Arkansas State Prepared to Go the Social Distance

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Arkansas State University is continuing to adapt its semester schedules to the new and virtual realities of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

In his daily message to the university Tuesday, ASU Chancellor Kelly Damphousse expressed guarded optimism for the phased “reopening” of the state, which could begin early next month, but Damphousse said the university is nonetheless prepared for the long haul of higher education online. 

“Our academic leadership is considering a number of models that we could adopt for Fall 2020, and we will choose one that we believe has the most positive impact on our faculty/staff and students,” Damphousse said in Tuesdays’ message. “The safety of our students and employees is my highest priority, but that is followed closely by my passion to get us back to as close to normal as possible as quickly as practical.”

ASU will announce a decision about its Summer II Semester course delivery around May 15 and the Fall Semester at the end of the month or in early June. The school’s Maymester, Summer I and full Summer Semester courses will be delivered online while scheduled, face-to-face classes have been canceled or moved online.

Bill Smith, associate vice chancellor for communications and marketing, said ASU and its fellow academic institutions have taken inspiration from Indonesia, where higher education has persevered online in the wake of natural disasters like tsunamis.

“Keep in mind one of our degree programs is disaster preparedness here,” Smith said.  “And it kind of struck us that makes sense.”

Outlasting the slow moving wave of a pandemic may be no picnic, Smith said, but ASU has learned how to manage in cyberspace and, with each day, it becomes better equipped to offer upcoming semesters the same way if necessary.

“We’ve met this challenge,” Smith said. “If we have to keep doing it there’s a confidence that we know we can.”

Last week Gov. Asa Hutchinson appointed a 27-member economic recovery task force composed of business, association, chamber of commerce and employment sector leaders, including ASU System President Chuck Welch. Hutchinson set May 4 as the date he hopes to begin easing restrictions in the state, which would follow White House guidelines for a three-phase reopening.

In his message, Damphousse said the dates and details of the Summer II and Fall Semester announcements depend on the success of the Phase One and Two reopenings, which hinge on a continued downward trajectory of virus symptoms and cases, adequate testing and availability of hospital care for all patients without crisis care.

Phase One could include opening gyms (including ASU’s Red W.O.L.F. Center) non-essential businesses, large venues and a return to work for some employees while Phase Two would include the reopening of schools.

“The chancellor and the executive committee and the academic leadership are talking about a wide range of possibilities for the fall,” Smith said. “But as we’ve seen, you have to wait until that moment comes before you make decisions. What allows you to wait until that moment is planning, and if there’s anything we’ve done at Arkansas State for 2020 it’s planning things.”

ASU’s Fall 2019 enrollment was 13,891 and its budget for 2019-2020 was set at $284.8 million. The school charges $8,900 a year for in-state tuition and fees and $15,860 for out-of-state tuition and fees.

The school is calculating refunds for housing, meal and Flex plans and is in the process of manually crediting students’ accounts. Amounts should be posted by April 29 with refunds for eligible students processed by May 5, Damphousse said.

Additionally, Damphousse has appointed a number of ASU officials and campus leaders to its CARES Act ResponseTeam (CART), which will make recommendations for the distribution of the $4.6 million in emergency assistance ASU will receive under the act.

With the present in flux and the future not settled, Smith said the university is finding it can still host events and some extracurriculars.

In a bit of irony Saturday, the school held its eSports online gaming conference online, as opposed to bringing the gamers on campus, in cooperation with New York Institute of Technology. ASU also shifted this week’s research event Create@State online, streaming the student presentations on its YouTube page and broadcasting on ASU-TV and local cable systems.

Music faculty have been holding Facebook Live and YouTube recitals and, for the first time, new student orientation will be conducted online with a virtual campus tour featuring guided video commentary from student leaders and 360 degree views.

“It’s good to know where the library is but it might be more important for them to know where the library links are online,” Smith said.