University of Kansas losing revenue this semester as pandemic rages, 24,000 students are learning the meaning of online instruction, KU School of Medicine deploying more than 50 early grads, commencement ceremonies postponed, non-essential research is on hold and a hiring freeze is in place

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TOPEKA — Three weeks ago, University of Kansas student Cayden Fairman was thinking about hiking in the Alps while studying abroad in Friedberg, Germany.

Now, he is two days out of quarantine after his academic adventure was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic that marched through Europe and descended upon the United States.

“That was one of the most surreal things to me, because I always thought it wasn’t actually going to happen,” Fairman said.

Fairman, a KU junior studying environmental science, took a virtual tour Thursday of the Black Forest in the Swiss Alps. He said hiking through the Alps for one of his classes was what he had looked forward to most during his study abroad program. For now, the experience is available to him through a video uploaded online by a KU professor.

Rapid deployment

Michael Kennedy, professor and associate dean of rural health education in the KU School of Medicine, said medical students who had met all their academic requirements would be allowed to graduate early so they could be deployed as the state responds to the pandemic.

“There is a potential for extreme stress on health care systems in urban and rural settings due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Kennedy said. “Many physicians are already overworked and the addition of a surge in health care utilization could overburden these doctors to the breaking point.”

He said as many as 60 senior students from KUMC have volunteered and will be deployed throughout Kansas.

New world

Kansas recorded its first coronavirus fatality March 11, which was the same day KU decided spring break for 24,000 students in Lawrence would be extended one week to allow faculty an opportunity to migrate to online instruction. KU moved on to adopt travel restrictions, limitations on gatherings and a requirement that courses be taught online for the remainder of the semester.

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Campus housing occupancy was reduced to 500 students. Work-at-home orders for faculty and staff slashed the on-campus workforce by 90%. By March 20, a big shoe dropped when non-essential research was suspended. On Thursday, KU said commencement has been postponed, a hiring and salary freeze is required, business travel in Kansas and Missouri is discontinued and summer session classes are to be online.

KU Chancellor Doug Girod said during an online chat with faculty, staff and students it was impossible to know when the campus could be safely reoccupied. Maybe the end of April, perhaps May. Financial implications of COVID-19 will be exceptional at KU, as well as other American colleges and universities.

“There remains an awful lot that we don’t know,” he said. “It is clear that we will be losing tens of millions of dollars of revenue through the course of this semester.”

In Kansas, state and county health officials have confirmed 620 cases of the coronavirus. COVID-19’s respiratory assault has killed 17, including seven in Johnson County and five in Wyandotte County.

Missing out

Amarais Towle, a senior completing a social welfare degree, said changes at KU mean losing out on scholarship hall traditions and missing two months of her practicum at a mental health facility. She may not walk in the commencement procession because she plans to start work with AmeriCorps this summer.

“It’s sad to have that sudden end to everything and not get to finish,” Towle said.

Barbara Bichelmeyer, provost and executive vice chancellor at KU, said a survey of students that elicited more than 3,000 responses made crystal clear a majority didn’t want to give up on commencement.

The allure of walking in a line of black-robed classmates through the Campanile tower and into the football stadium is powerful enough that KU officials will attempt to reschedule commencement in late summer or early fall, she said.

“We’re going to do everything we can to get you that experience of walking down the hill when the time is right,” Bichelmeyer said.

Politics can’t wait

With the university closed, junior Grant Daily, who works as a resident assistant in a residence hall, said campus feels “ominous.” He said despite that, he is grateful to have somewhere to live and access to resources like Wi-Fi and campus computers.

“I don’t really think now is the time to complain,” Daily said. “I think a lot of people, this is kind of the opportunity to buckle down and be thankful for what you have.”

He is a candidate for student body vice president for the 2020-21 school year. With elections coming up in April, he and other students in his coalition moved their campaigns entirely online.

Now, he said, the focus is on connecting with peers digitally. He said there is disappointment in losing in-person opportunities to campaign and extra motivation to overcome the new challenge.

“I’ve been pleased with Student Senate still forging ahead,” said Tammara Durham, KU vice provost for student affairs.

She said the university is offering student services, including assistance with counseling, job fairs and tutoring, in an online format. The campus health center remains open Monday through Friday, where students and faculty can access testing for COVID-19.

Plans are under development to provide refunds for dormitory, scholarship hall and apartment housing, as well as prepaid dining and parking, Durham said.

Huge disruption

Simon Atkinson, vice chancellor for research at KU, said suspension of non-essential research in the wake of the pandemic was an unprecedented disruption of scholarship and creative activity.

“In many cases our life’s work is on hold or in jeopardy,” he said. “This affects not only lab activities in science and engineering, but also studio work in the arts, performance and rehearsal of musicians and ensembles, scholarship that requires travel to archives, field work, community and school place studies and so much more.”

The absence of typical campus life isn’t an opportunity to ignore public health advisories about personal hygiene and social distancing, said Andrew Foster, KU’s director of emergency management.

“Now is not the time to be having communal parties or gatherings or going out and playing basketball with your friends,” Foster said.

Online teaching

With only a couple of weeks to transition classes online, graduate student Neill Kennedy said she is being as flexible as possible with students. She said the American studies department took steps to avoid failing students this semester given the suddenness of the switch and uncertainty about students’ access to resources away from campus.

“I have more lax due dates,” Kennedy said. “I’ve changed the structure of class. I’m not requiring them to be on a Zoom lecture for any period of time, and I’ve been very blunt that this class was not what was meant to be an online class. Therefore, the expectations are not going to be set to the same standard.”

KU junior Grace Jones said the hardest part of the transition has been losing face-to-face contact with her professors and absence of a campus environment.

She said it is difficult to stay motivated and focused at home, and she misses seeing her classmates and friends.

“I think the hardest part for me in regards to not being on campus is that is how I learn the best, being on campus and being able to ask questions instantly,” Jones said.

’Could be way worse’

Senior Jenna Schmidt said she and her friends have been Zoom calling each other for encouragement.

“It’s actually been a little bit challenging just because you have to go from having the requirement of being in class so many hours a week to being on your own time,” Schmidt said.

Fairman, who had his study abroad experience in Germany halted, said it was nice to have friends around who are going through the same thing. He said he has tried to stay optimistic.

“It is bad, but it's not like I was hand selected to have something bad happen to me,” Fairman said. “It could be way worse, and there’s a sense of community right now that everyone is being affected.”

The other side

Girod, the chancellor and a physician, said KU would be changed by the pandemic.

As people wrestle with a new reality, he said, the objective should be to maneuver through challenges with grace.

“We’ll be a different university on the other side of this, but we will be a stronger university,” he said.