July 20, 2020

This fall will be like no other for New Mexico’s smaller universities

With classes just a few weeks away, the thousands of students heading to New Mexico’s smaller universities will enter a fall semester like no other.

Students will have options – to study remotely from home or inside their dormitory room or, for some, classes in a classroom. Many will be able to do both, mixing both remote learning with some brick-and-mortar instruction.

If the students are in a classroom, they will have to wear masks, as will their instructors. The desks will be spaced six feet apart. At Eastern New Mexico University, the students will have assigned seats, said Jeff Long, vice president for student affairs. Long also said that for students who can’t wear a mask for health reasons, the school will make face shields available.

One approach at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology will be to have some students in the classroom while another group of students participate online and then the student groups will switch. That will reduce the number of people in one room.

“You can’t train an engineer to build bridges without being face-to-face,” said Peter Mozley, associate vice president for academic affairs at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology (New Mexico Tech).

Long mentioned science labs and theater instruction as “impossible to do online.” The same is true for certain types of fine arts training – like art studio sessions.

“How do you do that online?” asked New Mexico Highlands University President Sam Minner.

What university life means

All of the state’s smaller public universities – Las Vegas-based New Mexico Highlands University, New Mexico Tech in Socorro, ENMU in Portales and Silver City’s Western New Mexico University – have prepared for students to come back even though the state is seeing an uptick in cases of COVID-19 and some of the highest numbers of cases in the last two weeks.

“For the most part, surprisingly, they want to come back,” Isaac Brundage, vice president of Student Affairs & Enrollment Management at WNMU, said.

Brundage said WNMU’s enrollment has held steady, despite the pandemic, and that it remains “flat.” Long said ENMU’s undergraduate enrollment is “down a little.” Douglas Wells, New Mexico Tech vice president for academic affairs, said Tech’s enrollment increased slightly this fall.

Even if enrollment is mostly stable, the universities have all incurred greater expenses. New Mexico Tech installed HEPA filters in the classrooms, has paid janitorial staff overtime to increase campus cleaning, purchased personal protective equipment (PPE) for students and staff and hired assistance for additional classroom technology to meet the needs of teaching young people during the pandemic, Mozley said.

In addition, dormitory occupancy is down in order to convert the rooms into single occupancies in all the smaller universities. Even the bathrooms in the dormitories had to be altered to create space between sinks, Peter Phaiah, New Mexico Tech interim vice president for Student Life, said.

WNMU received $1,551,426 under the federal CARES Act, Kelley Riddle, WNMU vice president for Business Affairs, said through an email. WNMU students received half of that money, the other half will cover increased expenses and loss in revenue related to the pandemic, she said.

But despite that, WNMU had to furlough 56 employees during the summer months due to the financial toll of the pandemic, Riddle said.

“Program prioritization has also begun in anticipation of likely budget cuts in the coming fiscal years,” she said.

The Board of Regents passed a tuition increase in March. The board had already been discussing it before the pandemic began and it was unrelated the public health emergency.

But, the board may have to consider another one. WNMU President Joseph Shepard projected at that board meeting that the school would experience a sharp decrease in the budget because of the pandemic.

“Nobody wants to raise tuition. I get that,” Shepard said at the meeting. “When you’re dealing with a 20 percent decrease in your budget, typically that’s what it means.”

For towns like Silver City, Portales, Las Vegas and Socorro, even a small university has a big impact on the local economy.

William Taylor, Las Vegas city manager, called Highlands University “one of the bedrock institutions for the community.”

“It’s the second largest employer,” Taylor said. “We’re hoping our bedrock institutions like Highlands’ employees will still be here and make a solid base of spending for the community.”

Both Taylor and Dr. Ravi Bhasker, a medical doctor and the mayor of Socorro, spoke of the difficulties their towns face now to provide services and balance the budget during the pandemic. Bhasker said New Mexico Tech supplies 15 to 20 percent of Socorros’ gross revenue. Bhasker said 60 to 70 percent of New Mexico Tech’s faculty and staff live in Socorro.

Bhasker worries about what might happen to janitorial staff if the college should be forced to go entirely online due to the pandemic during the fall semester.

“What do you need janitors for if you don’t need classrooms?” Bhasker asked.

What happens when students arrive on campus?

Although the universities have similar policies about arrival, the guidance varies from school to school when it comes to protecting students from COVID-19.

For students traveling in from out-of-state to ENMU, life on campus will start early. ENMU is asking its out-of-state students to arrive two weeks prior to the semester so they can self-quarantine before classes begin. The university will bring meals to the students and both the room and board for that period of time will be free, Long said.

New Mexico Tech is also asking its out-of-state students to arrive two weeks early to self-quarantine. The school is using CARES Act money to provide grants for students to pay for their additional room and board, Phaiah said.

Highlands University’s method is to have self-quarantining students participating in brick-and-mortar instruction through online technology or to make up the missed classes later and, possibly, get tutoring help, Minner said.

Some universities are asking students to get tested before they arrive and some aren’t. ENMU is going to test its student athletes and student government leaders and randomly test students living in the dormitories and large student organizations during the semester, Long said. WNMU and Tech are asking their out-of-state students to test before coming. WNMU is also asking its in-state students to test before arrival.

“I’ve been doing higher ed for a long time and I often say I’ve not seen anything new, but I have this year,” Minner said.

Socializing

All of the university officials said they would be educating students on the dangers of socializing and that students will have to take personal responsibility. Minner said Highlands University will send out text message alerts to remind students about the risk.

“If we observe behavior that is not consistent with best health practices, we’ll have a conversation with those students about the risk to themselves and the welfare of others,” Minner said.

Mozley said New Mexico Tech conducted a student survey last spring and 62 percent surveyed wanted to have in-person instruction this fall. He said the university will be reminding students that they need to follow all the social distancing rules because “that will allow us to continue to offer face-to-face.”

Long said “it’s a concern.” He said ENMU is “communicating with the fraternities and sororities.”

“But for students who live on their own, off campus, we can’t control their behavior,” he said.

The state’s Department of Higher Education is concerned, too.  Almost half of the state’s newly identified cases in the past two weeks have come from people in their 20s and 30s, according to the Department of Higher Education.

“Young adults, including students at our colleges and universities, can no longer operate under the illusion that they are immune to COVID-19 or the notion that the virus doesn’t present the same symptoms and issues for them as it does for older adults and seniors,” the Department of Higher education said through a statement to NM Political Report.

Fall football and other college athletics are still up in the air as school officials wait for those decisions to be made by the individual conferences the schools belong to. Highlands University canceled its annual fall music concert that has, in the past, drawn big name performers like Josh Turner and Ice Cube. WNMU canceled its fall homecoming.

For more than 50 years WNMU has held the Great Race, an event where students push go carts around campus, each spring. Brundage said that has not been canceled.

“Hopefully, we’ll have a vaccine by then. That’s our signature event,” he said.

Correction: The Acting Vice President for Student Life at New Mexico Tech is Peter Phaiah, not Faia.