Danny Reinan, Staff Writer
Amidst the confusion and chaos caused by COVID-19, Augsburg has held a number of virtual town hall meetings to help address many of the areas of concern brought about by the pandemic. While several of the past meetings focused on the concerns of faculty, staff, and alumni, the university’s fifth meeting since moving online was geared towards addressing student concerns specifically. The meeting made use of Zoom’s Q&A feature, allowing students in attendance to ask questions as the meeting progressed. These questions were answered by a panel of Augsburg staff and faculty consisting of Paul Pribbenow, Karen Kaivola, Sarah Griesse, Katie Bishop, Alicia Quella, Rebecca John and Leif Anderson.
Pribbenow opened the town hall meeting by addressing three major areas of student concern – the 2020 commencement ceremony for graduating seniors, the status of the residence halls, and the payment of student workers. Pribbenow expressed the university’s dedication to honoring graduating seniors for their accomplishments, and explained that, to that end, the university would hold a virtual commencement ceremony on May 4, as well as an in-person ceremony that would take place as soon as it is safe to convene. Acknowledging that there has been some conflicting information issued regarding the status of the residence halls, Pribbenow clarified that residence halls will remain open for international students, students with health risks, and students with housing insecurity. He also explained that the Department of Residence Life is currently looking at ways to credit accounts for housing fees that were paid but not used.
Pribbenow also expressed gratitude towards student workers for their efforts throughout the academic year, and said that Augsburg would do everything in its power to give student workers the resources that they need to continue their work, whether that be through remote work or specialized projects. He said that measures have already been taken to pay student workers at A’viands for the hours that they would have worked for the remainder of the year, and that the institution is looking into similar measures for workers in other departments.
From there, the meeting progressed into its Q&A portion, and the other members of the panel joined the conversation. One of the initial topics was the question of tuition reimbursement, as some students have viewed the move to online classes as having hindered their educational experience. Rebecca John, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at Augsburg, said that there are no plans for tuition reimbursement. “We are working to still deliver [a quality education] even though the mode has changed,” she explained. “We have paid attention to what other institutions are doing across the country and this is a fairly consistent approach.”
Pribbenow then elaborated on the recent announcement of staff furloughs and layoffs, which he explained were planned since before the pandemic, but have been exacerbated by the crisis.
“The pandemic has put additional pressure on Augsburg,” Pribbenow explained. “There are many people whose work has been curtailed.”
While the exact number of staff who will be furloughed or laid off remains up in the air at this point, Pribbenow stated his resolve to make sure that all employees receive financial support during the process. “We are doing everything in our power to help employees who would be furloughed or laid off in maintaining healthcare insurance,” he said. “The intersection of our efforts to reset our expense structure with the pandemic is going to have an impact on peoples’ lives, and we want to be sensitive to that.” To that end, Pribbenow and the members of his leadership team will themselves be taking mandatory furloughs before the end of May to aid in the process.
Karen Kaivola, the Provost and Chief Academic Officer at Augsburg, then discussed what the 2020-2021 academic year might look like. She explained that university officials have been looking forward and drafting scenario plans to determine whether or not online classes will have to continue into the following academic year. “The deans and I have begun thinking about that already, and thinking about when we might be able to make that decision,” she said. “The situation has been evolving so rapidly that it’s tough to make that decision. We are hoping to have decided by early May, but even that feels too soon.” Augsburg’s scenario planning will continue into the following weeks, and the officials conducting the process will be looking to other institutions nationwide to see how they are planning for the coming year.
Kaivola also addressed the concerns of students whose majors require now-cancelled practicum work, such as Social Work students. “If the requirement is one that is determined by the state or the program accreditor, it might be that we have less flexibility about that requirement and would have to record it as an X grade, meaning you would have a year to complete it,” she explained. She encouraged all students who are required to complete practicums to reach out to their department chairs about more specific information on how and when they might be able to fulfill those requirements.
Alicia Quella, the Department Chair of Augsburg’s Physician Assistant program, explained that she has been working with campus staff to make the campus a safer place in the wake of the pandemic. She issued a series of recommendations to students in attendance, including leaving your shoes outside your living space and heating up any ordered food in order to kill the virus. She also stressed the CDC’s recommendations regarding social distancing, encouraging all students to maintain a six foot distance from all other people and to wear face masks when leaving their living spaces. Quella explained that many areas of campus have been closed in order to best adhere to these recommendations and create an environment where students who are remaining on campus can maintain a safe distance from one another.
Pribbenow ended the meeting by expressing his gratitude towards Augsburg students for remaining diligent during this time of uncertainty. He stressed the importance of safety, and asked for all members of the Augsburg community to keep themselves – and those around them – healthy. “My fondest hope, my deepest wish, is that you stay safe and healthy,” he said. “Take Alicia’s recommendations seriously. It’s important we do everything to keep you healthy and keep those you come in contact with healthy. Thanks for being with us and we’ll be in touch again. Thank you.”
Video recordings, audio recordings, and text transcripts of all of Augsburg’s virtual town hall meetings are available on the university website’s Outbreak Planning page. If future town hall meetings are to take place, they will be announced in advance through A-Mail and accessible using Augsburg Zoom. The Augsburg Helpline is available for students, staff, or faculty who have questions or concerns via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 612-474-3100. Students who are struggling with financial insecurity as a result of the pandemic are encouraged to fill out the Student Emergency Fund Request Form on the Augsburg website’s Outbreak Planning page.