By Lara Becker
After months of back-and-forth movement on decisions regarding the fall semester, a definitive announcement came on Aug. 3 reverting from a hybrid structure to online-only instruction, leaving many students with unanswered questions. President Kathryn Foster and other administrators addressed these students and families in virtual town hall meetings on Aug. 5 and Aug. 6 that live-streamed to over 400 students and their families.
Lined up to provide these answers were members of the President’s cabinet and faculty senate representatives. Questions were sent in prior to the meeting that will eventually become a “Frequently Asked Questions” section on the College’s website.
According to Foster, the Fall “Flex” plan was all set to run as it was announced on June 26 in order to open the school. However, since then, a number of factors have contributed to a pivot in the mindset of College administrators.
“The upshot was that the cost-benefit calculus had changed. It had changed in that 5-6 week period (since announcing the original fall ‘Flex’ plan),” Foster said in her introduction. “The value of the benefits of being on campus…we judged to be not greater than the increasingly well-documented risk for cost of being together, or coming together.”
At the forefront, Foster explained how the “Flex” plan was based on the anticipation of New Jersey Gov. Murphy moving the state into phase three of his reopening plan. Due to upticks in cases throughout the state, the governor has maintained a stage-two regulation, which involves severe restrictions on indoor gatherings.
Gov. Murphy announced on Wednesday, Aug. 12, that schools, colleges and universities would be allowed to have in-person instruction for the fall despite the state remaining in stage 2 of the reopening plan. However, Foster said in this meeting that the online-only decision is final for the fall semester and will not waver in response to any future updates from Governor Murphy.
These plans will be reassessed in the spring, likely in November as students begin registering for classes, Foster said.
Alongside this impact on decision-making, Foster said that two out of three classes were already being taught remotely as chosen by professors. She mentioned that universities such as Harvard and Princeton had also altered their plans and that “we know that you know the stakes, we know that you know it is not okay to have parties, (…) but we are not naive to the challenges of social distancing, about the challenges of being in a mask essentially for months, and for not coming together in groups.”
“We determined that what we needed to do was reduce the density even greater than what we had done so far, and that that was needed to achieve the levels of health and safety to which we are absolutely committed,” Foster said.
Tuition was a crucial point of discussion, considering economic hardships of the pandemic and the transition to online courses. Foster first took time to define tuition at its core, which includes services such as credits toward degree, direct student support, advising, mental health services and the Center for Student Success, among others.
Due to the upkeep of these services alongside creating a robust remote program, Foster said that tuition will remain flat to ensure value regardless of delivery mode.
Nonetheless, certain fees such as parking and the Brower Student Center will be eliminated for students. Relative to total tuition and fees, Foster said there will be a 5.8 percent reduction for in-state students and 3.2 percent reduction for out of state students, all while keeping a zero percent increase in the base tuition.
Addressing students’ questions directly, chief of staff Heather Fehn moderated responses from various faculty members as they discussed how the fall semester will aim to run smoother than the emergency circumstances of the past spring.
Regarding concerns about the lack of proper technology to complete classes remotely, the College will supply students with loaner laptops, headsets and microphones as needed, according to Vice President of Information Technology and Campus Safety Sharon Blanton.
“All of the fall classes will be designed from the ground up to be fully remote courses, and they will integrate the best aspects of the TCNJ experience,” said President of the Faculty Senate Matthew Bender. “They will be personalized, rigorous and collaborative.”
In discussing the downsizing of housing opportunities, Vice President for Student Affairs Sean Stallings said that remaining housing requests will be granted to students who are housing insecure or have other extenuating circumstances.
Students will not be required to take a COVID-19 test prior to living or traveling to campus, but will be asked to quarantine for 14 days if returning from a state with heightened travel restrictions, in accordance with Gov. Murphy’s travel advisory. However, symptomatic students will have the opportunity to be tested, according to director of Student Health Services Janice Vermeychuk.
Looking to the positive, Foster contested that on-campus activity will not be reduced to zero — many buildings will still be open to a degree, and in-person opportunities for the Class of 2024’s Welcome Week are in the works.
“These are the choices and sacrifices we make now. This is sort of the short-term pain so that we can safeguard the spring and safeguard beyond,” Foster said. “So yes, it’s a disappointment. But we have a lot of exciting things to happen. We are looking forward to opportunities to see people on campus because of the degree to which it’s open, and we believe that this is really the best way of increasing the odds of having a strong spring.”