As businesses and activities return slowly under state and local coronavirus guidelines, San Antonio college leaders are not optimistic about reopening campuses at full capacity.

During a one-hour panel Wednesday about how the novel coronavirus has impacted higher education, the leaders of the Alamo Colleges District, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and the University of the Incarnate Word were adamant that their schools would be open in the fall. But how the reopened campuses might look has not been determined, they told Rivard Report Education Reporter Emily Donaldson, who moderated the virtual event, “Higher Ed: Assessing the Damage, Looking Ahead.”

“Opening up could mean still the majority of our academic content is delivered online,” UTSA President Taylor Eighmy said.

Alamo Colleges Chancellor Mike Flores and UIW President Thomas Evans also touched on the future of “hybrid” learning at their schools. Cynthia Matson, president of Texas A&M University-San Antonio, and Diane Melby, president of Our Lady of the Lake University, were scheduled to participate Wednesday but were unable to join because of technical difficulties.

“It could mean that we bring more researchers to campus and more graduate students to campus” and not others, Eighmy said. “It could mean that we are very careful about managing those in health risk groups that are very concerned about being on campus. And we just can’t be more definitive about this until we get our public health guidance.”

Right now, UTSA has about 700 people on campus, Eighmy said; the university has more than 33,000 students. The people currently on campus are researchers and employees of the facilities, housing, and dining departments. In the summer, the school also will welcome back student athletes.

“We are looking at all possibilities,” he said. “We’re going to use the summer as a bit of a way to step up our use of campus in a modest way, so we might go from 750 people on campus now to a couple thousand or so.”

Alamo Colleges is considering multiple scenarios for the fall at its five campuses, but the district plans to keep the majority of its teaching online for its 65,000 students, Flores said. 

Flores continues to be mindful of students’ financial challenges, he said. The federal coronavirus relief fund gave Alamo Colleges around $22 million, half of which was allocated for emergency student aid. By Thursday, $6 million will have been distributed to students, he said. 

Eighmy said UTSA would refund parking, housing, and dining fees from this past semester and expects to get $32 million in federal funding. That federal money will mostly go to student financial aid, Eighmy said.

UIW received $2.6 million in federal coronavirus funding and distributed $2.2 million in emergency financial aid to students, Evans said. The university has more than 10,000 students enrolled. UIW also has loaned 120 laptops to students and worked with internet providers to give students who need it free internet access.

“Those were things we did very quickly,” Evans said. “And we have a Cardinal Cupboard, which is a food pantry for those that are food insecure, and that remained open to help as well. We’re still also having the ability for students to connect with us, even just online [through a form] to tell us what they need.”

Though the colleges had a plan to address individualized needs, institutional needs still need to be considered, Flores said. 

“Institutions like ours – big places – like to engage in what we call strategic planning,” he said. “But I think what COVID has underscored is the need for scenario planning.”

Alamo Colleges receives 40 percent of its revenue from Bexar County taxpayers, 40 percent from tuition and fees, and 20 percent from the state of Texas. But how the hit on the economy will affect the institution is not yet clear, Flores said.

“Is it going to be a 10 percent cutback? Is it going to be a 15 percent cutback? Those are different scenarios that we’re looking at to ensure that we can normalize operations – meaning that the student experience continues to be as robust as it is pre-COVID, during COVID, and even after COVID,” he said.

Likewise, UTSA is unsure of its financial future. While Texas has been relatively secure due to the oil and gas industry in past recessions, a recent dip in oil prices makes the state’s future less predictable, Eighmy said. Now, universities are hearing about the potential for a deficit as high as $20 billion. 

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“Under those kinds of circumstances in the past, even with a modest rainy day fund, the Texas governor typically will ask for dollars to be returned in the fiscal year or the following fiscal year,” he said. “And so we are anticipating having to give back funds to Texas or not receive our entire allotted budgeted fund in the second year of our current [legislative] biennium.”

The potential for students to not enroll in college for the fall semester because of an uncertain future may impact colleges’ tuition revenue as well, Eighmy said.

“We have indicators that suggest it’s going to be OK, but there’s a lot of time to pass between now and September,” he said.

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Though the novel coronavirus has brought challenges to higher education, it also helps highlight ways those institutions must improve, Flores said.

Told recently that 40 percent of adults want a post-high school credential, he mused on how to give people that credential while remembering that San Antonio may face more severe economic challenges: If San Antonio had a high poverty rate before the coronavirus pandemic started, how can it come out stronger after?

“How do we leverage really important things for our family, friends, and neighbors that ensure that each one has a post-high school credential that’s going to make them more marketable as they re-enter the workforce?” Flores asked. “And also ensures, once we are in full recovery, that we’re able to recruit for industries because individuals have leveled up one credential during this period? And so I think that’s also critical that I take [that thought] with me as we move forward – we need to be stronger post-COVID, as a result, and we need to leverage the lessons we’ve learned.”

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is a general assignment reporter at the Rivard Report.