How Cal State is navigating the coronavirus: Your questions answered

Student workers to be paid, health center fees to be kept, grading policy left to each individual campus

I’m so happy with our collaboration last week.

The State Hornet embedded CalMatter’s Q&A livestream with Chancellor White on the CSU’s adaptation to coronavirus, live-tweeted it, and wrote up a story. The Runner promoted the event in a post, giving the CSU Wire its first byline on their website. I talked with San Jose State’s Daily Spartan, Cal Poly Pomona’s The Poly Post, SDSU’s The Daily Aztec, Cal Poly’s Mustang News and Northridge's Sundial when preparing for the conversation, which I moderated. Seven papers from the 23 campuses were involved in prepping questions, and we thankfully are adding San Francisco State’s Golden Gate Xpress, The Sundial, The Daily Spartan and The Post to this network. Thanks for joining us.

Moments like those interviews are what this wire is made for, and I’m glad we were able to come together. Here’s to more.

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Timothy P. White, Chancellor of the California State University system, prepares to testify on the failure to fully disclose a $1.5 billion surplus in a joint hearing of the Joint Legislative Audit, Senate Education, Assembly Higher Education and Assembly subcommittee on Education Finance committees on August 12, 2019. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

The biggest takeaway is that the CSU wants to continue paying all on-campus workers, whether or not they worked for the university or an auxiliary like the bookstore or a food provider. The pay would be independent of whether or not they could actually continue to work. More details below, or in the video.

The State Hornet and CalMatters both wrote summaries, so you have options on which you want to run. If this is your first time seeing the Cal State Student Wire, be sure to sign up.


The State Hornet’s copy:

In a livestream interview with nonprofit news organization CalMatters on Thursday, California State University Chancellor Timothy White addressed how CSU campuses are transitioning to online learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Felicia Mello, editor of the CalMatters College Journalism Network, and Aidan McGloin, student journalist at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo’s Mustang News, conducted the interview with questions from CSU student-run news organizations, faculty and students.

Here’s a breakdown of what White said during the interview.

‘Whether they use it or not,’ students will pay for on-campus services

Some fees that are a part of on-campus services such as parking, meals plans and residence halls will be refunded to CSU students.

“All campuses are required to have refund policies for those areas and have provided refunds,” White said. 

Mandatory fees for on-campus recreation and healthcare centers like The WELL at Sacramento State will not be refunded, according to White.

“We either have a sort of a mortgage payment that everybody agreed to when we built the recreation center,” White said. “And students, whether they use it or not, were all part of helping to fund that.”

White said that the facilities are still open, but in different formats.

“Things like the health center are open, they are just open in a different way,” White said. “We are trying to make certain that the fees that support the delivery of instruction and the academic support and health support of our students, those fees will remain.”

RELATED: The WELL offers partial refunds to Sac State faculty, staff, alumni

Other CSU residence hall residents spread out, despite Sac State consolidation

White said that reduced occupancy in residence halls allowed CSU campuses to spread residents out. Mustang News reported that Cal Poly San Luis Obispo spread their residents out.

“For many of our students, staying in the resident halls is probably the safest place for them to be,” White said. “There are a couple hundred students left. Let’s say the resident halls can hold up to a thousand students. We now spread those students out so we have physical distancing.”

Sacramento State consolidated residents into two dorm buildings, but said the new room assignments follow the Centers for Disease Control’s social distancing guidelines.

RELATED: Sac State to consolidate dorm residents amid COVID-19 outbreak

On-campus student employees to be paid through Sunday

Students that work at a university or its auxiliaries will continue to be paid through Sunday, White said. He said the CSU system also implemented an administrative leave policy for student employees that allows them to earn 126 hours of pay, even if they cannot do their jobs.

“With respect to our student workers we right away guaranteed that they would continue to be paid through April 5 with whatever they were working 10 hours or 15 or 20 hours a week in any part of the university auxiliaries,” White said. “We committed to continue their compensation even if they had to work remotely or if basically their job disappeared because something closed down.”

Later in the interview, Mello asked White about students working for auxiliaries that have been laid off or had hours cut. White said students that work for auxiliaries will have to file for unemployment.  

“We cannot use state of California funds to pay the salary of a student who was employed by an auxiliary enterprise on a campus,” White said. “Those that lose those jobs will be eligible for unemployment insurance through the state of California.”

RELATED: The Store in the University Union lays off all Sac State student employees

CARES Act money to be spent on technology for low-income students

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act was passed by the U.S. Congress in an effort to support the economic crisis impacting communities amid the pandemic. 

“(The CARES Act) for the folks who don’t know is a $2 trillion stimulus package that the federal government has passed that has some $14 billion dollars in it for colleges and universities nationwide,” Mello said. “Some of that, as Chancellor White said, is anticipated to come to California colleges and universities.”

Despite the stimulus package provided by the CARES Act, White still foresees financial challenges in the next fiscal year. 

“A mitigated disaster is going to change all the assumptions and all of the timing for our budget for next year,” White said. “I anticipate that we are going to, at the university, have a very serious financial challenge, certainly in the next fiscal year that begins July 1.”

Many of the students who will deal with technological difficulties are low-income, people of color and first-generation students, White said. 

Campuses are seeking to provide students the means to have technological resources by loaning out iPads, Chromebooks, laptops and desktops for students and staff to take home.

The CSU will allocate money from the CARES Act to campuses depending on the size of the campus and how many low-income students they have, according to White.

The CARES act will give the smallest CSU campuses approximately $1.2 million and the largest campuses will be receiving approximately $40 million, according to White. 

“But if half of that money is going to low-income students that is going to be a tremulous boost for them to buy or sign into technology that they otherwise couldn’t afford,” White said.

College facilities could provide assistance for COVID-19 relief 

Facilities in CSU campuses such as recreation centers and residence halls have the ability to relieve hospitals from overwhelming numbers of patients, according to White. 

“We share a responsibility, in my judgment, to help solve this statewide, national, global pandemic,” White said. 

He said CSU is doing its part as a member of the community by providing facilities to help flatten the curve by accepting non-critical care patients.

White said CSU campuses communicate with California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s emergency operation center when beds at campuses are given away locally.

Students in residence halls will not be in the same building or floors as those suspected to be infected with COVID-19, according to White. 

“We are not going to put somebody who may be a carrier or who is known to be a carrier in a residence hall room next to one of our students,” White said. 

He said CSU will not agree to provide beds if students and employees cannot be protected.


CalMatter’s copy:

You’ve got questions about how your CSU education will be disrupted during the coronavirus pandemic. Chancellor Tim White has answers. In a wide-ranging discussion with CalMatters’ College Journalism Network on Thursday, the chancellor discussed fee refunds, support for faculty teaching online, and more. Here’s what we learned. For more details, watch the full interview with White here.

I worked for my campus but the job is shut down. Will I still get paid?

Yes, for up to 126 hours worth of work. Chancellor White said student workers will receive paid administrative leave for the same hours and rates they would have earned if they still worked on campus. 

“We committed to continue their compensation even if they had to work remotely or if they were, basically, their job disappeared because something closed down,” White said.

What about students who worked on campus for a private franchise like dining or the bookstore? Will they still be paid?

Possibly. White said Cal State itself can’t legally pay auxiliary employees, but is looking at how to pay students using money distributed to the university from the $2 trillion federal stimulus program, the CARES Act. The funds could take the form of a loan that would be forgiven as long as the business does not lay people off. Details are still murky, but White says the university’s legal department is working on it.

Can I get refunds for campus services I won’t be using but already paid for?

Yes, but only for parking, dining and on-campus housing. Campus health centers are still open for people by appointment and for advice or counseling calls, so they need operational money, White said. Health centers and recreation centers also have mortgage payments that campuses can’t get out of, he said. 

I am a professor and have trouble teaching my three-hour class online. How can I improve it?

“Don’t worry about the perfect,” White advised. “Think about the things that really matter to our students–content, engagement, the understanding of their life circumstances, and their ability to interact either by asking questions or by chat boxes, or by email, or by phone call… It’s different, but it’s gonna work.”

I don’t have a computer or a good internet connection. How can I learn online?

Campuses have been loaning out laptops and hotspots for students and staff to take home. Some campuses are ordering new devices to meet the demand. Common spaces, like learning labs, were closed to avoid social contact. But some campuses are creating wi-fi zones in parking lots and garages so students can log on without congregating in an enclosed space. White said he expects some funds from the CARES Act to go directly to students as emergency aid, which they could spend to upgrade their technology.  

How much money will CSU get from the federal stimulus package?

The stimulus package prioritizes universities, like CSU, that serve large numbers of low-income students. White estimated it will give  CSU’s smallest campus around $1.2 million. Larger campuses could receive as much as $45 million, although that’s not yet confirmed.

I’m a faculty member and my wifi is not fast enough for online teaching. Will the CSU help pay to upgrade it?

No. White said he expects the additional cost of electricity and wifi upgrades will be offset by the lack of gas spending since you won’t be commuting to campus anymore.

I’m an assistant professor and the pandemic has delayed my research. Will my time to earn tenure be extended?

“We’re not going to let this pandemic hurt the professional lives of people,” White said. The university could pause tenure clocks the way they have done in the past when a faculty member takes parental leave–but White said they hadn’t yet worked out those details.

The CSU had $1.5 billion in reserves, the state auditor reported last year. Will Cal State use that money to cover costs associated with this pandemic?

Yes and no. Some of that reserve, allocated to a rainy day fund, is being used to buy laptops and hotspots. But White does not want to use all of it now since he’s not sure about the long-term ramifications of the pandemic. “It would be malpractice for us to spend down our reserves today with all of the uncertainty that’s facing us in the weeks, months and years ahead,” he said.

We might be in a recession soon, if we’re not already. Does Cal State plan to raise tuition?

“We’re not raising tuition this year, and we don’t plan to raise it next year,” White said. State law requires Cal State to consult with its student government before increasing tuition, and the university called off those talks this year. But White said avoiding them in the future depends on the state giving the university enough funding to sustain operations. “If the state’s unable to do that, then that totally changes the conversation,” he said. “We’d have to reopen that conversation going forward, or we have to get much smaller, or we have to lower the quality of the education.”

Will CSU switch to a more flexible grading policy, like making all classes pass/fail??

The university is leaving that decision up to each individual campus and encouraging them to be flexible. White praised the decision by UC Berkeley to have classes default to pass/fail grading but give students the option to choose a letter grade. “I think that’s where we’re going,” he said.

Is CSU waiving the requirement for applicants to submit SAT and ACT scoresconsidering the exams won’t be proctored for the near future?

University officials haven’t decided yet what to do about SAT and ACT scores for new applicants, White said. But the campus has relaxed some admissions requirements, including allowing applicants to get credit for high school and community college courses that were taken pass/fail. You can find a detailed outline of admissions policies for 2020 and 2021 here.  

Some campuses—but not all—have also extended to June 1 the deadline for admitted students to send in their enrollment deposits.

This pandemic has really hurt my family’s finances. Will my financial aid be reevaluated?

Yes. Reach out to your campus financial aid office and explain the situation, White said. “Anytime there is a change in family income or the student’s income—depending on their tax status—that’s all fair game to go in and have your financial aid package reevaluated and reconsidered,” White said. “Some students are at the maximum awards through Cal Grant or the state university grant or Pell, and others have room to go up.”

How is the CSU helping combat the pandemic?

Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo is using their recreation center as overflow space for local hospitals. At least eight other campuses are talking about the use of their buildings as well. The Fresno County Health Department is using a Fresno State lab for COVID-19 testing. 

Will summer or fall sessions also go online?

No one knows, but plan on classes being virtual.

“We would be foolish not to be considering this fall, that we’re going to continue being in a largely virtual state, White said “It’d be better to plan in that direction, it seems to me and then be able to pull back from that, than  to cross our fingers and [say], ‘Oh my God, I just hope this is over by fall.’ ”

McGloin is a fellow with CalMatters’ College Journalism Network. Our reporters will continue to follow up on readers’ questions about how the pandemic is affecting colleges and universities. If you have a question for us, let us know using the form belowThis story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.