This is the Coronavirus Schools Briefing, a guide to the seismic changes in U.S. education that are taking place during the pandemic. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox.
It’s happening across the country.
In the Midwest, Ohio Wesleyan University is eliminating 18 majors. One state away, Pennsylvania merged a half-dozen small state schools into two academic entities.
On the West Coast, the University of California, Berkeley, has paused admissions to its Ph.D. programs in anthropology, sociology and art history. (A Chronicle of Higher Education database has documented more than 100 such suspended graduate programs.)
And in the Northeast, Harvard University reported a $10 million deficit. The university — which has a $41.9 billion endowment, the largest in the nation — froze hiring, slashed capital spending and cut senior managers’ pay.
“We haven’t seen a budget crisis like this in a generation,” said Robert Kelchen, an associate professor at Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J., who has been tracking the higher learning funding crunch. “There’s nothing off-limits.”
Well before the pandemic, colleges and universities were already grappling with a growing financial crisis, brought on by years of shrinking state support, declining enrollment and student concerns with skyrocketing tuition and debt.
In the spring, many colleges imposed hiring freezes and early retirements to save money in the short term. But the money pit keeps getting deeper. By one estimate, the pandemic has cost colleges at least $120 billion.
Undergraduate enrollment, especially at community colleges, has already plummeted. Now, experts fear that depressed graduate enrollment might shape the face of academia for years to come. Promising students from low-income households — who might bring much needed diversity to faculty rosters one day — often cannot afford to wait another uncertain year.
“We could have our own lost generation of students who get busy with other things and then don’t fulfill their dreams,” said Suzanne T. Ortega, the president of the Council of Graduate Schools.
Faculty jobs may be the last to fall, but some are already disappearing. In Ohio, the University of Akron superseded tenure rules and laid off 97 unionized faculty members. In New York, Ithaca College also accelerated plans to cut 131 full-time faculty jobs, a result of declining enrollment exacerbated by the pandemic.
“These cuts are going to continue long past the pandemic,” Kelchen said.
In Texas, no Friday Night Lights
Across the Rio Grande Valley, high school football has taken a hit.
“As towns along or near the Rio Grande — like La Joya, Palmview, Mission, Progreso, Weslaco, Rio Hondo — have shut off their Friday night lights, or left them flickering in uncertainty, there has been a sense of cultural casualty,” Jeré Longman, our colleague, wrote in a moving piece.
“The sounds of fall have gone silent — the pompom verve of the cheerleaders, the brassy pep of the band.”
As of Wednesday, more than 63,200 coronavirus infections had been reported and more than 3,200 people had died in the four counties that constitute the valley — more fatalities than in any of the urban centers of Houston, Dallas and San Antonio. At La Joya High, only six offensive linemen were among those who were interested in playing. “Some parents didn’t think it was safe,” said Reuben Farías, the head coach, who lost his own father to Covid-19 in July. “No vaccine.”
At Juarez-Lincoln High, the season is also canceled. Ángel Portillo, 17, who would have been a senior cornerback, understood. His grandfather and a great-uncle had died of Covid-19. “I didn’t want to be the one to hurt my family just to play football,” he said. “Safety over sport. Family over anything.”
With weekly screenings and precautions, the season was off to a decent start at Palmview High School, where football is the only sport still standing. “Every player tested neg,” Ernesto Lerma, a 78-year-old assistant coach, said in a text on Oct. 13. But a day later, he fired off another message: “Big left tackle tested positive.” Soon, another player did, too.
Happily, those initial tests turned out to be false positives, so the players resumed practice. But a team volunteer recently tested positive and Lerma is in quarantine as a precaution. The season now won’t start until Nov. 6.
“We’re going to give it one more shot,” said Margarito Requénez, Palmview’s head coach. “If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. But at least we tried.”
Around the country
The University of Dayton in Ohio announced that an 18-year-old freshman, Michael Lang, died from coronavirus complications. He left campus in mid-September.
North Carolina State University will delay the spring semester and do away with its spring break in an effort to control the spread of the virus.
A good read: More than 65 colleges are testing waste water to monitor the virus spread. NPR’s story is informative and just icky enough. Here’s how it starts: “Twice a week, mathematics professor Andrea Bruder squats in the sewage tunnels below South Hall, a mostly freshman dorm at Colorado College. She wears head-to-toe protective gear, and holds a plastic ladle in one hand and a to-go coffee cup in the other. Bruder hovers above an opening in a large metal pipe, and patiently waits for a student to flush.”
In Virginia, the Health Department unveiled a new dashboard showing K-12 schools reporting outbreaks.
In Seattle, public school students will learn remotely for the rest of the calendar year.
In Chicago, students at Catholic schools — who are now learning in person — will have two extra weeks at home remote learning after the Christmas break, so that they can quarantine if they had traveled. Public school students are still learning remotely, although roughly 20,000 special education and pre-kindergarten should return to classrooms soon.
A good read: The Washington Post took a close look at how one charter school — Latin American Montessori Bilingual, in Washington, D.C. — was never able to bring their students back in the classrooms. “The abrupt change of plans at LAMB shows how, on a small scale, teacher reluctance can stop a school from reopening,” Perry Stein wrote. “Despite a new building, a top-notch air-filtration system, a non-unionized teaching staff and families who want to return, LAMB could not start in-person classes.”
Tip: Show up for office hours
Sonja Montgomery, an English teacher at Johnson Senior High School in St. Paul, Minn., wrote in with some advice:
“If your teacher, or your child’s teacher, is holding office hours virtually, by all means, GO. It’s a great way to get academic help, but even if you don’t think you need help or you haven’t read the directions yet, stop by for a quick check in. Maybe introduce your pet. If the virtual room is full, use the chat function. Your teachers love seeing your faces.”
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