Coming Back to a New Normal (and Leaving Behind the Old One)

States are beginning to reopen. Restaurants in some areas have moved to 25% or 50% capacity, some retail establishments that have been shuttered are starting to make steps towards a new shopping experience, and (in the major Orlando-area news) theme park shopping areas (like Disney Springs and Universal Citywalk) are starting to allow guests to shop and dine.

You might be curious – when are colleges and universities opening?

(Image courtesy of edsurge.com)

It might be a while.

What we do know: most colleges and universities are holding courses this summer in virtual mode (in fact, moneyman hasn’t heard of any college operating face-to-face classes this summer). And most colleges have yet to announce a phased reopening of their campuses (although many colleges have begun internal discussions all about reopening).

If the local K-12 school district isn’t opening in the Fall, it would be extremely unlikely that the campus would hold classes (keep in mind, faculty and staff have kids that need some place to go during the day). Even if face-to-face classes resume, it is likely that there will be an increased number of online courses, and that the in person classes will have announced contingency plans if (and when) a second wave of infections occur and a new quarantine needs to be implemented either locally or nationally.

So what does this mean for you (the student) about your plans for the Fall? If you are a continuing student and you are commuting to school from a local residence, not much will change. You may have all online courses, or you may have a limited lab course, but otherwise things will look much like they did at the end of the Spring term. If you live far way from campus, or you are a first-time student heading off to school in the Fall, it is time to think about your back-up plans. Are yo comfortable if all Fall classes are online and you are still at home? What if residence halls don’t open for the Fall? Will you stay near home or find an apartment near the university? Before you commit to the cost of a residence hall or dining plan, what protections has the institution put in to manage your costs and expenses if there is a need to close down again?

None of these considerations are pleasant to think about, but all are important. And colleges and universities will likely be announcing their Fall plans in the next few month as we all wait to see how the opening of states impacts the infection rates locally and nationally.

While we are talking about announcements, we need to mention the breaking news from the Department of Education on Friday night: the release of more guidance for college and university financial aid staff on parts of the CARES Act. You will remember that in a previous post, we considered the impact of the CARES Act, and discussed how there were many parts of the Act for which there was no guidance yet. We have some now, and it is pretty OK for students (it is a little confusing for Financial Aid Officers, but that is why moneyman is here for you!).

Some important parts of the guidance:

  1. Colleges and universities have been authorized to offer classes online or in virtual mode (distance education) through the Fall term of 2020. Normally this would have to be approved by an accreditor, but this requirement is waived.
  2. It may be hard for some students to get proof of high school completion (which can be an admissions requirement and a requirement for some students in verification). In the case the student cannot get this information, the financial aid office can accept a signed and dated statement from the student instead of formal documentation
  3. HEERF Funds through the CARES Act are not taxable income for students.
  4. A reminder of the option to offer Leaves of Absence to students, and how to treat financial aid when a student returns to a program after a Leave of Absence.
  5. For students who withdrew from all classes during the Spring term, the start of guidance on the treatment of Return to Title IV (waiving the requirement that the college return Federal funds to the government if the student withdrew before the 60% point of a semester). The most helpful part of the guidance for students is that the Department has said that for students whose classes changed from in-person to online, any withdrawal after the point at which the mode of instruction changed will count as related to COVID-19. This means that for students who had to withdraw, there will be no financial penalty.
  6. Guidance on SAP, and specifically how to treat courses from which a student withdrew during the emergency. Since Satisfactory Academic Progress is a requirement of financial aid eligibility, and specifically a student’s completion rate (number of credits earned divided by the number attempted), this guidance makes sure that students won’t be penalized for having to withdraw from courses this past Spring.
  7. TEACH Grant clarifications for teachers who move from full-time to part-time or are let go due to the pandemic so that their service counts when measured against the service requirements for this grant.

NASFAA has done a great job of evaluating the guidance and raising some additional questions (for those of us who work in financial aid). While we have some answers provided, there are still lots of questions left so that we can best meet the needs of students during this unusual time.

Speaking of unusual times, what are you doing now with your summer? What are you thoughts about the Fall? When do you think your school will reopen? How do you feel about the reopening? Moneyman is here so let’s start a dialogue!

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