The executive director of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education said the state's universities may continue off-campus classes this summer because of ongoing COVID-19 concerns.

In a letter to university presidents this week, Jim Purcell said institutions need to communicate with students and their families about what summer courses, which begin in mid-May, may look like.

“As April approaches, you are no doubt considering how to conduct campus operations over the course of the summer,” Purcell wrote. “We all know that there are many factors in play in making this decision, and not all of these are academic. Health of our communities, students, faculty and students must be paramount.

“While many unknowns remain, it is important that institutions provide clarity for students, families, and the public so that they can plan to continue or begin their studies over the summer. I would support maintaining the online/remote instructional environment through the summer 2020 terms.”

Some health leaders in the state have said they don’t expect the coronavirus pandemic to peak in this state until late April or early May.

Alabama’s K-12 public school students will not be returning to their schools this school year, officials announced Thursday. They’ll complete the school year remotely, ending it June 5.

Community colleges

Meanwhile, the Alabama Community College System (ACCS) announced Friday that its estimated 174,000 students will not finish their current semester on campus, but through online work.

Earlier this month, community college campuses were closed until April 3.

“Every decision concerning the operations of Alabama’s community colleges is being made with the health and safety of our students, faculty, staff and administrators at the forefront,” ACCS Chancellor Jimmy H. Baker said in a written statement.

“While we couldn’t have imagined what this semester would look like for our colleges, I am incredibly grateful for the creativity, resilience, and commitment to learning shown by our faculty, staff, and students during this difficult time.”

Graduation ceremonies have been postponed for community colleges.

A decision has not been made about whether summer courses will be in-person or online.

Going online

For the rest of the current semester, Alabama’s universities moved classes online and to other remote delivery options.

“I do believe we should commend the campuses for converting to online so quickly,” Purcell told Alabama Daily News this week. “Normally, higher education doesn’t move at such a speed.”

It’s also a tremendous change for many students and faculty, Purcell said. He cited The Chronicle of Higher Education data that said in 2017, 68% of college undergrads were not enrolled in any online courses.

Meanwhile, 85% of lower division and 78% of upper division faculty only teach in-person.

Alabama’s K-12 and higher education institutions are waiting to see what the coronavirus and efforts to control it do to their state funding.

The state’s 2021 education budget last month was estimated to be about $7.5 billion. But its two largest sources — sales and income taxes — are expected to be hit hard by social distancing measures that keep people in their homes and close businesses.

Campus closures also mean lost revenue for auxiliary services, including cafeterias and bookstores. Surrounding communities are also impacted.

Continued closures could also pose a challenge for university recruitment efforts.

The Chronicle of Higher Education this month reported that in fall 2019, six in 10 colleges missed their fall enrollment goals, and two-thirds of colleges failed to meet revenue goals

“Making sure you have new enrollment is important to the institutions in the state,” Purcell said.

Margaret Gunter, ACHE’s government relations director, said the U.S. Senate’s $2.2 trillion proposed coronavirus stimulus bill includes for higher education: emergency aid to students and institutions; access to low-cost capital; technology implementation funding; and temporary regulatory flexibility.

Local decisions

Limiting access to campus premises, Alabama universities and colleges have made independent decisions pertaining to on-campus housing, dining and other campus facilities.

The University of North Alabama has closed its on-campus housing facilities. 

For international students, many universities are making accommodations for students who cannot return home to stay on campus or find alternative housing.

With campuses adjusting to the needs of their community, universities and colleges face the decision on whether or not to cancel or postpone spring commencement ceremonies. Some universities have already canceled or postponed their ceremonies, while others are awaiting a final decision.

University of Alabama canceled on-campus activities for the remainder of the semester, including commencement.

“We are actively exploring and hope to provide alternative means of recognizing the significant achievements of graduates and students earning honors, but it is too early to make those plans firm,” a university statement to students said.

Auburn University moved to remote classes for the remainder of this semester and requested that students who live on campus not come back after spring break.

Commencement hasn’t been canceled yet and the university says more information on that will be released in the coming days.

For students looking at summer courses at Auburn, the university has said students are encouraged to work with their academic advisers to develop a plan.

No details have come out on whether Auburn will have on-campus classes or remote classes for the summer semester.

-- Alabama Daily News interns Abby Driggers and Devin Pavlou contributed to this report.

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