implementing other responses to aid them academically.

“We have provided for students in the fifth or sixth year of their doctoral studies, the ability to extend their fellowships or assistantships for an additional semester to account for the progress they may have missed this semester,” Cowley said. “We have a new remote learning training course that we have put together to help those who will be teaching in the fall get prepared and teaching fellows. We have also added in response to the Graduate Student Council’s proposal an amended appeals process for concerns about grades.”

The university plans to create a permanent system of updates of what’s going on around campus, called UNT Today, to carry on the daily communication it has sent out since the outbreak.

“They always say in a crisis you can’t communicate enough,” Smatresk said. “You can see over the next two weeks that there are going to be the beginning of very crisp plans articulated across campus for how we’re going to coordinate our reentry into the fall and the impacts this will have on us.”

Even after the pandemic ends, Smatresk said he believes it will have a permanent effect on the way the university functions, specifically in terms of telecommuting.

“We’ve offered telemedicine, telecounseling, telehealth advising and all of those things are probably going to be here supplemented by face-to-face [in] kind of a hybrid approach,” Smatresk said. “You see more blended education with some remote, some online, some face-to-face. What we see is a pretty good utilization of these remote services that we wouldn’t have ordinarily gone to this fast.”

Featured Image: UNT President Neal Smatresk listens to an audience member during presidential town hall on Feb. 20, 2020. Image by John Anderson

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Source: North Texas Daily