JONESBORO, Ark. — Money makes the world go ‘round. COVID-19 brought that world to a screeching halt.
People and institutions across the world felt the initial impact of the pandemic. The rippling after-effects are still being felt — if not worsening — today. Arkansas State University is no exception.
Of course, the university felt the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the early months of 2020, but the financial burden will be felt for years to come as well. From crafting new budgets from unknown projections to refunds and student retention, it seems A-State has merely hit the tip of the iceberg.
THE DAY THE WORLD STOPPED
“I remember the uncertainty,” Taylor Brewer, a senior English major at A-State said. “It just felt like time was still.”
March 13 is a day still stuck in back of the minds of countless individuals across the United States and the world. In an instant, a relatively unknown virus challenged everyone’s way of life.
Brewer, an immunocompromised student living on campus at the time, faced a scary reality. She had already canceled a trip to Washington based on fear of the disease spreading through the Pacific Northwest. After a national emergency was declared, more than just plans were in jeopardy.
What would the rest of her semester look like?
For Arkansas State University’s chancellor, Dr. Kelly Damphousse, the onset of the news wasn’t a shock. Instead, it was the culmination of what he called a “slow ramp up” to a campus-wide emergency.
“I wrote my first email about COVID in mid-January. Through the whole month of February, we were watching COVID very closely,” Damphousse said. “March 13 is a signifying day for a lot of people, but for us it was a slow ramp up because we had been planning in advance.”
Damphousse said he and other administrators decided in early February they would both hope for the best, but also prepare for the worst. He said they were planning things they hoped would never happen, but would rather have a plan they never use than need one at the last second in the face of an emergency.
Damphousse added the administrators decided early they wanted to be as transparent as possible the situation developed. They did so by issuing a series of emails regarding the pandemic and its impact on campus.
“We resisted making a lot of changes too quickly. We wanted to be rational, not emotional about the changes,” Damphousse said.
He went on to say the university values the in-person teaching experience. He said tudents and faculty prefer it, and the university wanted to protect it as long as possible. Eventually, though it came to a point where they couldn’t figure out a safe way to manage in-person instruction because they didn’t have the materials to make it happen.
“We didn’t have disinfectant, we didn’t have masks. My wife was making masks on her sewing machine and handing them out to people. We weren’t prepared then the way we are now,” Damphousse said.
STUDENTS ARE SENT HOME
“I remember the first campus-wide email insisting people to leave hit me pretty hard. I have family who were deemed essential workers, so the idea of coming home with a compromised immune system honestly kept me up at night,” Brewer said.
Damphousse said when the plans started to fall into place, the first step was sending students home. First, the university shifted to all-online instruction, giving students the option to leave campus to finish the semester at home.
However, many students had no real home outside of the university’s campus. Others were concerned about access to the internet, privacy to conduct classes virtually, and plenty of other variables that could negatively impact their educational experience.
The administration team first recommended students return home unless they needed to stay on campus. When very few left, though, more drastic measures were taken. The university then required students to leave campus unless they could submit a valid reason for staying. Damphousse said around 900 students remained even after the final protocols were put into place.
Brewer decided to stay on campus as long as possible, armed with a plethora of disinfectants. After sending a barrage of emails explaining her decision to stay put, the situation was going in her favor. Until the next round of campus-wide announcements came through.
Now, students still staying on campus would have to relocate to different areas on campus to further combat the spread of the virus.
\ The uncertainty of what was to come finally became too much. Brewer decided to pack her bags and head home. She still held out for a few more weeks, but she knew returning to her hometown of Walnut Ridge, Arkansas was her best option.
“To put it as delicately as possible, I felt like an animal in a cage about to be thrown into an ocean, and I can’t swim,” Brewer said.
UNIVERSITY SHOULDERS FINANCIAL LOAD
“We didn’t want people to stay here just as a financial incentive. We wanted to remove that,” Damphousse said.
In response to sending students home, the university decided to fully refund room and board. According to Dr. Len Frey, executive vice chancellor for finance and administration at Arkansas State, the university refunded $2,809,676 in room and board charges for the Spring 2020 semester.
Over the next few months, the university also spent an excess of $2 million on personal protective equipment for the upcoming summer and fall semesters. These funds went toward masks, disinfectants, and any other equipment needed for the “Return to Learn” plan that would see students return to campus.
“For how scared the students were, I couldn’t imagine being in the administration’s footsteps. Trying to keep thousands of students and faculty members from contracting the disease is about as overwhelming as I think it could get,” Brewer said. “With how in the dark we were, I don’t think anyone could have handled it differently at that point in time.”
UNCERTAIN FINANICAL FUTURES
According to Damphousse, the university suffered from budget cuts from the state of Arkansas when the virus hit. When informed of the budget reduction, the A-State was forced to make “significant cuts” to fit the new parameters for the 2021 fiscal year, which started July 1.
“In the end, the estimate for our budget was almost $12 million less than we had the year before,” Damphousse said.
Fortunately for A-State employees, the university did not have to lay off any faculty or staff, and kept all current academic programs on campus. Other universities across the country weren’t so lucky.
The university did, however, install a hard freeze on hiring. In other words, if any faculty member left campus, their position was not filled unless not filling the position would “hinder A-State’s mission” significantly. Instead, certain roles within departments were filled by faculty members already in the department, at least for the time being.
COVID-19’s future impact on finances at Arkansas State is still relatively unknown. The state of Arkansas has proposed a return to full funding for the 2022 fiscal year, but there are plenty of unknown hurdles to cross first.
For now, the state is allocating 85% of A-State’s usual funds for the 2021 fiscal year, with the possibility of issuing the remaining 15% in 5% chunks. However, Damphousse said the delivery of those funds could come at any time, and may not come at all. Even if they are issued before the end of the 2021 fiscal year, it may be too late to apply them to the budget, and they would thus be carried over into the next fiscal year.
As for housing, there are just as many unknowns.
“The final impact on the housing budget for fiscal year 2021 is not known at this time. Earlier this semester, we estimated the residence life budget would be negatively impacted by roughly $1,006,000,” Frye said. “We now anticipate the impact will be in excess of this amount. However, we will not know the final impact until we move into the Spring 2021 semester.”
RESILIENCE IN THE FACE OF ADVERSITY
Throughout one of the most challenging semesters in the history of Arkansas State University, students and faculty alike have exhibited one thing above all else; resiliency.
Classes are virtual. Masks are required. The process of learning is more unusual than it has perhaps ever been. Yet, the Red Wolves keep fighting. In the face of a global pandemic; in the midst of a paradigm-shifting event; those at A-State have endured.
“I hope that in some point in the future, (our students) will face another challenge and they’ll be able to look back and say ‘I got through 2020’,” Damphousse said. “We should all take a level of pride in what we did to get (through the pandemic).”
Damphousse said early on, there was concern that students wouldn’t wear masks. He said he has been blown away that he hasn’t received a single complaint about students not wearing masks in class.
“As I walk around campus, I see students wearing a mask even when they don’t need to. They’ve kind of shamed me into doing it myself. I want to set a good example,” Damphousse said. “We probably made some mistakes along the way, but every step we took, we wanted to balance a sense of normalcy with protecting people. It was challenging. In retrospect, I think our faculty and staff did an incredible job to get us here.”
Though Arkansas State has responded well according to the chancellor, there is still a world outside of campus being ravaged by the virus. As cases increase exponentially every day, there is still a tough road ahead for all inhabitants of the planet.
Like it or not, this is the new ‘normal’ for the time being. No one knows what the future holds, so for now, everyone must learn to live in a pandemic-ridden world.
“I can’t say it enough when I say I never expected it to get this bad,” Brewer said. “I didn’t think I’d be getting into arguments with people about wearing a mask properly and taking a pandemic seriously. It’s sad thinking back on this year because it’s just become normal to live with a fear of being infected.”
COVID-19 may have changed the world, but Arkansas State University and humanity as a whole will endure.
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