CARES Act funding concerns, ‘phase-in plan’ to campus addressed in student town hall

The student remote town hall with USF President Steven Currall focused on how the university plans to transition students back to campus and fall semester plans. SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE/MICROSOFT TEAMS

USF President Steven Currall hosted his second virtual town hall using Microsoft Teams on Tuesday afternoon, following his staff and faculty Q&A on April 9. But this time, students asked the questions — and they piled up fast. 

USF students were curious to know how the university plans to bring back over 50,000 students and 16,000 faculty and staff members for the fall semester as well as how the remaining CARES Act funding will be allocated.

“Right now, we are actively working on a ‘phase in’ to campus operations,” said Dean of the College of Public Health and USF COVID-19 Task Force Chair Dr. Donna Petersen.

 “Our plans are being driven by information, evidence and all of the data that we can get on this virus. It is also being driven by guidance from our elected officials and also by our growing capacity to respond.”

In the staff Q&A, Dean of USF Health Dr. Charly Lockwood said that faculty and staff will be tested in groups for the COVID-19 antibody before returning to work on campus

One person questioned if the university plans on testing every student before reentering.  

“We have been working very closely with our associates over at USF Health to look at our capacity for testing on a large scale,” said Student Health Services (SHS) Director Dr. Joseph Puccio.

He also said that once students are on campus, the university will still be cautious. 

“What we are looking to do when students are back on campus is to be constantly evaluating, looking for people that may show symptoms, so that we are able to reach out to those students immediately, get them tested if they are symptomatic for COVID-19 and get them isolated,” Puccio said.

This brought another concern to light. The COVID-19 Task Force said it’s focused on reopening USF’s campuses while taking the health of students, faculty and staff into consideration as it continues to develop the “phase-in” plan.

“So when we talk about a ‘phase in’ and a ‘gradual return,’ we may have to adjust how our classroom spaces are utilized,” said Peterson. “So, for instance, we may have to limit the number of persons in any one given space at any one given time to make sure that you can be appropriately distanced from each other.

“That might mean that some of the material needs to be delivered remotely while some of it can be delivered in a face-to-face environment.” 

The university is currently planning on using a “blended delivery” of instruction as a way of trying to coordinate the ratios of people to space in classrooms and lecture halls. 

“We’ve been working with our college deans to prepare for a ‘blended delivery platform’ in the fall semester that will likely include low-residency face-to-face instruction, with much fewer students in the classroom that we have grown accustomed to in past years,” said Provost Ralph Wilcox. “We’ll likely include a balance of quality online delivery and a blend of any number of other delivery platforms or formats.”

For many USF students, the logistics of the fall semester plan isn’t at the forefront of their thoughts — their financial stability is.

USF’s United Support Fund and Congress’ CARES Act were created to help students dealing with unprecedented financial problems, such as furloughs or layoffs. 

There were more than 1,400 applicants to the United Support Fund, which raised more than $297,000. However, only 324 of the applicants have been given funds so far, according to Billie Jo Hamilton, the associate vice president of enrollment planning and management at USF.

“We [the Office of Financial Aid] hear you loud and clear about the financial impact that COVID-19 has had on you and your families,” said Hamilton.

USF distributed the first wave of CARES Act funding on April 26 to students based on if they previously filed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. 

“On Sunday, USF automatically distributed about $6 million to students with unmet financial need based on their FAFSA applications,” said Hamilton. “These students will have $1,000 deposited into their bank accounts today or tomorrow.”

Those who were not granted automatic CARES Act funding were given the option to apply for the grant on the Office of Financial Aid’s website, if they are eligible.

The eligibility criteria for the CARES Act application include current degree-seeking students enrolled at least half time in spring 2020 — who are eligible to apply for federal Title IV financial aid  — and those who have exhausted all their funding options and have been impacted by COVID-19.

The federal government requires that USF distribute half of the $34,839,748 in CARES Act funding to students. This raised some concerns as to where the other $17,419,874 is going.  

“Will there be transparency about where the $17.4 million (out of the over $30 million that USF was awarded) will be awarded to students?” an anonymous person said in the chat box.

University spokesperson Adam Freeman, the moderator of the town hall forum, directed this question to Senior Vice President for Business and Financial Strategy David Lechner.

“That’s a doggone good question,” said Lechner. “We are still waiting for the federal government to give us a few more guidelines about how that money is to be used.”

Federal and state funding sources are where the university is receiving most of its financial aid, according to Hamilton, including the aid that the university is providing for students.

That leaves international and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students that are in financial need at a standstill, as they are not legally allowed to receive financial aid through the CARES Act.

Freeman, who was able to see all questions that were submitted to the livestream, noted that they were receiving “a number of questions” regarding how these students would be supported, and directed Hamilton to answer.

“Rest assured we are looking at other opportunities that may be coming to us in the near future to help international students who are experiencing the same challenges as the students who qualify for the CARES Act funding,” said Hamilton.

Vice President of the Office of Student Success Paul Dosal also added that university administration is looking into what they can do for its international students.

“We are looking at all available institutional resources but we’re also looking at fundraising opportunities in the community, to our friends,” said Dosal. “We know international students as well as DACA students, for example, didn’t qualify for these [CARES Act] funds but they can be eligible for other funds.”

Given that most answers to the questions about the transition back to campus and CARES Act funding are still up in the air, USF administration and leadership assured that guidance will be given soon. 

“COVID-19 is quite a formidable foe,” said Peterson. “But as we learn more about it every day, we are beginning to see a path forward.”