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BOT discusses challenges set by COVID-19, questions fall housing occupancy

Housing and Residential Education has not released any official information on housing occupancy for the fall semester. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

The Board of Trustees (BOT) met on Tuesday morning through Microsoft Teams to discuss the university’s plans for the upcoming year as well as current challenges faced by different departments in light of COVID-19. 

The trustees evaluated the Legislative Budget Request (LBR) as well as measured the impact of COVID-19 on operations across all three campuses — Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota-Manatee.

However, when the topic of housing occupancy was questioned by the board, it was left in the dark.

BOT Chair Jordan Zimmerman asked Assistant Vice President of Housing and Residential Education Ana Hernandez and Vice President for Business and Financial Strategy David Lechner to provide the BOT with a report on housing occupancy for the fall semester.

After a long pause, Lechner responded to Zimmerman’s request, but with an unexpected answer.

“Trustee Zimmerman, we are in the process of filing the continuing disclosure … until we do that filing, it’s best that we not announce those occupancies at this point in time,” Lechner said. 

“I’m not trying to avoid the question, but I owe investors in the public forum concurrent revelation those numbers. I’d like to avoid that for the time being please, sir.”

Zimmerman did not pursue the line of questioning and moved on to the next item, drawing the attention away from Lechner’s answer.

The total occupancy for the fall semester has been speculated since August, especially after Vice Chair Stephanie Goforth revealed a drastic drop in the total on-campus housing capacity for the fall semester during a BOT meeting on Aug. 19.

“Our residency in St. Pete, maybe it’s 40 percent, not 90 percent. Tampa, I guess, we’re closer to 60 [percent],” said Goforth.

Despite the current situation, Currall said he believes “there could still be significant demand for a residential experience.”

“I think for a research university like the University of South Florida, we’re still going to see robust demand for a residential undergraduate experience in the future, even though we’re likely to see some perturbations a little bit over the next year or two because of COVID-19,” Currall said.

As of Sept. 8, Housing and Residential Education had not released any official information on housing occupancy for the fall semester or which residence hall is being used to isolate students who test positive or have been exposed to COVID-19.

USF has reported more than 250 COVID-19 cases since March. In total, 26 students, faculty and staff across all three campuses have tested positive for COVID-19 during the first week of September and are currently self-isolating in accordance with CDC guidelines.

“We expected to see a slight increase in cases as students returned to campus for the start of classes on Aug. 24, and since then we’ve received reports of about 50 cases across our three campuses that have tested positive,” Currall said.

“But it’s a relatively modest number given that we’ve got 51,000 students and about 16,000 employees.”

As a way to track the number of cases across campuses, USF started testing students, faculty and staff weekly and at random for COVID-19, whether they are exhibiting symptoms or not. About 300-400 people will be selected each week for random saliva testing.

In addition to collecting random saliva samples, the university will also be weekly collecting several environmental samples across campuses, including 50-100 samples in residence halls on the Tampa campus, 20 samples on the St. Pete and Sarasota-Manatee campuses each, and 100 samples at non-residential areas on campus.

Currall said about 40,000 students, faculty and staff indicated in the Return to Campus COVID-19 assessment their intentions to return to campus in the fall semester. For each day they plan on visiting campus, they have to fill out a daily symptom check to assess their symptoms. If the survey is not filled out, the university will send reminders until it’s completed.

When it comes to the financial impact caused by COVID-19, Currall said the university is preparing for future budget cuts across the university’s operations, directly impacting instruction, university and academic support services, research and student services.

The BOT approved on Aug. 19 a reduction plan to cut 8.5 percent in funding received from the state for the 2020-2021 fiscal year as a result of the financial constraints caused by COVID-19. Among the cuts, the university implemented a 12 percent cut in the Athletics budget, halted all faculty and staff travel and paused the hiring of new employees.

Amid the budget cuts, Currall said the university is making a $50 million LBR for the 2021-2022 fiscal year focused on  “student and faculty success as well as continuing to elevate USF’s research visibility.”

“This legislative budget request is strategically aligned with advancing USF into US News and World Report’s top 25 public research university rankings, while simultaneously strengthening our stature in support of membership eligibility and the Association of American Universities.”

The LBR will prioritize faculty recruitment and retention by investing $4 million in 25 associate professors, $5.8 million in 25 full-time professors, $8.8 million in 20 national academy members and world-class scholars, $6.8 million in 50 new full-time tenure-earning faculty, $5.8 million in 55 new full-time instructors, $2.8 million in new technical personnel and $8 million in faculty retention.

“Most of the resources in the proposed LBR are really about faculty excellence and that’s because we believe that faculty excellence is really the key to the student experience and ensuring our students have a great experience and are well-positioned for their career success.”

The request also includes investments of $2 million in undergraduate student recruitment and retention, $3.5 million in Ph.D. graduate students and assistant support and $2.5 million in research partnerships.

Despite the challenges set by COVID-19, USF admitted its highest-achieving freshman class with an average Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) score of 1,312 and an average high school GPA of 4.18. As of Sept. 8, USF’s total headcount enrollment was 50,830 across all three campuses.

While student enrollment is down 0.2 percent, with 97 fewer students than fall 2019, student credit hours are up 1.2 percent, according to Provost Ralph Wilcox.

As the fall semester moves forward, Wilcox said the university’s focus has shifted to planning for the 2021 spring and summer semesters, “even as the uncertainties continue to unfold.”

“We have set a number of assumptions that will guide that planning and those assumptions include continuing uncertainty and having to live with the existence of the virus into the new year,” Wilcox said.

“Now, if things change, then that will move for the good for the positive, but we felt that it would be wise and prudent to plan in the face of continuing uncertainty.”