This would have been the week K-State students started packing up to go home for the summer, perhaps work a part-time job, and get ready for their eventual return to campus next semester.
Instead, most of those students have long been in their hometowns, having been sent back by university officials after the coronavirus pandemic flared up back in March.
As K-State works to finalize plans for its intended resumption of in-person classes in August, those same students, as well as potential freshmen, are considering what their campus experience might look like in the fall before making hard commitments.
The Mercury interviewed several students and parents, and they made it clear that they want students on campus in the fall. Their main concern is uncertainty with what that semester will look like.
“I don’t think the kids realize how different it might be,” said Terri Gentry-Ward, a Berryton parent whose twin daughters, Bretlynn and Madison Ward, will be freshmen next fall. “I’m curious to get information from K-State on how they plan to keep students safe.”
Gentry-Ward said she hasn’t yet heard much from K-State about the university’s fall plans.
“I know you can fit 300 kids in some of those classrooms, but you can cut that in half to 150, and there’s still 150 kids breathing in there,” she said. “Young people are more likely to be asymptomatic and not know they have it, that’s worrisome as well.
“On the other hand, it’s hard to break a kid’s heart and tell them you’d prefer that they not go (to college),” she added.
For other students, like doctoral candidate Ana Lucia Mendonça, they’re excited to go back to campus. Most of Mendonça’s classes are online, but as a graduate assistant in the College of Education, she said she misses her office, because at home, it’s hard to concentrate while raising three kids who are also learning from home.
“I hope that with K-State’s measures, that we can go back to school,” she said. “If everybody would be wearing masks, we would have less cases of COVID-19.”
Prior to the pandemic, K-State officials projected flat or slightly decreased enrollment in a continuation of a five-year skid, which has reduced the student body population to its lowest level in more than 20 years.
Now, the university is sure that enrollment will be down, said Jeff Morris, vice president for communications and marketing. The only question is by how much.
K-State typically projects upcoming enrollment by looking at registration for orientation and enrollment or tracking how many students have made housing deposits, but this year, those numbers aren’t providing as much clarity.
“We are anticipating that people will make their decisions later than they typically do, so a lot of people will probably want to come in late July and August, and we’re going to need to be prepared for that,” Morris said.
“As we start to get these plans and answers out there, we’ll have a much better picture of what the numbers actually look like,” he added.
The university is even changing its approach in how it markets to prospective students, Morris said. University officials have scrubbed pictures of large gatherings or group activities from K-State’s advertisements and mailers with college staples such as football games, formals and clubs in question for the fall. Instead, the university is showcasing individuals.
“We know people aren’t going to come here and get to experience some of those things we’ve used in the past,” Morris said. “We’re looking at that as we go through to make sure that what we’re doing with our brand promises is going to match that brand experience.”
Keeping classrooms safe
In charting K-State’s course of action these next few months, university officials have to approach their decisions like they’re running a city, Morris said.
“We’ve got restaurants, we’ve got convenience stores, we’ve got housing,” he said. “We’ve got all of these venues. We have to look at it almost at a municipal planning model. We have to think, what is best thing we can do to ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff, and we’re going to have to be flexible.”
While some of the university’s fall semester plan will rely on information on the virus that won’t come until late in the summer, Morris outlined some of the steps that K-State is considering to keep students, faculty, staff and the broader Manhattan community safe.
K-State will likely require people on campus to wear masks whenever they interact with other people. Mayor Usha Reddi has pushed for a similar ordinance requiring people to wear masks in public in Manhattan, but that proposal has met pushback from people who question how the city would even enforce such a law.
Morris said K-State’s version of that proposal is not yet set in stone, and university officials have not yet discussed how they would enforce that as a campus rule.
“Obviously, you’ve got 30,000 people you’re dealing with, and you have to accommodate the different populations,” he said. “That will just have to be determined. It’s going to be a challenge, and we understand that, but hopefully, the K-State family comes together and realizes the reason we do this is to help protect other people.”
Large gatherings will almost certainly be prohibited, and the university will take steps to reduce in-person contact. Although students may be back on campus, online classes could be a continued component of the university’s academic plan. And even if the university decides to suspend in-person activities, officials might not ask students to return to their hometowns like they did in March, having learned that bringing people back then sending them back home could be “traumatic,” Morris said.
Classes also could see a hybrid approach even within single sections. For example, Morris said a Tuesday/Thursday class could have half the class meet virtually and half meet in-person on Tuesday, then they would switch on Thursday.
In any case, the university can’t operate on the assumption that “we can put several hundred people in a room,” he said.
“Again, the key will be flexibility. We might start in one mode, but then move to another. We’re going to have to be prepared to be flexible throughout the semester. If we get a second wave, obviously the rules are going to change.”
Where will they live?
When K-State asked students on spring break not to return to campus in March, that prompted the question: Who’s left on the hook for housing contracts for the remainder of the semester?
For students in K-State’s residence halls, officials moved to refund students for the remaining portions of their housing and dining contracts — a decision that cost K-State $8.5 million. University leaders continue to discuss what options students might have next semester, but Morris said it is likely K-State will extend the same kind of pro-rated refund should they choose to send students to their hometowns again.
One possibility Morris said the university is considering is limiting residence hall occupancy to one student per room. Additionally, K-State will keep Van Zile Hall on standby as an isolation ward for any students who might come down with the virus.
For students in off-campus housing, the situation was a bit more complex.
About 80% of K-State’s students live off-campus in Manhattan, and most student housing contracts run through the end of the year, Few, if any leases, include stipulations directly for what happens when students leave school or classes are canceled.
“Without other factors, K-State saying we’re going to remote learning is not a reason to get out of your lease,” said Sarah Barr. Barr heads K-State’s Student Legal Services and regularly represents students advice in off-campus housing disputes. “So you go home to Dodge City, but you still have a legally binding contract for apartment in Manhattan that you’re paying rent for.”
In planning for next semester, Barr says university leaders asked her to come up with a potential addendum that would allow a student to terminate a lease without financial penalty if the university were to cancel classes. She adapted a lease addendum that has been circulating nationally with Kansas-specific language, although she noted that the lease language heavily favors the tenant, calling it “like the Lamborghini of addendums.”
Last week, president Richard Myers sent a letter to Manhattan landlords asking for them to at least consider using the addendum in any leases they make with K-State students. In exchange, K-State would advertise their properties in a list of landlords who include the addendum on its Off-Campus Housing Support Website.
“While this does not constitute an endorsement, preference, or guarantee from the university, we think this resource can help students better plan for the fall semester,” Myers wrote. “The flexibility the lease addendum would provide could make a difference in students’ decisions to enroll at K-State and move to Manhattan, which, in turn, will impact rental property occupancy level in the community.”
But landlords haven’t been too keen to take K-State up on that request. Mary Alice Phillips, a landlord who owns several properties in Wamego and one near K-State campus, said she sees both sides of the dilemma, as she has a college-aged daughter who is facing her own uncertainty with rent while attending Benedictine College in Atchison.
“I’m just so torn with this whole idea, because it’s not something I would have ever asked any of the landlords in Manhattan to do, simply because I’m not the kind of person who would ask someone to do me something such a huge favor without offering something in return,” she said.
In essence, K-State is asking landlords to “risk everything” without getting much in return, she said, especially when landlords might face their own uncertainties with income. One way K-State and the city could “sweeten the pot” would be to consider waiving or deferring property tax payments, Phillips said.
“There are some landlords who have told us they’re not interested in this, and that’s fine,” Morris said. “There are others who understand that we have a lot of people sitting on the fence, and that would help a lot of people get off the fence and make a decision, and it would be a very positive thing.”
Barr said K-State’s request is mostly just a starting point, and landlords and tenants can negotiate to different terms and “share the love, share the damage.”
“These are uncharted waters,” she said. “We’re asking for people to try to cooperate.”
A global disease
With thousands of flights now canceled and American embassies around the world closed, some international students are unsure if they’ll even be able to make it into the U.S. in August, let alone to campus.
“That is the kind of the thinking right now for all the current and new international students,” said Vedant Kulkarni, a senior and director of international student affairs for the Student Governing Association. “They are super confused if they’ll be able to make it here in the fall. Their No. 1 resource is contacting the university or the embassy to find out if they’ll be able to come or not.”
Returning students with existing visas don’t face those same issues, particularly if they stayed in the U.S., but they face others as well. With travel still uncertain, they can’t return home without risking being stranded abroad.
Kulkarni, an international student from India, said he didn’t go home initially because he was planning on studying abroad this summer. But those plans are now canceled, and Kulkarni couldn’t go home even if he tried. India is in lockdown, with only a few repatriation flights in and out of the country each day. To get on one of those flights, Kulkarni says he’d have to travel across the U.S. to find a connecting flight, a risk he’s not willing to take when there are still so many virus hotspots in the country.
Kulkarni said international students face different struggles, both in their own countries and when they come to the U.S. He gave the example that if he were back in India, he might have to attend his 1 p.m. class at 1 a.m. in India. Additionally, some international students may lack reliable internet or power access.
Meanwhile, international students who stayed in Manhattan have been well supported by the university, Kulkarni said. K-State officials have helped students stuck in the U.S., and even though international students aren’t eligible for disbursements from the $6.3 million in emergency federal aid K-State received, the university opened up other lines of assistance for them.
Kulkarni said the K-State campus will lose a valuable asset if its international student body population takes a hit.
“Generally, when come to college, you come from a friend circle in high school, but in college, you meet different people,” he said. “You get to interact with people who come from a different culture or speak a different language. It helps you understand a different culture and makes you ready for a world that is more globalized. It gets you ready for working in work force that is very diverse.”
‘A new normal’
As students and parents push for answers on the fall, K-State officials are working on plans for what the semester could look like in terms of the on-campus experience. Morris said proposed plans were due to Myers and provost Chuck Taber on Friday, and they will review the plans for potential implementation in the fall. Officials hope to have specific details by early June.
Meanwhile, K-State students are itching to get back to campus.
“Most students miss their friendships and relationships, the very social nature and aspects you get from a university,” student body president Tel Witmer said. “That’s a pretty big part of it. Most students want to be on campus. I think you’re still getting a quality education through remote learning, but you’re not getting that social capital or the relational side of things you get from being on campus or in the classroom.
But students will have to get used to a new normal, Witmer said.
“One thing we’re noticing nationally is that our status quo that we left in March is not the status quo we need right now and going forward in the future,” he said. “There is going to be a new status quo that we need to find. A large-scale shutdown is not sustainable, and that’s apparent now. I’m not saying that wasn’t the right course of action. But we’re in a transitional period and we have to figure out what that status quo will look like.”