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State colleges, universities address COVID-19 expenses, student testing

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Connecticut State Colleges & Universities have incurred costs for expenses such as the purchase of about 1,500 laptops, investment in cellular hotspots for students and faculty without internet access, and masks.

Chief Financial Officer Ben Barnes said CSCU has reported about $5.5 million in expenses. He said the shortfall across the four universities in the system — which also includes 12 community colleges and one online college — is just under $10 million. The system is still looking to get reimbursed for the room and board refunds it issued.

So, how is it going to pay for these costs, and for future expenses when schools reopen in the fall with a mix of online and in-person instruction?

This question was addressed during an informational hearing the state legislature's Appropriations Committee held via Zoom on Monday about the fiscal impact of COVID-19 on CSCU.

Barnes said the most promising source is the $1.4 billion Connecticut received through the federal Coronavirus Relief Fund. He said CSCU has received some money from the CRF but nothing related to room and board refunds, though he didn't find anything prohibiting use of funds for that purpose.

Barnes said other potential funding sources include the Governor's Emergency Education Relief Fund, which may be overextended for K-12 spending; the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which probably won't cover room and board; and the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund within the CARES Act.

He has a meeting scheduled this week with a FEMA representative to go through existing and potential future expenses, and said he's happy for the "opportunity to sit with them and identify which areas we should be submitting for and which areas we should not even bother."

Future expenses and testing plans

Barnes expects at least another $6.5 million in additional expenses on top of the $5.5 million already reported, with expenses growing as classrooms open.

CSCU President Mark Ojakian said he is finalizing an agreement with Griffin Health to do testing for the four state universities: Eastern, Central, Western and Southern.

Alice Pritchard, CSCU chief of staff, explained that the state will pay for part of the testing, which involves every student returning to dorms getting tested before returning to campus and then random testing of 5%-10% of the student population every week. Symptomatic students will also be tested, and immediately isolated.

The only staff required to be tested are residence hall directors, and they will be tested before arrival and as part of the random sampling, Pritchard said. There is no recommended testing for the community colleges.

Ojakian said the dorms at the four universities will be open at different capacities depending on the institution, mask wearing will be required for class, and the schools will follow Department of Public Health protocols for testing and contact tracing.

G. Duncan Harris, CEO of Capital Community College in Hartford, explained how things will look at his campus in the fall. He said 85% of classes will be fully online, 13% will be hybrid, and 2% will be in-person, as some programs have specialized equipment.

Ojakian said the CSCU Board of Regents planned for a 10% reduction in enrollment when adopting its budget, but that enrollment numbers have been coming in better than that so far.

"That's not to say that as summer goes on, the situation around COVID changes, we may not see that number go down," he said, adding that he'll have a better handle on this in August.

He also commented, "If we are forced to shut down and the semester does not complete, we will have a dire financial situation moving forward."

e.moser@theday.com

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