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State colleges won't lay off workers, transition to online learning was nearly seamless

Although the Connecticut State College and University system is poised to lose millions of dollars due to refunds for room and board fees paid by students who are now off campus, no staff or faculty will be laid off or furloughed, CSCU President Mark Ojakian said Thursday.

Refunds for meals and housing throughout the system will average about $3,200 per student, resulting in a loss of about $25 million for the state universities and about $30 million for the community colleges, CSCU Chief Financial Officer Benjamin Barnes said during a meeting of the Board of Regents for Higher Education.

There will be no tuition refunds because classes are continuing online, but there will be some refunds for individual courses that have been canceled, he said.

Barnes noted that the $2 trillion federal relief package includes funding for higher education, but half of the education grants must be used for emergency finances for students, he said.

Ojakian said he doesn’t anticipate layoffs or furloughs this semester or after, noting that people were forced to leave campuses because of the novel coronavirus.

He added that employees also are protected by a provision in the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition, or SEBAC, agreement that prohibits laying off state employees until at least June 30, 2021.

While there are some employees whose work isn’t able to be done from home, an “overwhelming majority” of CSCU employees continue to be productive, Andrew Kripp, vice president of human resources, said.

The system is also going to pay student workers for the remainder of the semester, regardless of whether they were able to work, Ojakian said.

Barnes said he expects a report by next week on the total financial impact COVID-19 has had on the system.

“So far, I don’t think they’re huge numbers,” he said, but added that the costs to the system are expected to increase over the course of the pandemic.

Regarding education, the transition to online learning has been nearly seamless, Jane Gates, provost and senior vice president of academic and student affairs, said.

“The faculty and staff have been absolutely exemplary in meeting this challenge,” she said.

Likewise, students making the transition to online classes are “one of the most resilient groups of people that I have ever met,” Ojakian said.

One “silver lining” was that the health crisis hit Connecticut right before college students went on spring break, giving about eight or nine days to prepare for thousands of online courses, Joe Tolisano, chief information officer for CSCU, said.

He said that while “there is some internet congestion” due to students and employees throughout the state working remotely, internet connections for CSCU students and faculty have not been as disrupted as much as expected.

Considering standardized testing has been canceled because students are out of the classroom, Gates is recommending that high school grade point averages be used for math and English placement at community colleges.

Meanwhile, CSCU officials were invited back to the New England Commission of Higher Education this month to address the group’s questions about the Student First college merger proposal, but the meeting has been postponed until June as the commission meets virtually due to the virus, Ojakian said.

The CSCU system continues working to clear out dorms at all four state colleges in anticipation of needed overflow beds once hospitals become overwhelmed.

The space is intended to be used for medical workers and other professionals who may be in close contact with those carrying the virus and don’t want to go home out of fear of infecting family members.

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