UD socially distanced class

Lydia Timmins (far right), associate professor of communication, kicks off the fall semester 2020 class called “Electronic Media Production” as a hybrid — some online and some in-person — with a lecture in Sharp Lab. Students wore face coverings and sat at least 6 feet apart, as per safety guidelines, to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The University of Delaware is aiming to bring back half of its students – and “ideally more” – this spring, President Dennis Assanis said Thursday.

“As Dr. Fauci has said many times, the virus controls the timeline, but we’re doing everything we can to fight the virus and densify our campus,” Assanis said during a virtual town hall meeting with faculty members.

He said he hopes residence halls will open with at least 50 percent capacity in the spring. Currently, they are operating at 19 percent capacity, equating to 1,290 students living on campus.

Freshmen and seniors will be prioritized, he said.

“We really want to give our seniors who will be graduating a different taste of our campus than we were able to give our seniors last year,” Assanis said. “And obviously we’d like to give the freshmen their first indoctrination into the Blue Hen community.”

He added that he expects more face-to-face learning, with some classes online, but the exact mix has yet to be determined. Currently, 91 percent of classes are online-only, with certain labs and other hands-on courses holding in-person sessions.

Already, UD has seen 322 coronavirus cases among students and employees since Aug. 31, which is significantly more than the city of Newark had from March through the end of August. Unless a vaccine is released or there is another breakthrough in preventing the virus, any move by UD to bring back more students would almost certainly prompt fears among Newark officials and residents about the impact on the community.

In order to bring more students back, UD is planning to increase its COVID-19 testing from 1,000 a week to 4,000 a week, Assanis said.

“Ramping up our tests is key because that’s how we can keep our community safe,” Assanis said.

The plan for spring, which Assanis emphasized is still not finalized, will also have major ramifications for UD’s financial stability. The university has a budget deficit of $228 million, with the expectation of that increasing to $250 million in the spring. If UD can’t bring back more students in the spring, the deficit could go as high as $288 million.

Assanis spent much of Thursday’s town hall answering questions from faculty about the layoffs and furloughs UD announced last week.

He said all UD employees, from himself down to the lowest level employees, will have to take approximately 10 days of unpaid leave, equating to a 4 or 5 percent pay cut. Some of those days will be added to holiday breaks, and others will be dispersed through the rest of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.

He provided fewer details about the planned layoffs, though he did acknowledge some have already begun. Last week, a UD spokeswoman said the number of layoffs would be determined in part by how many employees agree to take retirement incentives.

Of the 369 people eligible for incentives, 75 have already agreed to retire, Assanis said.

“We’re not trying to reduce our workforce as much as we can to get out of this,” he said. “To the contrary. We’re trying to preserve our workforce to the maximum extent possible.”

After making a number of cuts already, UD administrators still need to cut between $60 million and $120 million, depending on what happens in the spring. Academic units have been told to cut $15 million from their budgets, and non-academic units have to cut between 25 and 35 percent.

Assanis noted that the challenges are not limited to this fiscal year.

“The financial difficulties for higher ed are not a one-year thing,” he said. “The road to recovery will extend over the next several years.”

Other notable details from Assanis’ town hall meeting:

• UD had a goal of adding 4,450 freshmen this year and, prior to the pandemic, was on track to exceed that and bring in approximately 4,600, which would have required the university to rent off-campus facilities in order to house them. However, many students changed their plans, and only 3,700 freshmen are enrolled this semester. That is 17 percent below the goal and 10 percent fewer than last fall.

• The decrease in freshmen cost UD $13 million, and will continue to impact the budget over the next three years as the class matriculates. A decline in returning students cost UD an additional $10 million, and the university lost another $22 million when it decided not to raise tuition like it typically does every year.

• In-state enrollment among all classes decreased only 0.4 percent from 2019, but out-of-state enrollment decreased 3.5 percent. A decrease in international students was especially costly – to the tune of another $8 million – because they pay the full tuition price with no discounts or assistance, Assanis said.

• Despite the drop in enrollment, the university distributed an additional $10 million in financial aid due to a growing need due to the economic downturn.

• The decrease in students living on campus cost UD $63 million, the loss of parking revenue cost $4 million and the delay of fall sports cost more than $5 million.

• Three residence halls have been set aside for quarantining students who were in close contact to someone with COVID-19. Another three are for isolating students who have tested positive. According to data provided by the university, there are 20 students in quarantine and seven in isolation. (Students who live off campus have the option to quarantine or isolate in their apartments or houses.)

• Officials are planning to proceed with winter sports, and the basketball team will start competition Nov. 25. As announced earlier in the week, the football team will play a schedule of six conference games and up to two non-conference games starting in March. Though many other universities have eliminated certain teams to save money, a spokeswoman said UD has no plans to cut sports.

• Responding to a submitted question, Assanis said UD does not plan to sell land or other assets to help close the budget gap or avoid layoffs, saying that doing so would be a “last resort” only. “Universities need to protect land, especially adjacent land, because the university will be here for the next 275 years, so we should not compromise future generations,” he explained.

• Assanis pleaded with professors to consider teaching a winter session course for free. In order to give students more flexibility, UD is not charging students for winter or summer sessions this year, which will cost the university $5 million.

• “If just a few of our faculty teach one more course, this one time in their life, it wouldn’t cost us anything. Think how many jobs we would protect if it doesn’t cost us anything, this one time, if people stepped up and did it.”

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