JMU unveiled its intention to resume in-person instruction on Oct. 5 at the Board of Visitors meeting Friday.
President Alger said this has been the “most unusual year we can remember" in terms of enrollment. Originally the largest freshman class to enroll at JMU, the group melted as move-in day approached, with some deferring their admission to spring or next fall.
Additionally, pockets of returning students never paid their tuition bills, signalling their decision not to enroll. Student withdraws have trickled in since the university transitioned online. As a result, Senior Vice President of Administration and Finance Charles King said JMU is short 670 students in terms of budget — 3% of JMU’s population.
King said JMU’s operating budget is short $31.4 million — being $12.6 million short in the general budget because of a lack of enrollment and $18.8 million short on auxiliaries due to a lack of on-campus student revenue and refunds.
The silver lining in the finance office is that while JMU was told in the spring to expect up to a 15% budget cut from the state, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) announced at the General Assembly special session in August that he’s not recommending new budget cuts.
After 15% of the student body vacated campus due to an outbreak of over 1,000 COVID-19 cases, Alger said the university furiously scrambled to modify their original reopening plan.
First on the chopping block is fall break. Heather Coltman, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, said the university has canceled fall break, previously scheduled for Oct. 22-23, to curtail student travel. Classes will again transition online after Thanksgiving break — though campus will remain open — to deter another flare-up of the virus if students contract COVID-19 when they’re at home. Final exams will kick off two days earlier to make up for the axed fall break and will be administered online.
The University Health Center (UHC) will implement a new method of testing when students return: mandatory surveillance testing. The health center will randomly sample 300 students per week — or about 5% of the on-campus population — to monitor the state of the pandemic at JMU. Currently, UHC conducts up to 140 tests per day on students who are symptomatic or who’ve been in close contact with someone who tested positive. Alger said that in over 99% of positive cases at JMU, the student is asymptomatic or experiences mild symptoms. An additional change in the health center is that it’ll remain open on the weekends.
Alger said there’s little contact tracing evidence that COVID-19 transmitted in a classroom setting. Instead, he said the virus is linked to off-campus activity.
“The only known cure for this virus is solidarity,” Alger said. “That means that everybody needs to step up and do their part … and that’s the spirit of JMU at its finest.”
Vice President of Student Affairs Tim Miller announced JMU is “essentially buying out a hotel” to increase capacity for isolation beds from 143 to over 430. The Sleep Inn on Evelyn Byrd Avenue will provide JMU’s sick population with remote housing, but Miller said his goal is to reach 500 quarantine beds before students return. JMU has also expanded its quarantine-in-place capability to accommodate over 1,430 students whose bedrooms and bathrooms aren’t communal.
Changes also stretch to dining operations. Towana Moore, associate vice president of business services, said students are now required to flash their green check from the LiveSafe app to cashiers when paying for their food. Additionally, the dining administration has reconfigured lines of popular dining areas to increase social distancing space in line. Dining services also reduced seating in D-Hall from 1,100 seats to 600.
JMU will send representatives to the Harrisonburg City Council meeting Tuesday to provide updates on its handling of COVID-19.
Alger said the university’s “North star” throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been maintaining public health and academic progress, but a hurricane of accusations that the university mishandled on-campus operations in a “bait-and-switch” tuition grab have coiled around the university.
Associate Vice President for Communications and Marketing Andy Perrine said his department is “constantly in crisis mode” right now. JMU has incurred over 750 media mentions since Sept. 1 — with appearances on national and world news broadcasts and The New York Times labeling JMU as a “hot spot” for COVID-19.
“The media are selling a lot of clicks because everybody is so intensely interested in the issue, and it’s been sensationalized in a way that’s very difficult to combat,” Perrine said.
He also said there are three phases in emergency communications: response, reassurance and recovery. Perrine said JMU is in a "constant recycling" of response and reassurance, and "there’ll be no recovery until there’s a vaccine."
Student Representative to the Board of Visitors Norman Jones III wasn’t in attendance at Friday’s meeting, but he recorded a video message urging the board to take appropriate action in regard to JMU’s COVID-19 response and the creation of a racial equity task force.
“Our actions will inform how we are perceived — both of which must change in this moment in our history,” Jones said.
This newest racial task force is the third of Alger's presidency. Executive Director for Access and Inclusion Art Dean said it’s the “largest and most ambitious" of Alger’s career.
Over the summer, JMU hosted 17 town halls and conversations concerning race. Dean said JMU also received seven letters from students and faculty over the summer inquiring how JMU will proceed with these discussions in the midst of a national racial justice movement.
The answer is a task force employing students, staff and the community with the ultimate goal of "systemic change." It’ll be divided into “working groups" that devise short, medium and long-term recommendations. Examples of working groups include student academic success, student co-curricular life, instructional faculty professional development and athletics.
Alger said the university is investigating how to move the needle on the racial composition of JMU staff — which currently features only 15% faculty of color.
Additionally, the president said JMU is striving for an “intergenerational” effort to tackle racial injustice on campus through engaging with alumni. Alger said this change is “overdue” but a “continuation” of a years-long dialogue at the university.
“Everyone has a lot to learn,” Alger said. “Everyone has a lot to contribute. Everyone has a role to play.”
Contact Brice Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.