VCU move out coronavirus

Tiffany Pierce of Petersburg moved some of her daughter’s things out of a residence hall in March as VCU shifted its classes online to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Virginia Commonwealth University will not refund tuition and mandatory fees, but will give students in its art school a partial reimbursement, President Michael Rao said Tuesday.

In a message to the VCU community, Rao said full-time art students will get $350 and part-time students will be credited $42 per credit hour. VCU announced last month that with classes moved online for the rest of the semester because of the coronavirus, the university would give housing and dining refunds and credits.

VCU has faced growing calls from students, including during a virtual town hall last week, to refund tuition and mandatory fees with students learning remotely instead of in person.

In giving refunds for things students can only get on campus — university housing, meals and parking, for example — the school is in step with what the state’s other large colleges are doing, with schools still charging students for tuition as classes have moved online.

“Although we realize this is not the semester you or your faculty planned, it is the reality for college students in the United States and around the world,” Rao wrote. “Faculty, staff and administration have poured enormous effort and resources into making sure that courses can be completed, credits earned, degrees received and challenges surpassed.”

Rao specifically highlighted the work of VCU’s library and technology departments in helping with the change to remote learning.

“Tuition and mandatory fees ensure that all of this happens and can continue to happen this semester; therefore, no refunds will be issued for tuition or mandatory fees,” he said.

VCU spokesman Mike Porter said art students will receive a refund and other students won’t because the former pay an additional tuition charge that covers equipment, such as industrial sewing machines, glass-blowing machines, and supplies, including clay and plaster.

Porter said that because students no longer have access to the equipment and supplies, the arts school reimbursed part of that charge.

VCU junior Fatima Nicole said she and her sister, who also goes to VCU, have been “getting frustrated with the refunding predicament. It has been stressful and unsettling.”

The previously announced housing credits and refunds will be automatically given to students who left VCU residence halls because of the pandemic, Rao said, adding that the students still living on campus will be able to use their dining plans until May 9.

Colleges across Virginia are doing the same, with Virginia Tech, for example, giving a $1,000 housing refund to students who live on campus but didn’t return to Blacksburg after spring break in March.

VCU also is refunding student parking and employee parking is being reimbursed based on the type of permit the workers have, with all nondesignated VCU employees working from home.

The online learning will extend into the summer as VCU announced that its summer session also will be held virtually. Rao said VCU has “every intention” of resuming in-person classes in the fall “as long as it is safe to do so.”

That could mean having a later start to the semester, he said.

For the class of 2020, Rao said the university will host a virtual commencement starting May 8 and said May graduates also are invited to take part in VCU’s December commencement.

In Rao’s email, he said VCU instituted a hiring freeze last week, something ordered by Gov. Ralph Northam across all of state government. Rao said the freeze is a “preemptive step to help contain costs” for the next fiscal year.

VCU’s governing board is scheduled to vote May 8 on a budget for next year. The draft financial plan includes a freeze on tuition, something state lawmakers backed in the budget approved last month but an initiative with an uncertain future, given the economic turmoil the pandemic has caused.

“However, understanding the economic uncertainties that the COVID-19 crisis has caused, the budget office has also modeled other state funding scenarios resulting in a range of tuition increases between 1% and 6%,” Rao said.

Public comment on VCU’s budget will be accepted until 4:30 p.m. April 24.

The university is fundraising for a special fund to help with the response to the coronavirus.

VCU announced Monday that an anonymous donor had given the school and its health system $1 million, with a challenge to the community to match it. The money is to be used, in part, to pay for rooms for hospital staff who are dealing with the pandemic’s impact and cannot go home without putting their families at risk, and to fund child care for staff, among other things.

The Richmond university has not gone as far as the University of Virginia, which said Monday that it is dedicating $3 million to help contract employees and Charlottesville-area residents financially affected by the pandemic.

Virginia gets education funding flexibility

In other education news Tuesday, Virginia schools will now be able to keep millions in federal education money they would have had to give back with schools closed for the rest of the academic year. The change was granted under flexibility the U.S. Department of Education gave the state.

James Lane, the superintendent of public instruction, announced Tuesday that the federal Education Department had given preliminary approval to Virginia’s request for waivers from the Every Student Succeeds Act and the General Education Provisions Act, which govern how and when federal education dollars must be spent by states and local school systems.

“Without this flexibility, Virginia school divisions would have had to return millions of dollars in federal funding — most of it supporting programs serving vulnerable students — that they were unable to spend by September 30 due to the closure of schools to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Lane said.

“These waivers will also allow divisions and the Virginia Department of Education to shift federal resources to supporting the technology and professional development for teachers necessary to expand distance-learning opportunities for all students.”

Lane submitted the waiver application Monday and it was approved two hours later, according to a Virginia Department of Education news release.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — the legislation Congress passed and President Donald Trump signed last month to help with the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic — authorized the flexibility.

The waivers remove the cap on how much federal money school districts can use to buy technology and ease limits on how much unspent federal money can be carried over from one year to the next.

“I would like to thank the U.S. Department of Education for its swift approval of our waiver request,” Lane said in a statement. “This additional flexibility will help our schools meet the needs of students during the pandemic and after.”

The federal Education Department must still grant Virginia its formal approval, but the agency has authorized Virginia to implement the waivers.

jmattingly@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6012

Twitter: @jmattingly306

State Government Reporter

Justin Mattingly covers Virginia politics and policy. He previously covered education. A northern New York native and Syracuse University alumnus, he's worked at the RTD since 2017. You can follow him on Twitter at @jmattingly306.

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