At West Virginia University, payment for fall charges was due Sept. 1.
Less than a week later, on Sept. 7, WVU announced that most classes would move online because of a rising number of coronavirus cases on campus and effects on the surrounding community.
Later that day, WVU said, “There will be no refunds at this time, as class instruction is being delivered, and residence halls and dining services will function as normal.”
Did the university wait to move on this obvious growing problem until cementing its financial position this fall?
No, said April Kaull, WVU’s executive director of communications.
“This has been our consistent position and while the timing was admittedly unfortunate in this case, we have been transparent throughout our planning that if we determined the local public health situation was deteriorating, the university would take swift and immediate action,” Kaull said. “That’s what we did.”
The university has emphasized that it intends to make the shift to online learning temporary, with plans to reassess on Sept. 23.
“This is not a glide path towards going online for the rest of the semester,” said Rob Alsop, the university’s vice president for strategic initiatives, during an online campus conversation last week. “It is our goal to get back to in-class instruction.”
Still, the narrow window between the final due date for payment and the university’s announcement that it would go virtual stirred up families who posted on the Mountaineer Parents Club page on Facebook.
“When will WVU refund at LEAST part of the students’ fees per credit hr now that they r receiving an online education instead of the IN PERSON education they’ve paid for?!” asked one mother.
A father from New Jersey objected to paying out-of-state tuition for virtual classes.
“My son has 2 classes that aren’t even a Zoom class,” he wrote. “There is No teacher instruction the work is just posted online and he is expected to figure it out. What are we paying for?”
Others were more understanding of WVU’s position.
“Your child is paying for a DEGREE from WVU regardless of how it is taught,” said one commenter. “And if you thought this year would go without hiccups you are very naïve.”
WVU took some measures entering this highly-unusual year to balance financial considerations with the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic.
The university’s actions have been appropriate considering the challenges, said Jaron Bragg, vice president of the student body.
“I feel like there’s no right way here. I feel like WVU did what they thought was best,” said Jaron Bragg, the student body vice president.
In July, President Gordon Gee announced that the return to campus would be phased, starting with freshmen and graduate students. Most upper-level undergraduate students are expected to return to campus at a later, undetermined date.
WVU also announced in late July that payment deadlines would be delayed to Sept. 1 so students would have more time to plan.
Also, students moving from in-person courses to receiving all courses in an online format were being charged $220 in student fees, which is $440 less than the standard fee amount. The university says it recognizes that these students are studying remotely while other students will be studying on campus.
“Yes, I can see where someone might think it’s fishy that classes had gone online temporarily for the next two weeks right after fees were due. But at some point you have to pay, and WVU had already pushed that back,” said Bragg, a junior from Shady Spring, Raleigh County.
Bragg, who lives in his fraternity house, knew he would be taking classes online anyway. “It’s a very, very different experience than, I guess, what your normal college student would be used to,” he said.
Starting the year with some students in classrooms was worth a try, he said, but matters grew worse when some students were accused of flouting the university’s coronavirus guidelines.
“That’s what ultimately led to Gee’s letter that took courses online,” Bragg said. “If those wouldn’t have happened we would still be going on that hybrid schedule.”
On Sept. 1, the same day final payments were due, photographs circulated on social media of young people in long lines for Morgantown bars. Few appeared to be keeping their distance or wearing masks.
Then, last Sunday, Sept. 6, the university announced 29 students would be suspended after their participation in off-campus parties where covid-19 precautions were not followed.
The next day, Labor Day, WVU announced it would temporarily shift most undergraduate courses online.
As all that happened, the number of positive tests among students rose sharply.
That’s in part a reflection of who was being tested. At first, covid tests were administered broadly to returning students, faculty and staff.
But more recently, the tests have been given to students exhibiting covid symptoms or believed to have been exposed to the virus.
By that standard, those tests are more likely to come back positive — and that has been the case.
In the days leading up to WVU’s decision to go virtual:
15.72 percent of students tested positive on Sept. 4;
12.7 percent on Sept. 5;
12.9 percent on Sept. 6;
and 17.02 percent on Sept. 7.
Those figures were accompanied by a rising number of isolations for students who were awaiting virus tests results and quarantines for students who were suspected to have come into contact with a virus carrier.
Meanwhile, a map depicting the spread of virus in West Virginia counties categorized Monongalia County — where WVU is located — as red. That meant local K-12 schools had to go online and extracurricular activities were shelved right as the new year was supposed to begin.
“We need to get the situation cooled down. We need to do it for our own health, our own safety. And we need to do it for our K-12 community,” Alsop said last week.
But some of the questions Alsop and other university leaders faced during last week’s virtual campus conversation focused on what’s fair financially while the university delivers instruction in a nontraditional way.
In one, Alsop was asked about students who were asked not to return to campus as a precaution after traveling on Labor Day Weekend. “Will there be some sort of pro-rated adjustment for housing and meals?”
No, Alsop said.
“We are not going to do some sort of proration for housing and meal plans. We are fully staffed with all of those options at this point. In addition, we really had indicated we really did not want students to travel during the course of the semester.
“We know there are some students who did that, and while it’s really not a punishment for leaving, we indicated we wanted folks to stay on campus to avoid spread. So if a student did go home and decided to stay home during this two-week period of time, that was their choice. We’re not considering proration or refunds at this point.”