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COVID-19 Town Hall: University Addresses Student Questions

Posted on: April 30, 2020 in Campus & Community Stories by Valerie Orleans

President Fram Virjee, along with several university administrators, addressed student concerns from tuition and parking permit refunds to plans for the fall session and graduation.

“Clearly, our first order of business is serving and supporting you, our students, to the fullest extent possible as you weather the financial storm brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Virjee at an April 22 virtual town hall meeting attended by hundreds of students via Zoom and YouTube.

He thanked the students for their commitment and flexibility during the pandemic, before noting some of the ways the campus has evolved over the past few months — including 40,000 students who have moved to virtual learning, 2,000 students who have moved out of the dorms, 3,500 faculty who have moved to virtual instruction and nearly 6,000 employees who are working from home.

Will there be refunds for tuition and course fees? If the university is conducting virtual teaching and learning, why are students still paying for face-to-face classes?

President Fram Virjee: “First, I want to recognize that COVID-19 has caused health and economic hardships around the world and in our community. I know CSUF students have lost jobs, their family members have lost jobs and there are many other challenges.

“I am proud of the ways that we, as a community, have worked to alleviate as much of this suffering as we can. We have provided emergency loans and grants, worked on payment plans and debt forgiveness for students, provided laptops and MiFi equipment to students in need, and created Titan Emergency Funds for students, faculty and staff — a fund to which Julie and I have committed 10% of my take home salary each month for the remainder of 2020. My entire cabinet is participating in that.

“But we, as an institution, are not immune to financial hardships either. In IT alone, we have expended more than half a million dollars we had not budgeted to support faculty, staff and students as they go virtual. At the same time, we have also committed nearly $12 million in reimbursements for parking and residential life alone.

“We have also continued to pay all our state employees — including student workers — regardless of their ability to work remotely and have committed to do so for an extended period of time.

“The list goes on and on until we arrive at the nearly $20 million in projected losses thus far. I’m aware that there are hardships for our families. There are no savings by going virtual. So no, we can’t reimburse tuition.

“There are three reasons. First, it’s up to the California State University Chancellor’s Office to make that decision, not the individual universities. Second, even if authorized by the CSU, we’ve already used and are using these funds to provide instruction and services to students. Finally, we haven’t ceased instruction. We continue to provide tutoring, counseling and support services. We’re awarding academic credit and helping students move along on their academic journeys.”

Will there be reimbursement for fees such as those charged for the Titan Student Union, Student Recreation Center and student success?

Virjee: “It’s important to understand and recognize the origin of those fees. Both the TSU and the Student Recreation Center were built by and are operated using student fees, not state fees. In fact, it is Associated Students Inc. — our students — who own and operate the TSU and SRC.

“The fees you pay each semester were voted on by students more than a decade ago to raise the funds to build these facilities. Revenue generated through the Rec Center and TSU fees fund the debt payments that ASI incurred to build those buildings. Without these funds, ASI — and, as such, our students — would default on those payments, triggering serious financial consequences.

“So, when it comes to the TSU and Rec Center, these are not ‘user’ fees. These fees are charged each semester and every summer term to all students whether or not they ever use or even step foot in the TSU or the Rec Center.

“These fees were actually charged to students who came before you — before these facilities were even built, and they did that so ASI could save the money to finance and build the facilities. The fees are specifically spread across each semester and summer and calculated to cover the costs of paying the debt service and are charged to all students, regardless of individual student use. Students themselves decided they would be charged regardless of availability of the facility, until the debt incurred by ASI is paid in full.

“The same can be said for all remaining student fees. The student success fee, for example, is charged to all students and funds our Student Success Centers and a series of other student activities. Most of these services are still available, virtually, to students.”

When can students expect to receive refunds for parking permits?

Kristin Jasko, director, parking and transportation services: “Our team is working as quickly as we can to process refund requests. Due to the volume, and the impacts of COVID-19, it is a bit more challenging and will take some time to finish all of the refunds. But our focus is to get them processed in the order they were received and as quickly as possible.

“We will begin posting updates through our social media and department website. I encourage everyone to follow @CSUFPTS on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, and to check our website at parking.fullerton.edu.”

What is the university’s plan for fall session?

Pam Oliver, provost and vice president for academic affairs: “It is the complete hope at Cal State Fullerton to have traditional instruction in the fall. But like every university in America, we are working through the unknowns of the current pandemic.

“There were some reports that I said that CSUF is going fully virtual for the entire fall semester. Let me be clear, that is a misinterpretation of what I said and that is false.

“In order to be prepared for all scenarios, again with the goal that we can offer in-person instruction, we are asking our faculty to be prepared to start the semester teaching virtually. This is the correct and prudent move. We want to avoid the kind of situation we had during this semester, when the switch to virtual was required with very little time to plan.

“For now, I can say that we are planning on having large lecture classes taught virtually because it will not be safe to have 200 students in one lecture hall. As another example, research classes, labs, studio and performance courses — ones that cannot optimally be taught virtually — will be considered a priority for returning to face-to-face instruction. Those classes would return to campus as early as guidance from government and public health officials allow.

“The priorities are the safety of the entire campus community and the educational success of our students. We will continue to work with and follow the guidance of various health agencies, the governor, the CSU Chancellor’s Office and others on the most appropriate path forward — again with the goal of having in-person instruction in the fall.”

When will the decision for the fall semester be finalized?

Oliver: “We can’t know today what we will be facing in August when classes are scheduled to resume, or how these circumstances will continue to change throughout the semester. Nonetheless, we are actively planning now to ensure we can offer high quality education in whatever COVID-19 scenarios we face. As the facts and circumstances become clear we will be able to describe the specifics and give a more definite answer.”

How can students still get involved with clubs and organizations?

Harry Le Grande, vice president for student affairs: “It’s important to note that our student involvement opportunities remain the same. The difference is that everything is virtual. Our Student Life and Leadership team, Diversity Initiatives and Resource Centers, Veterans Resource Center, WoMen’s and Adult Reentry Center, ASI, Male Success Initiative, and all other departments are fully operational and want you to connect with them. We have created a Virtual Student Services web page, which can be found at fullerton.edu/students or coronavirus.fullerton.edu. You can also check out our social media accounts @CSUFstudents for more information.

“Our Tuffy’s Basic Needs Services Center and Dean of Students Office also developed a COVID-19 student support handbook, which can also be found at fullerton.edu/students or coronavirus.fullerton.edu.”

How will the $41 million CARES Act funding be used?

Le Grande: “First, let me state that we have not received any CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) funding yet, but we are diligently working on finalizing the process with an emphasis on speed and ease of getting the funding to you. The Department of Education and the Chancellor’s Office have specific requirements we must adhere to including the mandate that the most needy students are a priority. Certain student groups who are not eligible for federal aid are excluded from receiving the funds, and we are exploring options for that population.

“Financial Aid and Student Business Services will work hard to disburse CARES Act funds, but let me repeat, we have not received the funds yet. Once we do, they will go directly to students. Information will be available on the Financial Aid website at that time.

“Prior to knowing about the CARES Act funds, we have already provided millions of additional emergency funds to students in March and April.”

What technology has the university provided to students?

Amir Dabirian, vice president for information technology: “The Division of IT has been hard at work to see that students have the technology tools they need in this virtual learning environment. Students in need can request laptops, MiFis, mobile flip phones by emailing the dean of students at deanofstudents@fullerton.edu.

“Those with long-term laptops can keep them the entire semester. At the end of the semester, we will contact students. If they are continuing students at Cal State Fullerton, they can keep the laptops for fall. Otherwise, they need to be returned at the end of the semester.”

Is Zoom safe to use?

Dabirian: “Zoom is the best application for this virtual environment. The host of every meeting should create safety precautions. Create a unique meeting ID. You can also authenticate those in the meeting. You can create a password for the meeting so it is password protected. Also, the host of the meeting can lock the meeting. If there is a disturbance, the host can lock out that user. The safety of the meeting is up to the host.”

What is the process for students requesting technology?

Hallie Hunt, dean of students: “The process is easy. As Amir said, students can email us at deanofstudents@fullerton.edu and my team will respond within about 24 hours with further instructions on how to pick up the devices that have been requested. If you live in Southern California, you will be able to receive your device quickly — most of the time within 48 hours of your request. If you live outside of Southern California, we will ship the devices to you. We are doing everything we can to make this as simple as possible for students so you don’t have to worry about technology on top of everything else.”

What is the plan for graduation?
Greg Saks, vice president for university advancement: “We have heard from many students that there is great interest in trying to have a traditional commencement, whenever that might take place. With that in mind, we are exploring how we could have a ceremony that respects requirements for social distancing. We continue to run scenarios. Our goal, whenever this event might take place, is that our graduating students will have the chance to walk across the stage. We will continue to work with and monitor the guidance from health agencies, the governor and others to see how best to manage the requirements of this new reality.

“In the meantime, so we can celebrate the Class of 2020, we have initiated the planning of a virtual celebration. We are in the beginning phase and working out the details and timing, but I’m excited that there will be some type of activity in the spring. More information will be sent soon via email to the graduating students.”

What are some final thoughts for students as they continue to weather the pandemic?

Fram Virjee, CSUF president: “I have two final thoughts for our students. First, I want to make sure you know that this town hall is just one mode by which we aim to answer all your questions and adapt to all of your needs.

“Our email, phone, Twitter, Zoom and any other platform remain open to each one of you, and I encourage you to keep asking questions and keep sharing your challenges and success.

“Second, I want to thank you, our amazing students. Since all of this started, each of you individually, and all of you collectively, have contributed in so many ways to make a very difficult situation better. You have done so as students who refuse to fold in the face of this pandemic.

“You are showing the world what it takes to succeed and overcome. It takes tenacity, kindness, grit. It takes a Titan, and you are all Titans. We have a long way to go but I feel confident and blessed to work together to help you meet those goals. Stay safe. Stay healthy. Stay strong. We will get through this and we will be amazing … together.”

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    Valerie Orleans

    Valerie Orleans is the Editorial Director for Strategic Communications at Cal State Fullerton.

    View more posts by Valerie Orleans

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