NAICU Washington Update

Senate Holds Hearing on Higher Education Response to COVID

June 25, 2021

In a recent hearing, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions heard from representatives of institutions of higher education regarding their response to the coronavirus, plans for returning to campus, and how they used their emergency relief funds.  The hearing comes as quarterly reporting on Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds (HEERF) are due in just two weeks, on July 10.  It is expected that congressional oversight committees will continue to look at how institutions are using the emergency grants for students and institutions. 

Of the four witnesses in the Senate HELP hearing, two were from private, nonprofit colleges, including Dr. Reynold Verret, President of Xavier University of Louisiana and Anthony Harris, a student at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio.  The other two witnesses were from the University of California Los Angeles and Miami Dade Community College. 

In her opening statement, Chair Patty Murray (D-WA) emphasized that “we can’t go back to normal” because of the inequities that exist among students across the United States. She noted that the pandemic exacerbated existing disparities for access, opportunity, and success in higher education, and that we should learn from the campus and congressional pandemic response and apply those lessons to the future. She said that as a Pell Grant recipient herself, she strongly supports increased need-based financial aid, like her legislation to double the Pell Grant maximum, as a way to continue the impact emergency student grants have had during the pandemic. 

Ranking Member Richard Burr (R-NC) expressed praise for the full reopening of higher education expected this fall, unlike his concern about the reopening of K12 schools.  However, he noted that he is worried that Congress provided $77 billion in emergency funds to colleges yet $53 billion remains unspent, asking whether “colleges really need this money?”

Xavier’s Verret provided a unique perspective on running a college during the pandemic, as his academic background is in biological chemistry and immunology. He said he spoke on behalf of Xavier University, a Historically Back University and a Catholic institution, but that senators could infer the impact of the pandemic on the other HBCUs in the country. Verret outlined how he first met with his campus leaders in January 2020 to think about what to do if the virus came to the United States or even to campus. By March 2020, he had sent home all nonessential students, faculty and staff and took the spring break to quickly pivot to virtual instruction and virtual learning for the remainder of the spring semester. 

For the fall 2020 semester, Xavier was able to provide students with options for instruction and housing that worked best for them.  Students could choose between in-person or virtual instruction and had access to campus housing if they needed it, as the college contracted with area hotels to provide single occupancy campus housing options. Xavier plans to resume full in-person campus activities in fall 2021 with modified public health considerations to continue the mitigation of the virus. 

Verret closed his comments noting that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on Black Americans and has exacerbated existing inequities for people of color. As a result, he supports permanent HBCU capital financing, doubling the Pell Grant maximum, and funding for Title III Strengthening Institutions programs as proposed in American Jobs and Families Plans. 

Sen. Burr asked Verret how he decided to require coronavirus vaccinations for students to return to campus, and how he was going to get them to comply.  Verret shared that he participated in the clinical trials for the vaccine himself so he could reassure students, faculty, and staff about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. He also said the decision to require vaccines came after many conversations with a variety of groups and stakeholders on campus. Sen. Burr applauded Verret’s communicative approach with his campus, and noted that the American education system already requires childhood vaccines for school enrollment, thus getting the COVID vaccine is not an unreasonable requirement for students to return in-person, whether in college or K-12.

Harris, the Baldwin Wallace student, shared his perspective on college life during the pandemic. Now a senior, he had started his studies at Cuyahoga Community College, but then with the help of a Pell Grant, was able to transfer to Baldwin Wallace University, which he called “life changing.” Harris said the pandemic hit during spring break and students were asked not to return to campus. Classes resumed after an additional week so professors could rework syllabi for virtual instruction. Initially, the hardest part for Harris was not having a personal computer or laptop to access distance learning. Harris is also a Resident Advisor (RA) and needed to determine how to stay in touch with students as well as do his coursework. He noted that HEERF student grants were greatly appreciated campus-wide. While Harris spent his grant on books and internet access, others used it for transportation, food or tuition.  

The 2020-21 academic year was not normal, but at least was more in-person than the end of the 2020 spring semester. Hybrid classes, said Harris, allowed him to be able to stay on campus all year. Baldwin Wallace was able to be open because of regular testing, masks, social distancing and other adaptations of space, and vaccines offered as soon as they were available. Harris closed by saying Congress should Double Pell and maintain COVID relief funds. 

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