CARES Act funding offers needed assistance to colleges, students

June 10, 2020 | Debbie Gardner
debbieg@thereminder.com

Westfield State University is among the many area colleges that are anticipating CARES Act funding.
Reminder Publishing file photo

GREATER SPRINGFIELD – Though most U. S. adults received a bank account boost under April’s federal government’s Economic Impact Payment Plan, that program didn’t include the majority of the country’s young adults attending college. However, for students receiving federal financial aid either through a college loan program or a Pell grant, some potential funds were slated to come their way through the CARES Act Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.

Several local colleges spoke to Reminder Publishing about this funding, and how it was being used to aid students – and their institutions – in the wake of COVID-19. The colleges also provided their most recent updates regarding planning for the fall semester

Holyoke Community College

According to Dr. Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College (HCC), the $3 trillion CARES Act spending bill signed by President Donald Trump on March 27 included a “significant infusion of emergency funds for higher education” with the funds to be used both to address unexpected student expenses and defray costs incurred by colleges when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a radical change to the 2020 spring semester.

For example, Royal told Reminder Publishing that the CARES Act funding for educational institutions in Massachusetts totalled approximately “$14 billion dollars, with $12.8 billion being distributed to higher education institutions” in the state, including HCC and other two and four-year colleges in the greater Springfield area.

Renee Tastad, HCC dean of Enrollment Management said that CARES Act higher education distribution – based 75 percent on the number of full-time Pell grant students at the college and 25 percent on other recognized student debt – would be $3.6 million for her institution. The first installment of that emergency funding – $1.8 million – was slated to directly aid students, she said.

Congress really wanted this money to go to as many students as possible, knowing all students are affected in some way,” Tastad said. “The Massachusetts Department of Education wants it to go only to students eligible for Title 4 funding or student loans.”

Tastad said a poll of the student body taken during a Zoom town hall meeting showed HCC students have incurred expenses ranging from having to increase their Internet connection to higher electric bills to run computers and printers at home to having to actually purchase a printer or laptop as COVID-19 forced spring semester classes to move completely online.

Royal noted the demographic makeup of HCC’s student population – which includes many working parents, immigrants and first-in-their-family college students from low-income households – has made the stress of COVID-19 expenses even more dire. In addition to the CARES Act funding, HCC has assisted students in other ways including through use of the President’s Emergency Fund.

According to Royal, the second $1.8 million installment would be used primarily to help defray some of the additional expenses incurred by the college in moving all learning online, including purchasing additional equipment, expanding infrastructure and obtaining software licenses “to allow employees to work remotely with secure systems”when handling student data.

As of May 28, again because of the diverse makeup of its student body, information supplied by HCC indicated that the college is still planning to conduct the majority of its classes as either online or remote sessions for fall, while also exploring the possibility of bringing some classes back to campus as conditions allow.

“With very few exceptions, all courses in the Fall 2020 semester will be taught online or remotely. Some will be asynchronous – you won’t have to log in at a particular time (as in a traditional fully online class). Others will be synchronous, with specific times when you will be expected to log in and participate with the class. The exceptions may include clinical, practicum, and lab courses. However, those few exceptions will only go forward with health protocols firmly in place to prevent exposures and infection,” Royal stated in a May 4 release sent to the HCC student body.

Springfield Technical Community College

Dr. John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community college (STCC) said the state’s only two-year technical community college, was awarded $3.8 million under the CARES Act, with $1.9 million earmarked to assist students with coronavirus pandemic-related expenses. Cook noted the initial CARES Act installment was slightly higher for STCC because “we have a significant number of Pell grant recipients, 54 percent of the student body receives Pell grants.”

He said STCC chose to focus on two specific expenses when making the initial distribution to eligible students. “We focused on utility and internet [expenses] the two things students have had to contend with being at home and having the semester altered.” he said. “That means for a significant number of eligible students , about 2,800, those grants will come in at approximately $350.”  Cook added that there might be some revision to the final figure awarded. He also noted there would still be “some monies left for students to make direct requests to offset COVID-19 expenses” with the opportunity to make those requests coming during the summer, and possibly into the fall semester. Cook said STCC was working hard to ensure students could easily find the place to apply for this additional reimbursement on their website.

With the second half of the CARES Act award, Cook said institutions have some flexibility on how the monies are used. “In our case it's for things like training our faculty to deliver instruction online [and] cleaning and sanitizing of our campus,” he said. However Cook noted that “no matter what amount of CARES Act we receive, it won’t fill the enrollment hole “ that the college may see come fall.

“We are going to use these next two months to plan for a contingency for the fall semester in particular - a significant amount of energy is going into what we are going to need to have in place because of the public health situation,” Cook said. “A community college such as ours is going to be the most affordable, most accessible institute to those who live in the area. We are looking at what can we do on campus, and a variation on that.”

Information provided to Reminder Publishing on May 28 indicated STCC was actively registering students for the fall semester and “weighing options for how classes would be taught.” Remote operations for the Springfield-based campus were scheduled to remain online through June 29.

On June 1, STCC released an update stating that its schools of Professional Studies and Liberal Arts would continue with online learning formats for the fall, while its School of STEM “will offer courses that include online, online with video conferencing in real time, and on-campus low-density labs.” STCC’s School of Health and Patient Simulation (SHPS) was slated to begin some low-density lab work for summer classes on June 8, and in the fall “will deliver courses and programs using a combination of low-density instruction and online, with gathering size set in accordance with state and federal social distancing guidelines.”

Regarding these fall plans, Dr. Geraldine de Berly, vice president of Academic Affairs, emphasized “STCC has no intention of becoming a fully online institution. The pivot to online is driven by a health pandemic. COVID-19 has forced the college to adjust, and we do hope in the future to return to the robust utilization of campus facilities which include our labs, specialized equipment, unique technologies and the rewarding in-person experiences STCC faculty generate with and for students.”

Westfield State University

Daniel Forster, vice president of Enrollment Management at Westfield State University – the area’s third public higher education institution – said his college was anticipating approximately $4.5 million from the CARES Act, with $2.2 million of that payment directed toward student reimbursements related to the coronavirus pandemic and the move from on-campus classes to all online learning for the spring semester. Because Westfield State has both a residential and a commuter student population, Forster said the categories the college has identified for potential reimbursement included “food, housing, course materials, technology healthcare and childcare.” He noted that, according to the information provided by the Department of Education, the college is responsible for collecting documentation for all monies distributed.

“At Westfield State, at this point, we determined that the best way is to craft an application for this CARES Act funding that will be distributed to all students eligible, and ask them to quantify the amount of money they need to cover those specific areas, and to turn that grant funding around as quickly as possible and refund those student as quickly as possible,” Forester told Reminder Publishing.

He said the reimbursements do not have to go exclusively to Pell grant recipients.

“They are suggesting you act on those student who are neediest, but are also are U. S citizens, have a social security number, have registered for selective service, are in a qualified degree program, are not in default on any Title 4 loans, are full-time and making satisfactory academic progress,” Forester explained, adding that makes “almost anyone eligible for the aid.”

He said by creating the application and requiring documentation of expenses Westfield State – which as a public institution is required to operate under a balanced budget – was being extra careful to meet all requirements of the Massachusetts Department of Education regarding the disbursement of the grant money.

In a followup statement sent to Reminder Publishing on May 28, Westfield State announced that since receiving “grant approval on April 29, the University has awarded block grants to all Title IV eligible students. A grant for $400 was distributed to students who were eligible for federal aid. A grant for $500 was distributed to higher need students who were Pell Grant-eligible. The team awarded 3,855 block grants totaling more than $1.7 million. Through an online application on the University’s websites, students were invited to apply for additional reimbursement for specific expenses incurred as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nearly 500 applications have been submitted as of May 27. It is expected those applications will result in more than $400,000 in additional grants.”

In terms of the second CARES Act installment,  Forster said the college is planning to use the monies to offset some of the ‘refund action” it has incurred when the semester moved from on-campus to online learning. “We had to refund over $6 million for dining plans and residents and students traveling abroad who had to come back early and quickly, whom we assisted,” he said. “We know we can use a portion toward that, and we can also use it toward the college converting to online learning.

"The college hasn’t made a final decision on how to do that yet,” he shared.

Regarding planning for the upcoming fall semester, in the initial interview Forster said the college is “planning for three, four, five different scenarios. We are hoping it will be as close as possible to normal when fall comes around, but we are planning for ways to keep students and faculty and staff safe.”

Followup information provided by the college on May 28 stated “Westfield State plans to resume its traditional, on-campus schedule for fall 2020. Given the ongoing uncertainties related to COVID-19, the University is also developing contingency plans.”

Western New England University

Bryan Gross, vice president of enrollment for Western New England University (WNE), said the college expected to receive a total of $3.6 million in CARES Act funding, with half of that money to be used to help students who incurred expenses when the coronavirus pandemic caused the primarily residential college to close its campus and move all learning online. He said WNE is using an application process where eligible students – those who have also received some form of federal aid toward their college costs – can apply for reimbursement for coronavirus-related expenses.

The college placed the application online in early May at http://www1.wne.edu/coronavirus,cares-act.cfm. According to information supplied by WNE , as of May 28 the college had  already awarded close to one million dollars ($982,011 to be exact) in CARES Act emergency relief funding to eligible students. A total of $360,291 remained available, and the deadline for eligible students to apply for the balance of WNE’s CARES Act funding had been extended to June 5.

“Students can apply for money that will help with expenses that they incurred because of COVID–19; the money can’t be credited to their account or used to offset their bill,” Gross explained. “It’s for medical expenses, technical expenses , storage expenses, anything that will help the students cover unexpected costs [because the campus closed and learning moved online.] Students apply and we have a committee on campus that will review their request and make an award.”

The other half of the CARES Act award to WNE – approximately $1.3 million – would be used by the college to help offset some of the costs that incurred when the campus shut down and the students were required to move back home for the remainder of the spring semester.

“We have refunded just under $4 million in prorated room and board refunds, and incurred a number of other, additional expenses in relation to moving all our classes online in such a short period of time,” Gross said. “The university is still assessing what the total cost has been to [the college].“

Looking toward the fall semester, WNE provided the following information to Reminder Publishing on May 28:

“President Caprio has communicated our intent to repopulate [WNE’s] campus for the fall semester, subject to state and federal guidelines. We will be implementing COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, as well as social distancing. [On May 27], the Massachusetts Higher Education Working Group released a four-phase framework for safely reopening college and university campuses statewide. The University is reviewing the framework and will incorporate its recommendations into our planning process. Several work groups have been formed on campus to plan for the coming academic year, addressing such topics as health and safety, as well as online pedagogy, taking lessons learned from the spring semester and applying them moving forward.”

Because of the disruption high school seniors have experienced under the coronavirus pandemic, WNE has announced it will be accepting applications for fall admission through Aug. 15.

Springfield College

Springfield College was eligible for $3.5 million in educational funding under the CARES Act, according to John Mailhot, vice president of Finance Administration for the college, with the first installment of $1.72 million earmarked to reimburse eligible students for COVID-19 related expenses.

According to Mailhot, nearly 90 percent of the Springfield College student body either receives Pell grants or another form of federal financial aid, making the majority of students eligible for a portion of the CARES Act funding.

During an early May interview with Reminder Publishing, Mailhot noted that every college was approaching the CARES Act funding  distribution “a little bit differently” and Springfield College had a group – including people from financial aid, the business office and enrollment – working on a formula, “trying to make the best decisions for our student body.” He also indicated the college expected to have the majority of the student portion of the CARES Act funding distributed by June 1, the close of the college’s fiscal year.

As for the remainder of the funding, Mailhot said the college was hoping to be able to use the money to reimburse itself for some of the expenses it incurred when COVID-19 required the residential college’s campus to close and all learning had to shift to online courses. Those expenses included refunding students for resident fees, meal plans, and costs related to moving all of the college’s classes online.

“The CARES act has very much recognized and identified the significant needs for both institutions and  students,” Mailhot said. “It’s really been gratifying that it acknowledged not just students but also institutions of higher education that were going to be significantly impacted by COVID-19.”

Mailhot said in addition to the CARES Act working group, Springfield College had a separate team working on a variety of scenarios for the fall semester.

In a release forwarded to Reminder Publishing on May 28, Springfield College President Mary-Beth Cooper stated the college intended to reopen its residential campus for the fall semester “following guidance from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and our local government.

 “We have planning groups developing protocols and procedures to enhance safety on campus in a number of areas – classroom usage, course delivery, residence hall occupancy, dining, athletics, student activities, and other aspects of campus life,” Cooper stated. “These groups are reviewing and, where necessary, transforming every aspect of how the college will operate in this new reality. Protocols will include using face masks, increasing the availability of hand sanitizer, staggering business hours, setting aside room/apartments for quarantining and isolation, increasing sanitization and cleaning, and large-scale deployment of testing and contact tracing. We intend to offer a residential experience for the full semester. However, we will be prepared to transition to online-only instruction if there is a resurgence of COVID-19.“

American International College

Reminder Publishing also reached out to American International College (AIC) regarding their receipt of CARES Act funding, and their plans for the money. On May 4 we received the following statement in response:

“According to the Department of Education, American International College is eligible to receive $1.9 million, with half of this going directly to our students. We are carefully reviewing the guidance received from the Department of Education to ensure that when we apply for and receive this grant, it is being used according to its purpose.”

On May 29, AIC President Vince Maniaci sent a letter to students regarding plans for the fall semester, acknowledging the challenges of creating a college experience under the conditions presented by the coronavirus pandemic and the resultant state and federal health guidelines for institutions.  

“Please know that our great hope is that we are able to welcome you all back to campus in the fall,” Maniaci said, according to a release shared with Reminder Publishing on June 1. “We are examining many possible strategies to reopen with in-person classes and on-campus housing in the fall semester, but we have no higher priority than your safety and wellbeing

“While implementing physical distancing measures in an environment designed to bring people together to share knowledge, values, and experiences presents many challenges,” Maniaci continued. “We are committed to finding ways to maintain and enhance the student experience while keeping the AIC community safe.”

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