During a University-wide virtual meeting with employees on Friday, President Brian Sandoval sounded a note of cautious optimism as the institution begins the spring semester.
“We’re not in the same place that we were last March when the pandemic first hit,” Sandoval said. “We are making noticeable progress in returning to a sense of normalcy. It’s not here yet. But it’s getting closer. It’s going to continue to grow closer as long as we keep fact- and science-based recommendations at the forefront of all that we do. … We have a lot to look forward to this semester.”
The University-wide meeting drew an audience of more than 1,100 attendees and was Sandoval’s second such virtual gathering since he assumed duties as the University’s 17th president in early October.
Sandoval was joined by several subject matter experts from the campus, including Provost Jeff Thompson, Director of the Student Health Center Dr. Cheryl Hug English, Vice President for Administration and Finance Vic Redding, Manager of Organizational Resilience Amanda Windes and Associate Vice President for Human Resources Tim McFarling.
Faculty Senate Chair Amy Pason served as the moderator, helping to deliver dozens of questions that were either submitted in advance or were generated through the live “Q&A” feature during the call.
Like Sandoval, other panelists also expressed hopeful perspectives for the spring semester.
“Our Nevada U will endure,” Thompson said. “All of you with your combined creativity, determination, and passion, have kept our campus community safe while providing an excellent education for our students and in moving our research enterprise forward.”
Said Pason: “Although we can’t wait to return to regular in-person class, or for many of us, just a little less working from home, I know that many of us have adapted, have found some new routines and even new ways of doing business. We are making it work. We are persisting.”
Hug-English, who along with her staff at the Student Health Center has been working around the clock since last March to meet the campus’ health needs, said that the campus’ effort against COVID-19 has been laudatory.
“This has been a really difficult past year,” she said. “I do share lots of hope and optimism for 2021. We are not where we were at the beginning of 2020. But we still need to have patience and it is going to take some time as we work through this in getting our entire campus vaccinated. I think we can expect we will see additional cases on our campus, just as we’re seeing in our community. But I really feel that our campus as a whole has taken all of the precautions very seriously.”
Sandoval said that the University would continue to follow its “HyFlex” mode of instruction delivery during the spring semester. As was the case during the fall semester, the “HyFlex” mode will include in-person lab classes, studio classes, HyFlex classes and a small number of in-person lecture classes.
Administrative faculty and staff, both those working on campus and those working remotely, have been instructed to continue with their current work schedules and location assignments. If remote work can be accommodated, it should continue to be allowed for the spring semester, Sandoval said.
He said that the E. L. Wiegand Fitness Center, which had been closed in mid-October when a surge of positive COVID-19 cases was beginning to occur in the community, would reopen on Jan. 25 as the spring semester begins.
“The operations plan includes stringent cleaning protocols, masking and social distancing,” he said, adding that the facility capacity will be limited to 25 percent, will be closed twice during business hours to fog and disinfect against COVID as well as after closing, class sizes will be reduced and mask wearing will be mandatory. “We didn’t come to this without a lot of careful thought,” Sandoval said of the Wiegand reopening. “It’s very meaningful for the users to use the facility for mental health purposes. People really need the fitness center to get that break.”
Redding presented the University’s budget situation as Nevada prepares for the upcoming session of the State Legislature in Carson City beginning on Feb. 1. The University still faces an approximate $24.4 million budget reduction put forth in Gov. Steve Sisolak’s executive budget recommendation put forth earlier this month.
Redding said Sisolak’s budget recommendation was in line with November’s request by the state to all state agencies, including the Nevada System of Higher Education, to put together budget reduction plans of 12 percent.
An infusion of federal stimulus dollars in a COVID relief package passed in late December by the federal government could potentially help bridge some of the reductions, Redding said, noting that, “Things have changed a little bit since we last spoke in November, and they’ve gotten a little bit better.”
In addition the federal stimulus funding, which Redding said is about $22.4 million (about $7 million of which must go to emergency student aid), no additional cuts to the state’s general fund are anticipated for the remainder of the year.
“I don’t want to mislead anybody, though, that the rest of the fiscal year will be easy,” Redding said.
He noted that In all likelihood the University will need to prepare for about 11-12 percent in budget reductions for FY 21-23 once the state budget is finalized in mid-May.
He noted that the University is anticipating shortfalls to occur in historically revenue-strong areas such as registration fee and tuition. The University will also have to find ways to adjust its base funding due to increases in insurance costs, classified step increases and fringe benefit changes, among other things, which Redding said makes the University’s “effective cut rate closer to 11 percent. FY ’23 is essentially the same. So we’re looking at a flat budget, a reduced budget, for both years of this biennium.”
Redding said deans and vice presidents are being asked to finalize the proposed cuts from November at the 12 percent level. He said the University will be “engaging faculty, students and staff to minimize the impacts that these cuts will have on the core mission.”
Redding said the University’s current hiring freeze will likely continue into this fiscal year and into the next biennium, as will the hold on any non-urgent operating expenses and travel.
“We’re really just at the beginning of the legislative budget process,” Redding said of at least two hearings the University will have with the money committees of the legislature, followed by May 1’s final estimate of state revenues by the State of Nevada Economic Forum. “The final budget won’t be known until mid-May.”
The University’s plan for COVID-19 vaccination distribution was also discussed.
In recent days some members of the University community have received notification emails from Human Resources regarding their eligibility to receive vaccinations.
Earlier in January the State of Nevada shifted from a tiered approach for priority groups to receive vaccinations to one featuring two lanes for statewide vaccinations. The two lanes include “Workforce” in one lane and the “General Population” in another lane. Under the old classification system, more than 2,100 University employees had been identified as being part of the “Tier 2” Frontline NSHE employee classification. As vaccines become available, these individuals will receive their vaccinations.
“Washoe County only has a very limited amount of doses and not all of the individuals that are currently receiving notification emails are able to receive the vaccinations during the first scheduling period,” Windes explained. “This is only the beginning of what will be several more weeks of vaccine availability for NSHE employees for this particular priority group.”
Since the process is expected to ebb and flow with vaccine availability, Windes encouraged employees who might meet age requirements or who have underlying conditions to seek the “General Population” lane and receive vaccinations from local pharmacies or local health care providers in an effort to expedite their vaccinations.
“Any NSHE employees who qualify for higher prioritization based on criteria separate from your employment with NSHE … you should avail yourself of whichever prioritization comes up first,” Windes said.
“This is probably one of the most difficult parts,” Hug-English said of vaccine distribution. “This is an imperfect process. And when we think about really what’s happening at the federal level, at the state level and county level, it’s pretty remarkable that in less than a year we are able to be vaccinating people against a completely new and novel virus.
“However, it does mean that it takes an incredible amount of patience and time. For example, our county, this week, the total number of doses that they received was 4500 for all of the residents of Washoe County.
“As soon as we get notice that vaccine is available for the next group, we are going to let you know so that you can get that vaccine as soon as possible.”
Pason summed up well the entire 1-hour and 26-minute campus conversation, which seemed to always come back to a common theme.
“We have reached a time where we can nurture a feeling of cautious hope,” she said. “We are not out of the woods yet, but we have a reason for renewed optimism for what lies ahead.”
(Note: The meeting was recorded in its entirety on the the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 22.)