Episode 26: More COVID Funding From Congress; Supporting Students' Return to Campus


Hosts Jon Turk and Sarah Spreitzer discuss the next round of COVID funding coming out of Congress and what that might mean for higher ed and its students. Also, they talk with Lamar Hylton about his experience as the newly appointed vice president for student affairs at Kent State University and how his institution is preparing for a very unique and challenging fall semester.

Episode Notes

Here are some of the links and references from this week’s show:

From the introduction

Trump Administration Withdraws Directive Banning International Students

Letter to DHS Following up on ICE Directive and FAQ

From conversation with Lamar Hylton

Reopening Kent State

Flashes Safe Seven Safety Principles

ACE's May Pulse Point Survey of College Presidents


 Read this episode's transcript

Jon Turk: Hello, and welcome to dotEDU, the higher education podcast from the American Council on Education. I'm your host, Jon Turk, associate director for research here at ACE, and with me today is Sarah Spreitzer, director of government relations. Sarah-

Sarah Spreitzer: Hey Jon.

Jon Turk: How's life treating you these days?

Sarah Spreitzer: I mean, fabulous. I just got a flash flood warning on my phone, so we're about to get hit with some great weather.

Jon Turk: What a coincidence. My phone said the locusts are coming. So we're getting all that rounded out. So the topic of today's conversation is the fall semester and how best to support students during these challenging times. A little bit later, we're going to be joined by Dr. Lamar Hylton, who's the vice president of student affairs at Kent State. He's going to help give us a bit of a campus perspective on this issue. But Sarah, before we jump into that, what's the latest news out of Congress? What's being batted around to support students?

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah. Thanks, Jon. It seems like the Senate is starting to actually move on some sort of next COVID-19 package. Remember we had the CARES Act way back when, it seems like it was a decade ago, it was a few months ago, that provided some money for institutions and for students and a lot of other things to help businesses address COVID-19, and obviously it also included money, additional funds for unemployment benefits and things like that. So the House obviously had passed the HEROES act about a month ago that included around $47 billion for higher education for institutions and our students. And finally, the Senate seems to be starting to move. And obviously we're hoping that they could do something before the August recess, which is coming up very, very quickly. But it sounds like they're starting to put pen to paper. We've seen a lot of news reports coming out that the White House is meeting with Senate leadership and they are starting to hammer out some details. But right now we don't have a lot of those details. We know that there is a lot of interest in helping our institutions kind of address the uncertainty with COVID-19. And then of course, I think it was last week or maybe two weeks ago that we saw that there was a White House meeting in which the president was very strongly pushing for institutions of higher education to reopen as well as K-12 schools. So there's been a lot of discussion about whether there will be funding and whether that will be tied to whether or not institutions reopen.

Jon Turk: In terms of timing, I know you said it was kind of uncertain at this standpoint, but if you were looking into your crystal ball, do you have a sense of maybe when we might see some actual movement on this?

Sarah Spreitzer: Oh God. I'm worried to make any predictions. I think that we're going to see some language really soon. I think that we're going to have some sort of draft that's going to be floated and we'll start seeing some things. I'm starting to get some rumors about one of the things that we've been advocating for. It's not just money for institutions, but money for the research agencies so that they could extend research that was supposed to be going on during COVID-19 and to continue to pay those researchers and postdocs and things like that. And we've been hearing that they are considering funding for the National Institutes of Health, because obviously they've been really central to the fight against COVID-19. So little details like that are starting to slip out. So I think that we'll start seeing language soon and then it just really depends on where the Senate is. If they can get everybody to kind of fall in line, then we'll be okay, but God knows. I'm not going to make any predictions at this point because you never know.

Jon Turk: No, that's fair. I mean, some of the other big news coming not out of Congress, but out of DC is the reversal on the topic of international student enrollment.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, I was going to say, so that's a perfect example of the uncertainty. I think the last time we had a podcast, I talked a bit about the fact that there was this guidance or directive that was issued on July 6th by the Department of Homeland Security that basically said if you were going to be online only, your international students had to depart the US and they weren't going to be allowed to enter the US even if they had a valid F1 visa. And obviously a lot of our international students actually decided to stay here in the US in March when a lot of our campuses transitioned to online-only. And then a week later, there was a court case brought by Harvard and MIT. And as part of that, DHS said that they would rescind the July 6th guidance, and in its place issued some FAQs. There's still some outstanding questions, but at least for now existing international students will not have to depart the country in the fall. But it's something that we're still trying to work on. We actually just sent a letter to the Department of Homeland Security earlier today, talking about some outstanding questions, including, if you're a new student that's planning to start in the fall semester and perhaps your institution is online only, can you still come to the US?

Jon Turk: I know that's an important topic. Our PulsePoint surveys of presidents have routinely shown that international student enrollment is a top of mind issue for them. So it's good to see movement taken to reverse DHS' initial guidance and it's good to hear that we're working on finetuning some of those other kinds of questions that are still left even after the new information out of the Department of Homeland Security.

Sarah Spreitzer: But it's just all of these things and it seems to change on a daily basis. So I'll be interested to hear what dr. Hylton has to say from a campus perspective, because I know just being on a campus, having to deal with all these moving pieces is a really big job.

Jon Turk: Well, I think that that's a good segue into welcoming our guest, and before I do that, though, we needed to take a quick break. And we're back. So today we are really fortunate to have Dr. Lamar Hylton joining us. Dr. Hylton is the vice president of student affairs at Kent State University in Ohio. Welcome Dr. Hylton, Thanks for being with us here today.

Lamar Hylton: Thanks, Jon. It's great to be with you all today.

Jon Turk: It's always great when we have a chance to talk with people on the ground at a campus, really excited to dive into today's topic. Before we do, can you talk a little bit about your background? How long have you been at Kent State?

Lamar Hylton: Sure. I got to Kent State in 2017. I was hired here to be the dean of students and served in that role until September of 2019 when I became the interim vice president for Student Affairs. And then in May, I was fortunate enough to be named permanent. So I've been serving in a permanent role since May of 2020, and what a time to be assuming a new executive leadership role in student affairs on a campus of higher education. But I've been in student affairs now almost 15 years. I absolutely love it, and certainly love being here at Kent State University right here in Northeast Ohio.

Jon Turk: So before we get into the conversation, just a little bit more about Kent State. So Kent State's about what 28,000, 30,000 students all in?

Lamar Hylton: Just shy of 30,000.

Jon Turk: Mostly residential, right? Primarily a residential-based campus?

Lamar Hylton: We do have a strong residential population. We have about 25 residence halls that house just over 6,000 students year-to-year now. Obviously with the pandemic, that looks different this year. So we're down. We had to reduce density to be compliant with public health guidance and things like that. But on a typical normal year, we're housing just north of 6,000 students. So we actually... And one thing that people don't know on our campus, we actually have more students who commute or live off-campus than we do the number of students that live on our campus. But if you were ever to visit our campus, we definitely feel like a residential environment and we certainly operate that way.

Sarah Spreitzer: Dr. Hylton, I'm going to jump in here. Before we turn to the fall, can you just talk a bit about how it kind of played out in the spring as we were faced with the start of this pandemic and the decisions being made at your institution?

Lamar Hylton: Yeah, spring of 2020, particularly February and March, will be months and a semester and year that I will probably never forget as long as I live. It was quite an interesting experience having to pivot from completely face-to-face experiences to completely remote experiences because of the onset of the pandemic. We transitioned about 9,000, or over 9,000 face-to-face courses to remote in about a 72 hour or less period, and also moved about 6,000 students out of our residence halls and back to their respective homes. There were a very small cadre of students, probably right around 50 or so that remained with us for extenuating circumstances, but the vast majority of our residential population moved off campus. And we stopped, obviously, all of our programmatic things that were happening face-to-face and transitioned many of those to remote or virtual experiences as well. So closing of the academic year banquets, leadership awards, academic support services, like tutoring and others, all moved from in-person experience to online platforms in a very short span of time. So March especially felt like a whirlwind for all of our campuses, our regional campuses, as well as the Kent campus, and certainly felt like a whirlwind for our students. I mean, imagine waking up one day and you're having all face-to-face as if things were the normal and you go to sleep and when you wake up the next day, your world has been completely changed. You are now being told that you need to move off campus. You are now being told that all of your coursework for the remainder of the semester will be delivered in a virtual or online or remote fashion. And we didn't even know what that necessarily meant for us. How would faculty respond to that? Our faculty had to get up to speed on transitioning how they plan for a course to be delivered in a face-to-face environment, to a remote environment and still keep the integrity of their course. So we had to make a lot of changes to academic policy in terms of pass-fail options, withdraw options. It was quite a complex undertaking, and thankfully we weathered that storm pretty well. We have just a community of faculty and staff and administrators and students who all work together pretty well and certainly those relationships came to bear in a very prominent way as we transitioned in the spring. It was one that I will never forget.

Sarah Spreitzer: And do you think that some of those decisions that were made in the spring, is that helping to inform your planning for the fall?

Lamar Hylton: Yes and no. Yes, in that we certainly learned quite a few lessons and that transition and things that we didn't have the answers for in March as we were navigating a full change into the academic experience. We know the answers to those questions now in July. So, in that way, yes, it absolutely is informing our work. On the other side of that coin though, Sarah, is that the pandemic has evolved and we need to respond to meet the needs of where we are in the evolution of this pandemic. And then the added complexity is we don't know what the future holds. We don't know how the pandemic will continue to evolve. We don't know how that evolution will continue to impact our ability to offer a quality educational experience in the manner that we are anticipating having to offer that. So while we've definitely learned lessons, we still very much operate from a place of true uncertainty and realize that we have to be nimble. We have to be flexible. We have to be able to pivot when we need to pivot, and be communicative with our entire community in the best ways possible to continue to navigate this while it's here.

Jon Turk: So for our listeners that aren't aware, and Dr. Hylton, feel free to interrupt me if I get any of these details wrong, I believe Kent State's announced that they're planning to start a staggered return to campus beginning on August 17th. That there'd be a full start to the semester on August 27th with classes running both in-person and online from August 27th to November 20th, essentially cutting out the fall break and then remote learning after Thanksgiving. Is that correct?

Lamar Hylton: Jon, you have done your homework. You have done your homework. The only thing that I'd add is, our return to operations, or our reopening as we term it here at Kent State actually began for us in June. So we're in a four-phase return-

Jon Turk: I'm glad you brought that up because was one of the things that I found. These days you're hearing so much about states and local governments talking about phased reopening. We're in phase one, phase two, when can we move to phase three? And when I was taking a look at your all's website, I saw that that you guys were even using that same kind of terminology. Phase one, phase two, three, and four of reopening. I didn't mean to interrupt you, but I just wanted to bring that up.

Lamar Hylton: Nope, that's good. So yeah, our phases actually began in June. Right now we are in the middle of phase two. It's actually smack dab in the middle of phase two. What you've outlined in terms of the August 17th and beyond is actually phase four of our four stage or four phase reopening and return to campus. And there are many, many layers to all of those phases that hit many, many aspects of our experience as a university, not just the student experience, but how does staff return safely to work, what operations will be up and running and when will they be up and running, what do they look like when they return to up and running? So we've been guided by an incredible colleague of mine who is chairing the steering committee that is assigned to reopen us, but we have over 150 plus folks that are engaged with our reopening at various aspects and in various ways. And we're definitely tied to our broader state's reopening. So as a public institution, we definitely pay attention to what's happening in and around the state to be informed about what that means for our campus as a whole. But yes, what you've outlined, staggered move-in for students who are living in the residence hall. 60% of our courses are remote, 40% in person. And we plan to deliver that experience in a hybrid way up and through the Thanksgiving holiday. And then when we go off for Thanksgiving break, the plan is to go fully remote from that point until the end of the fall semester.

Jon Turk: So one thing I would just touch on, you were talking about the reopening committee that's formed at Kent State to help inform those practices. In our June survey of presidents, 85% of presidents said that they had formed a new organization or a new advisory structure to help support and guide their reopening efforts. I mean, it's very clear that while many institutions have a university or college budget committee or have an enrollment management committee, that this crisis really spans across a variety of areas and really necessitated a new kind of structure to help advise leadership in making those changes. I think one of the questions that I would have for you, is could you maybe talk a little bit about how... What were the role of students in those processes? How was the student voice present in discussions about what the fall reopening for Kent State would look like?

Lamar Hylton: Yeah, great question. We consider ourselves to be a student's first university and we try to enact that in practice. We don't just like to say that. We like to demonstrate that. And certainly that has been the case as we have thought about reopening. There have been several of our committees that have students sitting directly on them. So I, for instance, co-chair the academic and student affairs reopening committee to talk about the academic and co-curricular experiences and how we come back. There are students on that committee, as well as the sub committees that have been birthed as a result of that work. So we've been very diligent in that way to make sure that the student voice is incorporated formally in our more formal structures. Beyond that, we hear and gather feedback from our student leaders. Just had a meeting a few days ago with our undergraduate student government leaders who presented the results of a survey that they administered to undergraduate students that yielded over 500 responses that talked about some of the challenges that they're experiencing with this reopening and how they might be able to get questions answered. How they might be able to share feedback about their particular experiences. And that data then informs how we as university leadership will be responsive to what those students are are saying. I did an Instagram live session with our USG, our undergraduate student government president just last night, and really got some direct feedback and direct engagement with our undergraduate students. We have been in communication and consultation with our graduate student senate, our graduate student leadership. Now, with that said, Jon, I think we do have still room to enhance that even greater because there are so many details. There are so many complexities to reopening a university of our size and stature, that communication piece and that way that we engage students can continue to be enhanced and we're continuing to try to find ways to do that.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah. And I guess Dr. Hylton, to that point, I wonder what is the first weekend look like back on campus and this new hybrid model where students have come back, they've been told to social distance, to wear masks, but obviously they're young adults-

Jon Turk: I believe that's following Flashes Safe Seven, is what I saw on Kent State's website?

Lamar Hylton: It's an interesting question, Sarah. I could tell you what I hope that it will look like. But again, July 22nd at 3:00 PM Eastern Standard Time, it feels like months and months and months away from, light years away from the first weekend, because of just the way that this pandemic has moved so quickly. Jon mentioned the Flashes Safe Seven, that's a set of guiding principles that we've developed as a university to kind of help steer our entire university, community, students, staff, faculty, visitors, et cetera, on what we believe will help our community remain healthy and well. So we want students to have their masks on. We want them to socially distance. We want them to wash their hands. We want them to practice good hygiene. We want them to call the university health center when they have questions. And above all, we want them to take care of their fellow Flashes. Flashes take care of Flashes, that's our motto. So I hope that the first weekend adheres to that guidance, first and foremost. I imagine that there will be a lot of virtual opening of the academic year experiences for our students to take part in. And then there will be some that will be in-person. There will be some that... I'm thinking of our blastoff for instance, which is our big student organization fair. Historically, that fair has happened on our campus and in the back of the student center. It brings thousands and thousands and thousands of people to a very concentrated space. That probably will not be what you will see during the opening of the year. But what you may see is satellite, smaller group student organization opportunities that happen all across our campus, that happen in various outdoor spaces of our campus, that brings together a small group that would be guided by what the state is telling us is a small group. And students would have the opportunity to maybe rotate through those. So it's really unchartered territory for this generation of college leadership and certainly our students. I think that we can conceptualize as best that we are able to do in a time like this. But I imagine that what I'm telling you today, if I were to listen to this in a month, it likely will look very different than what I'm telling you today.

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, that's a very good point. And I was just actually complaining to Jon Turk and a group of others about plans for my kid's grade school, elementary school this year. They don't know what it's going to look like in August. Nobody does. It's an upsetting kind of time. And I guess to that point, it being kind of unsettling and uncertain. I know Kent State has made a huge push to support students in their mental health. Can you talk a bit about your efforts in that area to help students, whether they're off campus, returning to campus during this uncertain time?

Lamar Hylton: Yeah, great question. Mental health has always been a really important topic of discussion for us. The mental health needs of our students continue to be of paramount importance and we continue to welcome more and more students who are in need of some level of support for their mental health as they navigate the collegiate environment, only to be exacerbated by the dynamics of this pandemic. So it becomes critical for us. We've recently been in discussions about how we do this and then how do we afford this at a time where resources are dwindling and we're needing to make really critical decisions and very intentional decisions about how we leverage the resources we have available to us. We are utilizing some of the student general fee that students pay as a part of their tuition and fees to support directly mental health expansion and enhancement. We had already been in this work, Sarah, before we got to the pandemic. So we convened a team late fall of colleagues, students, faculty, staff, to talk about how can we enhance mental health and how can we enhance the enterprise that supports mental health? And there was a white paper issued to me from that team with recommendations and phases for us to do that. That white paper also made its way to our provost and to our president who reviewed and approved that document. That was mid February of 2020.

Sarah Spreitzer: Right before the thing happened.

Lamar Hylton: It felt like we went to sleep and woke up and the pandemic was here. So what we're doing now is reallocating general fee money to support those recommendations that were made, realizing that those recommendations that were made in February probably are even more critical now as we embark upon a new year. So I'm excited. I think there were $2.1 million worth of recommendations in that first phase of that report that I think we will be able to either fully fund or very, very closely fully fund through the reallocation of some general fee money. That's student's money going directly back to students, which I absolutely love. It allows us to add additional clinicians. It allows us to develop a one stop shop to support student mental health support and basic needs for students. It allows us to train more police officers and critical incident response as they are responding to students in the residence hall environment. It allows for us to deepen training for faculty in courses as they are experiencing students that may need mental health support in their classrooms, in their virtual classrooms, or their brick and mortar classrooms. We're able to expand our telehealth and tele medicine platforms to support students who are out of state, maybe taking classes remotely and decided to stay home for that experience, but still need to access that mental health support so that we can navigate the licensure requirements that are around for our mental health staff. Deepening after hour support. So after a student has taken their classes, they're back in their residence halls, they're with their friends, they're with their social groups, they're doing their thing and they have a mental health crisis. How do we support those students given that most of us work 8-5, but a student's crisis is not an 8-5 matter as we well know. So I'm really excited about the ways in which we will be able to prioritize student mental health during this very stressful time and utilize the resources that our students are putting in our hands through their fees, really allowing for that fee funding to be used in a way that directly supports our students.

Jon Turk: I think that that is all tremendously interesting and really important points, Dr. Hylton. Again, we've been doing these monthly surveys of presidents now since April and repeatedly, we've been asking questions about student mental health services and needs. It's kind of a preview to our listeners, our next results of our July survey are going to be released... Well actually would be this week, thinking about when the podcast actually gets released, but this week virtually all presidents, so 96% of almost the 300 presidents that completed our survey said that they're expecting the demand for, and the need for student mental health support and needs is going to go up dramatically this fall, relative to last fall. We're beginning to pore through some of their open ended responses about how they're planning to meet those expected needs. But again, just as a quick preview, we're seeing a lot of reference to expanding telehealth and telemedical support services. Definitely some discussions about how to redeploy financial resources, whether that be existing student fees or other financial spaces. So definitely be on the lookout for that, but it's certainly part of the national conversations. And like you said, it was prior to the pandemic and the pandemic has only exacerbated that and really shined even a bigger, brighter light on why we need to be working to support students in this sphere as well. I know our time is beginning to draw to an end, but Sarah, I just wanted to check, do you have any other questions for Dr. Hylton?

Sarah Spreitzer: Yeah, I have one last question. And I guess it would be back in February/March when this was all starting to happen, were there any surprises from what you learned or any kind of big lessons that you didn't think that you would take away from the experience?

Lamar Hylton: Yeah, we had a lot of surprises. Every day seemed like a surprise.

Sarah Spreitzer: Well yeah, there were a lot of surprises.

Lamar Hylton: Reflecting on it, I think just the gravity of big decisions that had to be made, and then the short time that those big decisions had to be made in, looking back on it, we made a lot of monumental decisions about the way in which we operate as a university with very little to no lead time to think about how that decision would impact others. What are the ramifications and implications of the decisions. We were making decisions in real time and we were making a lot of big decisions in real time. So that was kind of surprising. And again, I was a new and still interim vice president with my first vice presidency, so having to sit in that seat, having not been a VP probably more than six months or seven months at that point was quite daunting. And every day, by the time I got home, I was worn out. My brain was mush. I was tired because we had so many decisions to make and we try to gather as many facts as possible that could help inform that decision and then trust your gut and make the decision to move forward. So I think in retrospect, that probably was maybe not... Probably most surprising. And also what I learned about myself and what I learned about this seat is that that decision making doesn't always mean that you've had the opportunity to vet and to consult and to collaborate, which is my typical style. I like to kind of weigh the pros and cons and get feedback and build consensus before a decision is made. And in moments like these, you just don't the opportunity to do that.

Sarah Spreitzer: Thank you.

Jon Turk: So again, I want to thank Dr. Lamar Hylton, vice president of student affairs at Kent State for joining us today. Your insights and your experiences that you've been able to share with us this afternoon have been helpful, and I'm sure... I mean, as we always hear our members, they value being able to hear from one another. So I know there are college university leaders across the country right now that are appreciative of hearing more about your experience.

Lamar Hylton: Well, I certainly appreciate the invitation. Thank you so much. It's been a great time today.

Jon Turk: Absolutely. So thanks to our listeners for tuning in. As always, if you have feedback or suggestions for future episodes, please email us podcast@acenet.edu. That's A-C-E-N-E-T.edu. You can find our podcasts as well as links to all of the resources that we mentioned today on our website at acenet.edu/podcast. And finally, you can subscribe to our podcast, leave reviews, and find more episodes on Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

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​Each episode of dotEDU presents a deep dive into a major issue impacting college campuses and students across the country. Hosts from ACE are joined by guest experts to lead you through thought-provoking conversations on topics such as campus free speech, diversity in admissions, college costs and affordability, and more. Find all episodes of the podcast at the dotEDU page.

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