Monday, October 3, 2022

Rowe: Return to campus plan at W&M will take vulnerable populations into consideration

W&M 2018 Commencement. (WYDaily file/Courtesy of W&M News)
W&M 2018 Commencement. (WYDaily file/Courtesy of W&M News)

Think of it as fluid.

Life amid the coronavirus, that is. And that includes questions about jobs in general and students coming back on campus this fall.

Oh, not to mention the financial impact on schools.

That discussion dominated the meeting Wednesday by the William & Mary Board of Visitors.

The college in June announced its Path Forward plans to reopen for students on campus in the fall. Aspects of the pandemic have since changed unexpectedly which the college realizes means plans to reopen could be altered as well, said W&M President Katherine Rowe.

“The national picture for reopening is increasingly grim,” Rowe said. “Everyone who reads the news hears this, but what’s driving William & Mary’s decision-making is scientific indicators.”

Rowe said the increase in positive cases in Virginia over the last week will continue to inform any decisions about reopening in the fall, but the college is still committed to bringing students back in some capacity. An entirely virtual platform would create inequities among students who don’t have access to technology or a suitable home environment for education.

“Return[ing] to campus neutralizes so many inequities,” she said. 

Rowe also acknowledged that any return to campus plans will take vulnerable populations, such as minorities and those with health conditions, into consideration.

Various members of the board presented possible aspects to students reopening in the fall, and it’s clear that any plans could change based on the changing state of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sam Jones, senior vice president for finance and administration, said the college’s decisions will be based on data and guidance on a state and local level. W&M is trying to have students return in the fall with new measures in place but Jones acknowledged any return to campus means there most likely will be active cases. 

The college will implement new protocols to better understand and control the spread of the virus on campus.

For example, Jones said all students will undergo testing at the start of the semester which will provide the college with a baseline for the virus. Then throughout the semester a series of prevalence testings will occur that will test students in particular areas or groups in order to understand how the virus is spread. There will also be “at will” testing available for students whenever they feel it is necessary.

The same at will testing will be available for staff as well, Jones said. The college is working with a third party provider. 

Jones said it would also be important for the college to have targeted communications to the community to better understand what needs to be done to prevent the spread.

Extra curricular activities will also continue and each organization will have their own response plan for the virus which will be reviewed by Student Affairs staff. There will be a limit on the number of events and activities taking place on campus and organizations will have to keep an attendance list so it can be used in contact tracing efforts.

The college will also support teleworking opportunities as much as possible in order to limit the amount of people on campus. 

However, John Littel, campus rector, said faculty and staff have expressed a concern for the criteria that will be considered if the school should have to close again. The criteria will be data-driven and the college is in the process of developing a data dashboard with information regarding campus and surrounding locality cases.

“Our success will depend on the community,” Jones said. “The community has been working hard to make sure we are prepared. [Success] requires the community following the rules and staying true to the rules and really having that cultural shift that we are all responsible for each other.”

Financial Impact

The meeting also provided information on the financial impacts of the pandemic.

Amy Sebring, chief financial officer, said strong and dramatic steps to limit spending over the past few months have generated more than $7 million in savings, which will help create a cushion in the fall. Sebring also said the college received $635,600 in state coronavirus relief funds.

However, she said there is a projected $30 million to $100 million shortfall for fiscal year 2021 due to impacts to revenue streams and operating in a more expensive environment to promote health and safety. 

“It’s a wide variation but [we’re] trying to project a lot of unknowns,” she said.

To mitigate those losses, the college will implement a number of strategies, such as a mission critical budget review, consideration of debt refunding or a change in the endowment payout rate. Sebring said the last tool implemented is targeted or general personnel actions, which could include furloughing employees that no longer have work to do as a result of operating changes.

But the college’s main source of funding comes from enrollment, she said. William & Mary staff have been communicating with other colleges and have found enrollment numbers to be “optimistic.” 

The college is also looking at student fees for the semester and considering how those might have to be altered depending on student enrollment and virtual instruction. Administrators expect to have final enrollment and housing and dining numbers finalized by early August.

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Alexa Doironhttp://wydaily.com
Alexa Doiron is a multimedia reporter for WYDaily. She graduated from Roanoke College and is currently working on a master’s degree in English at Virginia Commonwealth University. Alexa was born and raised in Williamsburg and enjoys writing stories about local flair. She began her career in journalism at the Warhill High School newspaper and, eight years later, still loves it. After working as a news editor in Blacksburg, Va., Alexa missed Williamsburg and decided to come back home. In her free time, she enjoys reading Jane Austen and playing with her puppy, Poe. Alexa can be reached at alexa@localvoicemedia.com.

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