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WUNC's education coverage is led by reporters Dave Dewitt and Reema Khrais. Dewitt has been with the station since 2003. Khrais is focused on Education Policy Reporting. Browse recent stories here.

Higher Education Round-up: Back-to-School COVID Testing, Vaccine Plans, Budget Woes

Two people move a tub of belongings from the back of a pick-up truck.
Courtesy of Western Carolina University

Universities are coming back into session for the spring semester, just as a holiday spike in COVID-19 cases is beginning to ease. 

As the new semester begins, WUNC education reporter Liz Schlemmer has been talking to administrators around the state to learn more. Here, WUNC's Dave DeWitt asks Schlemmer some important questions regarding re-opening plans amid the pandemic, testing protocols, vaccines and budgets.

Universities in the state had mixed results in executing re-opening plans in the fall. What did they learn and what's new for this semester?

Universities want to come back stronger this spring, and they're up against greater community spread statewide than there was in the fall, so they created stronger protocols.

For one, we've seen delayed starts to the semester. Most colleges took long winter breaks this year, and some colleges announced further delays to in-person classes when COVID-19 cases remained high after the holidays.

We've seen beefed up entrance policies for students returning to campus from winter break. Many universities are requiring back-to-campus COVID testing for at least some subset of students, whether that's students living on campus, or those who have at least one in-person class.

Here's Michelle Ball from Elizabeth City State University:

"We just started moving in. And our process has been we are mandating that students either arrive to campus with a negative test that they have taken within 72 hours of their moving date, or if they do not have a negative test [submitted in advance], we are doing testing on site."

Many colleges are bumping up surveillance testing of asymptomatic students. That's a significant increase in testing from last semester, when the focus was on testing people with symptoms or those who sought out a test.

Duke University did wide-scale surveillance testing last semester, and their infection rates looked better than average.

University-based surveillance testing protocols vary across the UNC System. Give us a sense of what different schools are doing.

Schools have varying capacity for testing, and they also had varying levels of success last semester that might be playing into their risk tolerance this spring.

UNC-Chapel Hill is requiring twice weekly testing for undergraduate students living on campus or taking at least one in-person class. NC State is requiring weekly testing for students living on campus including in the Greek Village. ECU and UNC-Greensboro are doing weekly testing of at least 25% of students living in dorms. Elizabeth City State University, a much smaller institution with a track record for fewer COVID-19 cases last fall, plans to offer monthly asymptomatic testing drives.

Looking to the future, what do we know about universities' role in helping facilitate vaccinations for their campus community?

The UNC System is encouraging universities to become vaccination sites and has developed a formal process for schools to become a site.

I wouldn't be surprised if many, if not all, UNC schools eventually open vaccination sites. The question is, how soon?

UNC-Greensboro is in early talks with local health officials to possibly become a vaccination hub for the local education sector, maybe including K-12 employees and other colleges in Guilford County.

Through an initiative with the NC Policy Collaboratory, the UNC System HBCUs and UNC-Pembroke have received freezers to store vaccines for local distributors.

Who will be prioritized for vaccination?

The higher education sector pushed the state health department to put college instructors teaching in person in the same vaccination group as K-12 teachers.

The focus is on putting public-facing staff first: bus drivers, housekeepers, dining staff and in-person instructors, including TAs.

Universities are preparing for some seismic changes in budgets. What do we know on that front at this point?

I have to say the same thing I've been saying for months, which is that colleges are still tallying the costs of the pandemic.

The good news is that more federal aid is on its way soon from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund. The UNC System institutions will receive a total of $288 million in this second round of aid, and about a third of those funds will go to direct student aid.

The federal aid comes with strict guidance from the US Department of Education, as explained by UNC System President Peter Hans:

"I had a painful lesson in this, both at the community colleges and since joining the UNC System. This guidance is not broad, it is very detailed, very specific and is subject to change on multiple occasions."

This new pot of money is more than the previous CARES Act funding, and it's supposedly more flexible, but no one I talked to knows yet exactly what the restricions will be on spending.

One lingering question is how far will this aid go in covering all the costs of the pandemic?

And that question points to the potential for budget cuts. What do we know about universities' budget planning?

Most universities have had to make some temporary cuts, especially to athletics and housing and dining that took direct hits to revenue this year. There's also been a hiring freeze across the UNC System.

The only place we've seen talk so far about more substantial budget cuts is UNC-Chapel Hill. Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz says this stems from longer term issues there:

"When I became chancellor, I saw that it had been nearly a decade since we had a balanced budget at the university, and that we needed to fix it."

He's directing deans and heads of departments to plan to reduce their salary pool by 1.5 percent and their operating expenses by 7.5 percent for the next two fiscal years to balance their budget

What's happening at Chapel Hill doesn't necessarily spell trouble for anyone else.

Higher education researcher Kevin McClure at UNC-Wilmington said when you're considering how a college might fare financially during the pandemic, you need to consider:

  • How the state and the institution were doing financially before the pandemic
  • State tax revenue during the pandemic
  • Enrollment gains or losses

There's a lot of good news in those areas for many North Carolina schools. The state was in good economic shape before the pandemic, and North Carolina's tax revenue didn't fall as far as expected in 2020. Enrollment was strong in the UNC System, reaching record highs at some schools.
Once we move past thinking about all the pandemic related expenses, the next big hurdle for public universities is whether they might lose funding next year in the state budget due to losses in tax revenue.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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