Louisiana colleges and universities are preparing for a safe reopening this fall — and for any scenario that may emerge before we are rid of COVID-19.
With the recent rise in virus cases, the fall semester will look different. Campuses are planning for in-person classes, with significant safety protocols and courses taught online.
But questions remain: how will colleges handle isolated COVID outbreaks? How can colleges support academics and mental health for students, faculty and staff?
The Louisiana Board of Regents’ guidance for campuses answers these questions and many more. It covers everything from keeping classrooms clean and moving learning forward, to masking up, daily temperature checks and social distancing.
State leaders also are contributing solutions and conferring with counterparts across 16 states through the Southern Regional Education Board’s Higher Education Recovery Task Force (and its K-12 Recovery Task Force). We are planning together, with campus safety top of mind.
Even with all this planning, colleges will reopen in a historic era for our country: The pandemic crisis is accompanied by civil rights protests and economic setbacks.
In many ways, Louisiana’s higher education institutions were made for this challenging moment.
Colleges are places where students’ voices are heard and solutions debated, especially during times of societal and cultural change. Louisiana’s campuses aim to always be inviting and safe learning environments where all students, supported by expert faculty and professional staff, can build the knowledge to improve themselves, their communities, and our society.
Challenges still abound. Many students in Louisiana’s colleges and K-12 schools lack digital devices and reliable internet service to learn remotely. We must address this digital divide, recognizing that access to technology is now a learning necessity, not a luxury.
Economic uncertainty and revenue challenges also may impact college affordability for many struggling neighbors and friends as well as the budget stability of our states. We must keep our eye on these issues but recognize that now is not the time to step away from our commitment to investing in education.
Even before the pandemic, the Louisiana Board of Regents adopted a five-year strategic plan aimed at developing talent so that Louisiana prospers.
One of the plan’s cornerstones is equity — ensuring that more Louisianans have pathways to prosperity, which only come from widening access to the degrees and career credentials that increasingly are valued in this knowledge economy.
The Board of Regents is collaborating with the state’s four public college systems — the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, LSU, University of Louisiana System (UL), and Southern University System — and private colleges to expand student access and success statewide.
Louisiana’s community and technical colleges have initiated the “Reboot Louisiana” plan, with Phase One rapidly providing short-term training programs in high-demand jobs for 5,000 of the state’s residents, thanks to CARES Act emergency funding approved by Gov. John Bel Edwards.
The UL System is focusing on bringing adults with some college education back to finish their degrees, cutting tuition for them by nearly half — to only $275 per credit hour.
Fortunately, colleges in Louisiana so far have not seen major declines in enrollment, as feared by many in higher education. About 96% of the state’s students remained in classes during the spring — a sign of determination in the face of uncertainty. For the fall, the state is sending a clear message to students: Don’t defer your dreams.
Louisiana’s research universities and Health Sciences Centers have taken on important roles in COVID-19 research, focusing on the safety of our state and campus communities. LSU and Southern universities are working together on campus testing protocols, and Southern is leading Louisiana’s efforts to address health disparities in minority communities.
We still have much work to do. Despite improvements in recent years, only 31% of Louisiana’s working-age adults hold a two-year degree or higher — including just 21% of Black adults. Louisiana still trails the Southern states’ rate of 39% and the nation’s rate of 42% of adults with at least an associate degree.
Higher education is among the most important and effective investments Louisiana taxpayers can make — especially in this time of crisis. Institutions are helping people get back to work through education and training, and they’re producing tools and research to make us safer and healthier. But equity of opportunity demands that college is affordable and accessible to every student.
Louisiana’s colleges and students were made for this moment. They’re making the state proud. They deserve our full support.
Kim Hunter Reed is the state’s commissioner of higher education at the Louisiana Board of Regents. Stephen Pruitt is the president of the nonpartisan Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) in Atlanta.