Washington Business Journal: Online classes will not replace in-person education, Marymount University president says

When Marymount University launched a coronavirus task force in January, which looked into the possible effects of a pandemic on its Arlington campuses, it was more of an “academic exercise” for University President Irma Becerra.
Of course, that quickly changed in March as Covid-19 began changing the educational landscape across the country. Marymount told its students not to come back to campus after spring break and shifted its roughly 700 courses online for the rest of the semester and into the summer.
There are a number of schools that are going entirely online or have walked back their in-person classes in the face of the pandemic, but Marymount is not one of them. That’s not what the students wanted, Becerra told the Washington Business Journal. A university-conducted survey found that the majority of students said they felt like they didn’t learn as well remotely as they did in person.
“‘We just don’t like it,’” Becerra said, quoting a student’s response. “It was really an ‘ah-ha’ moment for me, because for years people have been predicting that the great American university, as we know it, will be replaced by online learning. But the students prefer to be embedded with professors and among other students.”
In May, Marymount’s Covid task force morphed into a reopening group and met virtually daily for months.
As for what the first two weeks have looked like: Only 24.3% of fall 2020 classes are online only. The rest are working on a remote and in-person hybrid model, which keeps classrooms only partially full.
The university spent roughly $2 million to prepare for this moment — like purchasing hundreds of plexiglass plates, increasing the frequency of cleaning and acquiring a rapid Covid-19 testing machine. More than $300,000 was for software for remote learning or cameras and microphones for the classrooms.
Marymount did get just over $2 million from the CARES Act, but half was dedicated to emergency financial aid grants to students. The other half Marymount used to refund students for the room and board they did not get to use in the spring, Becerra said.
Some of its expenses will be offset by a $50 increase per semester to the student fee, but that will still fall short of covering the costs, Becerra said. The university didn’t lay off any of its roughly 500 faculty and administrators, she said, but there were roughly a dozen voluntary furloughs and retirements before the semester started.
Filling revenue gaps and meeting expenses has required changes: Marymount used it as an opportunity for an academic realignment, going from four schools and 26 departments to three schools and 10 interdisciplinary departments — it wasn’t immediately clear how much money that move saved. And the school temporarily halted contributions to its employees’ 401K plans.
The university was also bracing for a nearly $10 million revenue decline for fall 2020, coinciding with a 5% drop in enrollment, Becerra said. Official numbers won’t be available until October, but it appears the worst-case scenario has not come to pass.
“I’m happy to report that it doesn’t look that bad,” Becerra said. “I don’t want to jinx myself, but the signs indicate that we are going to fare better than expected.”
Becerra’s “steadfast leadership” in uncertain times, among other “significant accomplishments during her tenure,” led Marymount’s board of trustees in July to unanimously extend her contract for another five years — a year earlier than the decision needed to be made, the school announced Thursday.
As of early September there were 380 students living on Marymount’s campus, down 13% from the year before, partly because the university purposefully pared the available rooms from 550 to roughly 440. Double rooms have become singles, and roughly 5% of the school’s living quarters have been converted to isolation rooms for those who contract Covid-19.
Those rooms have already been in use. One person tested positive on campus and 21 people, mostly students, were put in isolation, the school said. Subsequent tests found they were not positive.
“So far so good,” Becerra said. “Our students are very mature and they very much want to be here. And they know what they need to do to stay safe.”

Read the original article on the Washington Business Journal’s website.