Michael Maddox via shutterstock
University of Connecticut in Storrs (Michael Maddox via shutterstock)

Students at the University of Connecticut and the four Connecticut state universities can count on partial reimbursement for their housing and dining fees for this semester because of campus shutdowns amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

UConn’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously Wednesday to give reimbursements prorated for the remainder of the semester, which amounts to about seven weeks. It means UConn will return an estimated $30 million, according to university officials.

The UConn vote came a day after Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian directed the four Connecticut state universities to give similar reimbursements.

In most cases, students will not receive direct refunds. Rather, they will receive credits toward their fees for the fall semester. Exceptions will be made for graduating students and others who don’t intend to return to campus. For students whose housing and dining fees were covered in part by financial aid, the money will be returned to their financial aid and scholarship accounts.

Because UConn has a variety of housing and dining plans, the reimbursement each student receives will vary, administrators said. They estimated that Storrs students can expect something in the range of $1,600 to almost $3,200 for housing fees and $1,200 to $1,400 for dining fees. Students who live on the Stamford campus will receive $2,800 to $3,100.

UConn Board of Trustees Chairman Dan Toscano said it was important to begin the process of returning fees immediately, despite the cost of that and other budget problems caused by the virus. “We hope very loudly that there will be federal and state assistance on this, but we couldn’t wait any longer,” he said. “It is not (a matter) we take lightly, but it is, for sure, the right decision to make for our students at this time.”

The other fiscal problems appear dire. UConn Executive Vice President for Administration and CFO Scott Jordan told the trustees that the university may face an “exposure” of about $130 million by the end of the fiscal year, accounting for the dining and housing reimbursements and about $8.7 million in savings through such things as canceled catering for events that won’t be held.

Jordan said his biggest concerns center on the university’s 227 undergraduate international students, many of whom come from China. Because they receive little or no financial aid, and therefore pay full tuition, the university is “very much dependent on them,” he said. If those students can’t or won’t return to campus after the outbreak, the losses in the next fiscal year could range from $18 million to $70 million, he said. “It’s a very broad range,” he acknowledged, “because we just don’t know” what decisions those students will make.

At the UConn Health in Farmington, administrators expect to see at least $2.4 million in new costs related to fighting COVID-19. Along with that, they estimate losing $101 million in revenue from postponing elective surgeries.

Other challenges

The trustees also heard administrators report on the other challenges brought about by the outbreak. Vice President for Student Affairs Michael Gilbert said approximately 1,200 Storrs students still live on campus, with another 63 living on the Stamford campus. Most of them have no other place to go, or are international students who feel safer on campus than in their home countries.

None of those students has shown any symptoms of the virus, and they have been cooperative in observing social distancing, Gilbert said. Initially, the university required them to come to the dining halls in shifts for their meals, he said, but that was soon changed to requiring them to pick up their meals and eat them in their rooms. The university is keeping kitchen workers and other staff on campus to serve them, he added, but only a minimum number. Gathering spots such as the recreation and student union are closed.

In addition, a student COVID-19 team that’s been meeting twice a week has focused on such issues as creating a move-out calendar for the residence halls. When UConn closed its campuses, it projected that students could return as soon April 6, so most left their belongings in their dormitory rooms, according to Gilbert. Now, facing the prospect that campuses could be closed for much longer, if not for the rest of the semester, the university is working on a schedule for students to return in shifts to collect their things. Since students usually bring family members to help them move, he said, “we have to be very thoughtful” about carrying out the operation while also following public health guidelines.

At the same time, UConn officials said they are working with the governor’s office to find additional space to add 82 beds at the Farmington health center.

“By and large, I’m just really impressed with the way this university mobilized,” UConn President Tom Katsouleas told the trustees, noting an emergency response team has been meeting since late February.

At two points in the meeting, UConn officials expressed concern for the safety of Chinese students who live off-campus in the Hartford, Mansfield and Stamford areas. “There’s some fear there,” Vice President for Global Affairs Daniel Weiner said. “I’m concerned …  you’ll see more and more anti-Chinese racism.”

The trustees also took up a proposal to adjust by one year the timetable by which UConn faculty achieve tenure. Since it would first require a change in their bylaws, the trustees referred the matter to their academic affairs committee for review.