Valley’s higher ed leaders assess needs, chart future

The message from the leaders of both of the Rio Grande Valley’s largest higher education institutions was clear last week: the show must go on, and the region’s college students are going to be given the tools to put it on.

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley President Guy Bailey and South Texas College President Shirley Reed both discussed the upcoming fall semester in video interviews conducted by Futuro RGV last Thursday.

Although they were interviewed separately, the academics echoed each other in many regards, including their insistence on higher education students in the Valley continuing their academic careers with new pandemic protocols in place.

“This is a terrible thing, but you can’t let it derail you, because the impact can last far longer than a year or so if it hinders your education,” Bailey said.

Reed took it a step further: If the pandemic drives students from higher education their educational futures may not only be delayed, but could be halted altogether.

“The reason I’m concerned is data and research shows over and over again [that] if you don’t start college upon completing high school, the odds are you never will get there. If you don’t start, you’ll never finish, and you’ll find yourself five, six years from now with a family, three kids, no job skills, no degree,” she said.

Their respective institutions have shifted most of their classes to a virtual curriculum. Students got their first taste of online learning spurred by the pandemic late last spring and over the summer.

“That’s gone very well,” Bailey said. “Our enrollments have been a record this summer, our summer enrollment’s up by about 35%, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

Both presidents said that most of their programs will stay remote in the fall, with Reed estimating that 80% of courses at STC will be online and half of its faculty and staff will work remotely.

That doesn’t mean everything at UTRGV and STC will be taught through a computer screen. Some classes, the presidents said, simply don’t translate to online learning.

“Dance,” Bailey used as an example. “How do you teach dance remotely? I mean, there are some things that you just can’t do very well over the internet.”

Bailey said social distancing would be in place for those courses. A room that would normally hold 150 students, he said, might only be occupied by a class of 30. One that seats 20 might only hold five.

Reed said similar measures would be in effect at STC.

“Our real challenge are those technical programs that are hands-on skill based, so those we are having to limit to nine or 10 students where we’d normally have 20 to 25 students,” she said.

Other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 on campus include hand-sanitizing stations, increased hygienic signage and other social distancing measures.

“There’s Plexiglas everywhere,” Reed said.

Bailey said UTRGV has a unique advantage when it comes to keeping its student body safe during a pandemic. Currently, he said, UTRGV’s Edinburg campus is testing about 1,000 people a day for the coronavirus.

“We also have that in our student center, in our wellness centers for faculty, so in all of our health centers we have testing available as well. And we will test everybody who needs it,” he said.

Many students won’t have to worry about those changes on campus. They’ll be learning at home.

“We’ve had a virtual campus for quite some time where we provide online classes, online student services,” Reed said. “Every semester we’ll have about 6,000 students taking online classes, so we had a good head start — that doesn’t mean it was without challenges.”

Foremost of those challenges appears to be WiFi connectivity for Valley college students.

“Our community — our communities — just don’t have adequate coverage,” Reed said.

Both presidents noted that students would be able to access WiFi in campus parking lots, and both said they hope to address technological divide issues, in part, with federal funding. Bailey said UTRGV received about $36 million in federal coronavirus relief funding, about 75% of which will be paid out in cash to eligible students to pay for a wide variety of issues and needs that impede a student’s education, including computer or internet equipment.

Bailey said most of the university’s student body is eligible, and that other funds are available for non-eligible students. He said the other 25% of the $36 million will be for pandemic-related expenses on campus.

“There’s a significant cost for putting things online, and part of the reason the federal government sent that money was to help address those costs,” he said. “There’s significant increases in cost to ensure clean classrooms, and so we had to add staff to sterilize those classrooms, to make sure that they were completely clean.”

STC is distributing funds for its students to pay for general education expenses as well, Reed said.

“We received $10 million to provide that kind of assistance and, I’ve got the numbers here, we have served over 7,200 students,” she said. “Each of them have received an award of $600. And the balance of that money will be used for fall students who need assistance, just for basic services.”

Reed said that other funding was being made available to STC students as well.