Mason holds town hall on reopening, launches website
BY LAURA SCUDDER, CO-EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
In a town hall held on Wednesday, June 24, Interim President Anne Holton and other university administrators answered questions from the Mason community and discussed Mason’s reopening plan for the fall semester in midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We need to focus on how we can collaborate together and thrive together,” Holton said.
The university’s website dedicated to reopening is also now running and focuses on the logistics of reopening, such as cleaning and travel procedures.
Mason will hold a mix of in-person and online classes, and will be ready to pivot to a fully online semester “if safety conditions so dictate,” according to Holton. Classes will start on time on Aug. 24.
“We’re in the process of figuring this very complex jigsaw puzzle out,” Interim Provost Mark Ginsberg said. “We know that students need options.”
He explained that the “whole concept is that there will be freedom of choice” when students are creating their schedules for the fall semester. He also acknowledged that every course might not be available in-person or online, and that there will be limitations to labs and studio sessions — and that international students face a unique situation when registering for courses.
According to Ginsberg, a final schedule with the official slate of classes will be available by Friday, July 17, according to Ginsberg. He said that they are going to try to not disrupt classes that students have already registered for.
A pass/fail grading system, which Mason implemented as an option this past semester, will be considered for the fall. No final decision has been made, and Holton said the choice will lie with the faculty senate.
The university is also looking at different approaches to the end of the fall semester. Ginsberg said that a potential option is to end all in-person instruction by Thanksgiving and then pivot to online instruction for the end of semester and finals.
University Life President Rose Pascarell addressed questions about housing during the town hall. According to Pascarell, move-in for on-campus students will begin Aug. 15 and occur over a week-long period. Like the move-out that occurred this spring semester, students will have the opportunity to sign up for a specific time slot to move in and find information on that process.
Assistant Dean and Chief Housing Officer Chris Holland gave some insight into the decision-making process that Housing and Residence Life (HRL) followed.
“The University created a task force designed to consider multiple scenarios, based on considerations around the fall to mitigate risk of infection, prevent the spread, and possible outbreak,” Holland wrote in an email to Fourth Estate. “To do this many, many groups were consulted from the CDC, Virginia Department of Health [VDH], and many others.”
He continued, “In Housing, like other departments, we had to consider various scenarios to promote good physical distancing while taking into consideration cleaning guidelines, roommates, sharing of bathrooms, etc.”
For students who went through the housing selection process and paid the housing deposit before the deadline, housing is guaranteed, according to Pascarell. She explained that 1,500 beds will remain open, however, meaning that HRL is operating at about 75 percent occupancy.
Less space means that traditional freshmen dorm rooms — ones with shared rooms and open bathrooms — will not be open. These scaled back operations have affected students employed by HRL.
“We hired over 200 student staff for the fall but due to having to create new scenarios for housing, we determined that only the CA [Community Assistant] position needed to come back to campus based on the role being more of a physical presence,” Holland wrote. “With this, the RA [Resident Assistant] position will still be there but it will be in a virtual presence to interact and engage with the residents. All student staff will be compensated (CAs will get their room covered whereas the RA will receive a larger than normal stipend to work in the virtual space).”
According to Pascarell, there may be a separate process in the spring for those not on campus in the fall but who want to live on campus in the spring.
“We will know more as we learn more about COVID and how its impact is affecting us/society at that time,” Holland wrote.
Julie Zobel, assistant vice president for Safety, Emergency and Enterprise Risk Management (ERM), explained that students will be required to wear masks. Zobel said this is especially crucial when social distancing is not possible, in places such as hallways. Holton said that they are expecting everyone to cooperate with masks and other safety procedures.
Zobel also explained that ERM is assessing the need for doors with hands-free opening.
For students who are not able to wear a face covering, working groups are looking at alternatives to aid these students, according to Lisa Park, executive director of Student Health Services (SHS). Students who may need these alternatives are encouraged to contact the Office of Disability Services.
Park also explained that SHS, which is available to all enrolled students, has the ability to test for COVID-19.
“We would evaluate and help manage someone who is sick,” Park said. SHS will be open to students to help with various needs, not just those related to coronavirus concerns.
In line with guidelines from the VDH and CDC, testing will not happen for asymptomatic students, with the exception of specific populations, like those who may have been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.
“We did have a modest tuition increase,” Holton said.
The increase of $450 for the academic year is smaller than originally planned, according to Holton. She said that additional scholarships from the Office of Financial Aid and the CARES Act could help potentially offset this cost for students.
With this, Holton said that Mason’s tuition remains low compared to other universities.
Vice President for Enrollment Management David Burge and Vice President for Advancement and Alumni Relations Trishana Bowden cited different resources for financial assistance should students need help, particularly the student emergency assistance fund. Bowden explained that this fund would especially help undocumented students, as they are unable to receive money from the CARES Act.
Additionally, town hall panelists discussed how fall operations may affect faculty. No decisions have been made on layoffs or furloughs, Senior Vice President for Administration and Finance Carol Kissal said.
If something of that nature were to occur, Holton said that the university needs to know expense and revenue projections — and would provide plenty of notice for faculty and staff.
Holton said that administrators are not taking lower salaries at the moment, but acknowledged that there may be a role that does so at some point. Kissal said that administrators taking a pay cut is “not off the table because we have to put everything on the table.”
Aside from employment for faculty and staff, opportunities will still be available for students.
“There will be jobs available for students with on-campus employers,” Pascarell said. She explained that some will require students’ physical presence, while some will be remote, and students can check opportunities on Handshake.
Events that occur in the spring like Greek Week and Mason Day will happen in some capacity, Pascarell said. How they happen will depend on the current public health measures.
As for now, Mason cannot commit to an in-person ceremony for spring semester graduates.