For Colorado School of Mines freshman Paul Slayback, the week before Spring Break was an unexpected whirlwind. On Tuesday, March 9, he was sitting in class, where a professor told students classes …
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For Colorado School of Mines freshman Paul Slayback, the week before Spring Break was an unexpected whirlwind.
On Tuesday, March 9, he was sitting in class, where a professor told students classes would likely continue as usual through Spring Break, before Mines might have to make alternative arrangements for classes due to COVID-19. But the very next night, Slayback was eating dinner when he received an email that all classes would be moving online.
The next day brought even more news as Slayback was notified all students who could leave campus should do so. Finally, that Friday, the school informed its students that the suggestion to leave campus, had turned into an order.
“It was all very fast,” said Slayback. “That Monday we were questioning if Mines would actually shut down and by Friday it had.”
Now, Slayback does not yet know when he will return to campus as the school, which has also announced its first session of summer classes will take place online, has not yet made a decision about when students will return to campus.
What is becoming clearer, however, is that Slayback and his fellow students will be returning to a university where many aspects of campus life will have been significantly altered by COVID-19 and its fallout.
Preparing for impact on enrollment
Peter Han, the Chief of Staff in the President’s Office at Mines, has also been serving as the leader of the school’s COVID-19 emergency response. He said that while COVID-19 is affecting everything from the school’s finances to its athletic teams, one of the major impacts the school is currently monitoring is the one it could have on next year’s enrollment.
So far, commitments for the 2020 freshman class had been on track to be where the school wanted them to be, which was down slightly from 2019’s larger-than-expected freshman class. However, the deadline to notify the school of a commitment to enroll is not until May 1, and the school has extended that deadline in the wake of the virus.
“We know that a lot of families even if they made a deposit, their decision may hinge upon what happens in the fall (with COVID-19),” said Han. “And so regardless of what plans are being made now, we know that there could be an impact on enrollment depending on what happens with the COVID-19 situation.”
Han said the school is trying not to make the decision about whether students will return to campus in the fall “until we have to.” However, staff are already evaluating the best way to proceed based on a variety of possible situations and has developed 10 contingency plans for the fall based on them. Those plans range from holding classes as normal, which he said is “probably unrealistic,” to looking at ways to lessen the density of classes, such as offering additional classes on weekends or dividing the semester into blocks with students spending time in classrooms during one block and hands-on lab activities in another.
“We’re trying to get really as creative as possible about how we could teach students on campus,” he said. “But obviously we also have to be prepared for remote learning to continue in the fall and so we’ll be spending a lot of time this summer trying to improve what we do with remote learning.”
Closed dorms means a $3 million budget hit
But just as the school’s staff is having to prepare for how to hold classes in an uncertain environment, they are also starting to grapple with the impact COVID-19 could have on the school’s budget.
Han said the school has already experienced several losses of revenue from COVID-19, including a “significant” one of about $3 million when it made the decision to refund students for the unused portions of their housing and dining contracts. Being unable to host events and other activities has also cost the school revenue.
But the move to online learning has also saved the school money in reduced operating costs and other expenses and so far the school has been able to cut enough expenses to balance its budget.
However, the situation will ultimately depend on what happens with next year’s enrollment and the school is making plans for potential impacts, as well as the potential cuts to the school’s state funding that become likely whenever the state falls on hard times.
While the total effect of COVID-19 on Mines won’t become evident until at least the fall and probably well beyond that, the situation is already having a major impact on students who are missing out on not only time on campus, but also opportunities for internships and even employment.
That’s been the case in the school’s Petroleum Engineering department as some students have seen internship offers rescinded though others are still proceeding, offer with the internship to now be conducted virtually. Some seniors have also seen job offers rescinded as the oil industry has taken a tumble, although Department Head Jennifer L. Miskimins said there has been less of that than she might have expected given the situation.
But despite the challenging times the oil industry is experiencing, Miskimins said she remains optimistic about her student’s futures and is encouraging them to be the same.
“Our industry is a cyclical industry and I try to make sure our students that it’s a great career but there’s going to be some ups and downs,” she said. “But the other thing is Mines is a phenomenally good school with a good reputation and so while it might take a little longer to get a job in the industry right now you will get one if you want to.”
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