Looking Forward---UMSL Battling the Virus
A new semester is here, and with that, new challenges. This is a unique situation in our school’s history, and we all have to adjust to a new way of learning. From jobs to scholarships and services, there’s a new way of operations for just about everything. The end of Spring 2019 could leave us a little skeptical, anxious even, as to how this upcoming year will pan out. By looking at how things operated before, we can gain a little insight into what will be in store for us.
When the news of the coronavirus first hit the headlines in early 2020, it seemed so distant, just a blip that would soon fade from already fast and heavy headlines. Articles such as “Risk of coronavirus in USA is 'minuscule'; skip mask and wash hands” written in USAToday, downplayed the risk of the coronavirus and certainly didn’t help in everyone’s preparedness.
It didn’t seem serious. So many jokes were told and posted online. Then of course, things began to turn grave once it stuck around in the news. People from all around the world were getting infected. Whole countries, such as Italy, went under quarantine while a dreaded global death toll kept rolling into the thousands. It became scary, a presence that loomed over every interaction and classroom. Then on that fateful week right before spring break, it was announced that campus was closed and campus was closed. Quickly shifting the situation from a distant illness to education.
With Campus closed it seemed like there was a sudden suspension, and everything floated in a weird limbo---like being on a rollercoaster that lost its track mid-loop. Despite this, UMSL tried to provide for students, however limited resources were. The biggest nation-wide fund for education, the CARES act, was available for students in need, but funds were quickly exhausted on the same day it became available---two separate emails from UMSL communications detailed the release and end of CARES Act availability. This is an odd thing, considering the substantial aid provided to schools, but for reasons we’ll get into later, which includes UMSL’s inability to refund student tuition, the university was spread very thin with giving aid. Even though most immediate financial support has been slim, such as tuition refunds, UMSL has made efforts in keeping students on payroll.
I spoke with a student named Ellie, who worked as a desk receptionist for an unnamed office at UMSL, and she had nothing but good things to say about the university’s support. Ellie’s job was simple: greet people at the door and point them in the right direction. She said that once COVID cases began to rise, the only extra step was washing hands and wiping down tables more. Then once campus closed, she was offered work from home. The work wasn’t exactly what she was looking for though, and despite leaving the school on good terms, she found work geared more towards her career and took it up. Once campus closed, it would’ve been pretty easy to lay off all students in need of a paycheck, but it seems like working at UMSL is somewhat secure. The only bad thing that Ellie had to say about the job was just the nature of working at home---hard to focus, hard to adjust to, and she misses her interactions with people, but there’s not a lot to get around that.
The thing that’s harder to get around is, without a doubt, student finances. The CARES act was only immediate relief for those who needed it most, not long-term monetary security. But then again, a little bit of cash goes a long way. On top of that, one of the things that left me and a lot of my peers puzzled was the lack of tuition refunds. It’s like going to the movies only for the film to be cut halfway through and getting a link to watch it online. Even though you get the same thing, it’s not exactly what you wanted. Another infuriating complication is the fact that scholarships were frozen. Speaking only for my situation, my girlfriend had her funds completely frozen and was unable to have access to them. Scholarships as of right now have been released, but even still, that was a layer of stress that I’m sure a lot of other students couldn’t handle
For this reason, I talked with someone who did have a handle on some things--Alan Byrd, Dean of Admissions. His mission has always been to make education at our school as affordable as possible, and even now that’s more important to him than ever. For the CARES act, as he explained, UMSL received somewhere in the ballpark of $4-6 million, which seems like a lot of money, but once you break it down there’s not a lot of spread for everyone. The money had to be split in half: one half for the school and the other half for students, and if one-thousand students ask for a one-thousand dollar grant, that’s already one million dollars. So of course, considering UMSL’s size, it makes sense that the money went really fast. As for scholarships and tuition, that’s when things get a little complicated. Byrd, without going into specific details, said that the reason why the school’s finances have been so weird is that each year the school is given a set budget by the UM system, and the school has been going over budget at an ever increasing rate for a number of years now. This is clearly a much larger issue with more worms than a bait shop. There are no refunds because UMSL has no money to give, we’re broke, plain and simple. The scholarship freeze was only a part of this issue too---as the freeze happened because UMSL was making sure that funds could even be allocated after emergency plans were worked out. What’s hard for Alan in all of this, is that he just wants to do his job. He misses the old UMSL just like the rest of us, and the budgetary issues aren’t even his fault---he’s been fighting them for a while. Also, making sure that everyone stays safe is a big concern of his, and it means a lot more to him than just his job.
A few months ago, a close friend of Byrd’s passed away from the coronavirus. For Byrd, he doesn’t want the same trauma to happen to everyone else. He has a stake a lot greater than most going into this year. Everything that he’s doing, and whatever the product of his work is will be in some way influenced by the pain that he’s suffered. That’s more than admirable, it’s heroic, and we owe a lot of gratitude to him.
As much as Byrd wants to make a difference, however, there are still a lot of problems left unsolved. For one, it’s about UMSL’s budget. Even if UMSL can’t afford to pay out students, that shouldn’t be the student’s problem. We deserve to have some kind of payback for what happened, and it’s likely that at this point we never will. Also on this point, tuition has in fact, increased for this term. Granted, it’s only by eight dollars, but still, in principle, it should’ve gone down to alleviate student burden.
It goes to show that in all of this, UMSL as a whole is taking on much larger problems while still dealing with issues from the past. That’s going to put a damper on pretty much anything. Moving forward, there’s going to be a lot more hiccups bubbling up from the shadow of tragedy as we go along. I urge everyone to stick it through and to stay strong. As the world gets crazier and more issues arise, it will need intelligent, capable and responsible people like ourselves to carry it through these dark times. Stick with the program. Your education and future matters. It’s all up to you to see it through.