I’m really thankful to be able to welcome everyone into this virtual Town Hall. Today, this moment represents a significant step in continuing our mission at Fort Valley State University. Even in this virtual space, we are always stronger together.
Before we get to the heart of why we are gathered today, I want to take a moment to give a heartfelt thanks for your outstanding effort over the past several months in moving FVSU to a completely online institution and for the ongoing support to our continuing and prospective students. Our resiliency at Fort Valley State has been nothing short of amazing.
When we were first impacted by the coronavirus pandemic in March, we had the colossal task of transitioning more than 400 courses online within two weeks. After an entire career of teaching in physical spaces, we had individuals who stepped up to embrace a new reality virtually overnight.
During that major shift, we had some dynamic and passionate Faculty and Staff who stepped up and helped out wherever they were needed to support this transition. They trained others and made this shift happen so that our students could continue on their educational journey.
People such as our 13 faculty mentors (Dr. Jerry Brenner, Dr. Kimberly Nelson, Dr. Oreta Samples, Dr. Clarence Riley, Dr. Archie Williams, Dr. Robin Bright, Dr. Roddrick Chatmon, Dr. Ronald O. Craig, Dr. Jerry Haywood, Dr. Samuel Cartwright, Dr. Bridget Moss, Dr. Tamara Payne, and Dr. Washella T. Simmons), who did an extraordinary job of ensuring that all of our faculty were able to move their classes into this new online environment. Additionally, our amazing online learning staff led by Dr. Darryl Hancock and his team. It is because of your passion and eagerness to assist others that our students and the entire FVSU Family have benefitted. I would be remiss if we didn’t say, “thank you.”
I also want to send a special thanks to our amazing facilities staff and public safety department, who were here ensuring the campus remained immaculate and safe. I have been on campus almost every day, and I can assure you the campus has never looked better.
Now, let me get to why we are here this morning. Today, I will cover two topics. The first area is our Campus Reopening plan, then a brief budget update for FY2020 & FY2021.”
During this presentation, you will have an opportunity to ask questions. Panelists joining me for today’s Town Hall, are the senior leadership team, the Chief Human Resource Officer, General Counsel, and our Emergency Management Coordinator.
In April, the University System Office charged all 26 institutions with developing a plan to reopen our campuses this fall for face to face instruction with three contingency plans.
The initial plan was for each institution to develop a staggered work plan for employees to return to campus prior to the start of the fall semester.
In order to accomplish this monumental undertaking, utilizing outlined principles from USG, I charged eight workgroups and nearly 90 faculty, staff, and other members with outside expertise to develop plans that would then be sent to USG for approval. The first plan was the Workplace and Health Safety workgroup which was to develop a staggered return to work plan that was due to USG May 15, followed by the remaining reports on May 26.
We were very fortunate to have someone from DPH who joined our Workplace and Health Safety workgroup and provided outstanding support. This workgroup provided guidance and conditions for a campus return and outlined several protocols and resources needed to ensure a safe return to work by mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
We plan to use a staggered process that rolls out our reopening in stages, and allow us to proceed in ways that are organized to ensure everyone’s safety in the workplace. Although we will continue leveraging our telecommuting and social distancing strategies, our goal is to come back to FVSU and return to a face-to-face campus. However, we have developed three contingency plans that will serve as a guide on how we will operate.
One of those contingencies is that we will begin the return to FVSU this summer with our employees and with social distancing measures designed to protect our health and safety. That means relying on personal protection equipment, hand sanitizing, and adhering to protocols and procedures that follow the recommendations of the CDC and the University System of Georgia’s requirements.
Because this pandemic has proven that things can change quickly, we have two additional scenarios that we have drafted plans for. One contingency is that we will resume a face-to-face open campus, but will shift back to working remotely in the event public health officials determine that COVID-19 requires additional social distancing or shelter in place measures. The other contingency plan covers how we will move forward if, for whatever reason, the CDC says that we must remain online.
We know that with all the plans, many will be wondering what the implementation will look like, especially if we reopen the campus. But, what is paramount is that while we are putting strong plans into place and taking protective measures, we also need everyone to do their part in creating a new, safer re-entry to campus.
People may ask, how are things going to stay sanitized? Our custodians will come and clean things diligently, but we will need to be proactive by partnering and working together to ensure that we keep our campus safe. Perhaps we will have wipes and other necessary things so our students can wipe down their desks. We have to make sure we have reasonable expectations, and that we all play a role in collectively supporting each other.
As you will hear more in the coming days, our plan calls for social distancing, requiring mask to be worn in closed environments (buildings, classrooms, and common spaces), constant cleaning and sanitizing, flexible work scheduling, some telecommuting, temperature checks (campus entry and residence halls), office and classroom reconfigurations for adequate social distancing, limited class sizes; when possible keeping most meetings and events in a virtual environment, installing Plexiglas in strategic areas, working with high-risk employees and students, requiring PPE in some areas, constant communication, and much more.
USG is also working closely with DPH on protocols for testing, contact tracing, isolating and self-quarantine measures. While some institutions will have the capacity to test on campus, it is likely we will be one of the many campuses that will partner directly with DPH on testing and contact tracing. However, these plans are ongoing and will be in place very soon.
Our staggered work plan is a plan that brings employees back to campus in three phases. The first phase began earlier with the facilities operations staff and those staff members who were out on non-closure leave.
While I know I am not able to cover all of the preventative measures and answer all of your questions regarding the campus reopening in the time allotted, hopefully, this gives you an overview of our next steps. We will be communicating regularly about these changes and other safety measures and protocols. Please keep in mind, this is very fluid and subject to change often, as we get closer to the semester and as the CDC and our state guidelines change due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Finally, in an effort to try to get ahead of the flu season, we have made the decision to move the fall semester up one week and end classes prior to Thanksgiving. As you can see, this does require us to eliminate breaks including Labor Day and Fall Break.
The other very important matter I want to discuss today is FVSU’s fiscal outlook. I want to be very transparent to what I know is of real concern to many of you. As you all know, this Pandemic has had a significant impact on our state, the country and the world. State budget collections continue to decline and hit a low of nearly 36% ($1 billion shortfall) in April alone. Overall, state revenues have decreased by nearly $680 million compared to last year. Additionally, the unemployment rate was nearly 12% for the month of April or 581,820 individuals unemployed, which according to the Georgia Department of Labor is the highest unemployment on record.
This significant downturn is what has caused the request for budget reduction plans from all state agencies. First, for the current budget (FY2020) since the disruption in March, we have been reducing our expenses significantly. Due to moving online, we refunded more than $2.6 million in fees. However, we are fortunate, because of the federal CARES Act funding and your effort to help control expenses, we are eliminating the auxiliary deficits and will be able to balance the budget.
In terms of the FY2021 budget, the state has requested all state agencies to come up with a 14% budget reduction plan. If reductions occur at this level, it would represent a $350 million funding shortfall for USG and a $3.4 million decrease to our FVSU base budget. I must stress that at this time, this is ONLY a plan and nothing about our financial future will likely be known until the General Assembly returns in mid-June and approve the FY2021 budget.
When we learned of the request for plans—with less than a week to submit, I charged a Budget Task Force co-chaired by VP Martin and Provost Stuart, to develop a 14% reduction plan to meet the Office of Planning and Budget request. The Budget Task Force developed guiding principles that directed their considerations, which were essential to ensuring academic and student success. The BTF considered the academic impact, student success, accreditation, enrollment, compliance, health & safety, and stabilizing the existing workforce. However, the BTF was instructed that across the board cuts were prohibited.
The results of their deliberations are, eliminate some vacancies, reducing operating and travel budgets, furloughs, some restructuring, and a limited number of reductions in force. Yes, furloughs are in the plan that we were charged to come up with, but that only accounts for part of the requested $3.4 million in the budget reduction or approximately $360,000, and it excludes those making salaries below $33,475. Finally, our plan calls for leveraging the funds received from the federal CARES Act-HBCU to mitigate further reductions. However, this is only a one-time solution due to the type of funding and could present challenges in FY2022 if enrollment is down.
I know these figures and what we may be facing may sound dismal, but there is good news for FVSU. First-time freshmen applications are up 16 percent from where they were last year, admitted students are up by 112%, and early registration for new freshmen are up more than 139% over this same time last year. Housing applications are up 41% from this same time the previous year. So, while our overall fall registration for returning students is down by 6.9%, we are hopeful that we can continue to close the gap.
We didn’t create this scenario that we now find ourselves in financially, but I am confident that we can overcome this by working together. Working together, we will do what is necessary to minimize the impact on our students and do all we can to protect our best assets, which are our students and employees.
As we face these challenges, we certainly want to thank Congress for what they have done to assist the universities through these financial challenges. FVSU received more than $7 million in CARES ACT funding through their support. Most of it was used to plug the gaping holes in our budget that resulted from FVSU having to return refunds to our students and other expenses incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But, we are also advocating through multiple groups for even more federal funding from Congress in its next bill, hopefully before they recess in June.
So, I want to be sure that you have a clear picture of where our University stands. I want you to know what measures are being taken on our behalf. But, I also want you to know that we will get through this and we will come out together on the other side. In my heart, I have to believe that America is resilient, too. Our scientists and great thinkers are working hard to find a cure for COVID-19. But, even with all of the measures we are doing, we will continue to have outbreaks. We have had them and we will have them in the future. But, if everyone continues to play their unique and vital part, wear their masks, practice social distancing and being proactive, we will do our part to significantly reduce the spread of this virus and keep our campus community safe.
Remember that things are still very fluid not just in the United States, but in the world. Things are likely to change in another week or even in another day from now. Because all of these challenges are fluid, we are working to address them as best we can under the circumstances. However, we need you standing shoulder-to-shoulder with us. We know we don’t have all the answers. So, we invite you to share your creativity and recommendations so we can benefit from the collective wisdom of the entire FVSU family. If you would like to share an idea on supporting FVSU as we maneuver through our new normal, please email your questions and suggestions to email@example.com and we will have the opportunity to hear directly from you. We will continue to update you as things develop.
Again, I applaud all of you for your resilience in pressing forward with our University through these hills and valleys. Thank you for helping us to overcome our collective obstacles and for helping our students to navigate through what has undoubtedly been uncertainty about the future. I hope all of you will always look back on this period not just as one of adversity, but as one of amazing growth, strength, empowerment, and our ultimate success story. Thank you.
I look forward to seeing all of you in the coming weeks.
For Fort Valley State University COVID-19 updates, visit https://www.fvsu.edu/coronavirus-updates/