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What will fall semester look like? Colleges preparing for all scenarios

Decisions being made, adjusted daily based on data, state directives

The likely response by higher education institutions as to whether or not they know what their fall semester will look like amid the COVID-19 pandemic is "we don't know yet."

Joe King, spokesperson for Northern Illinois University, said the university is compiling a plan for the fall semester but details are not yet known.

"NIU is preparing for a variety of scenarios to determine options for the scheduling and delivering of fall classes," King said. "All considerations and plans will be developed collaboratively over the next 30 to 60 days and will be in accordance with the directives from our governor and public health officials."

The university, like many, is making almost daily decisions based on ever-changing directives from Gov. JB Pritzker, who on Tuesday announced a phased approach for re-opening the state provided strict public health criteria are met.

Under Pritzker's Restore Illinois plan, schools and large group gatherings would be the last to open. The state currently is in Phase 2 of the governor's plan, and schools (Phase 4) would require a multitude of testing capabilities not yet available in many regions.

To move to Phase 4, “Revitalization,” regions must make testing available to all residents regardless of symptoms or risk factors associated with the virus. The region also must have the capacity to begin contact tracing and monitoring of at least 90% of all new COVID-19 cases within 24 hours of diagnosis.

Summer classes at NIU already were moved to an online format back on April 2, as higher institutions got on the remote-learning train earlier than many K-12 public school districts.

While NIU hasn't yet made any concrete plans for the fall semester, Kishwaukee College in Malta is planning on offering some in-person courses if possible, said Kayte Hamel, executive director of college relations and the Kishwaukee Community Foundation.

"As this time, Kishwaukee College is planning to offer some face-to-face courses for fall 2020, but we are converting to online whenever possible," Hamel said April 28. "Courses planned for face-to-face instruction will work within the recommended guidelines for social distancing."

Like NIU, however, all summer classes will be fully online. Both institutions have adopted a "pass/unsatisfactory" grade option for students who can opt-in to have their grade allocations changed because of COVID-19 disruption.

In a May 4 posting on Kish's COVID-19 updates, the announcement states a previously planned August graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020 will likely not be able to happen, though at this time Kish still plans on holding a December graduation where spring graduates are welcomed to attend.

Enrollment hits due to crisis

Sauk Valley Community College is projecting a heavy hit to summer and fall enrollment because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Preliminary enrollment figures show a 24% drop for the summer semester, down 100 students from last year, according to data presented Monday to the Sauk board.

The early estimates for fall enrollment have the student headcount down by 34.8%, a drop of 186 students compared with fall 2019.

The biggest enrollment declines are in nontraditional students 25 and older and career technical students. Certain career technical courses can't be fully moved online, such as welding and nursing, which require in-person lab courses and other hands-on experience. The lack of child care access during this time likely also is a factor.

"These are students who are more likely to be essential workers, currently out of work, or who may have children," according to the enrollment update. "COVID-19 has likely affected incomes of many potential students, current students, and families."

The college also is making budget projections for how a larger enrollment decrease and state funding uncertainty could impact finances. Enrollment decreases ranging from 10% to 20% could leave a shortfall of $467,000 to $1.48 million.

Sauk President Dave Hellmich is hopeful that numbers will improve once things get back to normal.

To help students during the COVID-19 pandemic, the college foundation created the Chris Byar Student Emergency Fund, which can pay for necessities such as gas to travel back and forth to work, utilities and childcare, as well as for technology for remote learning such as loaner laptops, software and internet hot spots for students without internet access.

Go to svcc.edu/give and click on Student Emergency Fund to donate or for more information. Donations also may be mailed to Sauk Valley College Foundation, 173 state Route 2, Dixon, IL 61021.

Budget impacts already taking shape

The most recent available update from NIU President Lisa Freeman on April 30 details the financial impacts expected due to COVID-19 economic shortfalls.

Freeman said the crisis continues to present NIU with "mounting uncertainties and has adversely impacted our financial position."

"We know that revenue reductions and real costs are already in the range of $40 million to $50 million for [fiscal] 2020," Freeman's statement reads. "Future projected revenue losses and delays related to state funding, enrollment, housing, dining, canceled summer programming and events, as well as philanthropy, are anticipated to be significant."

NIU is set to receive just short of $15 million from the federal CARES Act, although Freeman said half will go to supporting student needs and the other half will go to "COVID-related expenses."

Historically, the NIU Board of Trustees has annually presented the institution's budget every May, but Freeman said that's been pushed back to a June 18 meeting.

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