American University announced in an email from President Burwell on Monday, February 22, that it is currently on track to conduct in-person classes and a full residential experience for the Fall 2021 semester, with health and safety practices, such as physical distancing and masks. The return to in-person instruction will also be followed by expanded COVID-19 testing, no reductions to financial aid, and no increases to the 2021-2022 academic year’s tuition and housing costs for undergraduate, graduate, and Washington College of Law students.
With the upcoming spring mid-semester residential experience in March, it serves as a milestone for the University’s transition back to in-person classes next fall. As AU welcomes students soon, it will begin its expanded COVID-19 testing program – SHIELD T3. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign developed a new saliva test that has a 93% accuracy rate, which has been administered to over a million people and utilized by other universities and tech companies in Silicon Valley. AU is switching to this program as it reduces the cost to $25-32 per test, and is preferable for results that are needed within 24 hours in case students need to return home. The AU Administration is projected to start SHIELD T3 with 5,000 tests on March 1.
AU has made the switch to saliva testing from Q-Tip testing since January, as saliva testing shows a greater spread of the virus. There may be potential issues with individuals being unable to produce enough saliva, given inability or a history of smoking – they will be the only exceptions to saliva testing. The university is under the impression that students, faculty, and staff will hydrate and fast an hour before the test. So far, the administration has reported that this has not been a challenge for students, and is expecting similar results as this effort is continued with the arrival of students in March.
The AU Administration emphasized that testing is essential for those who are asymptomatic, as those individuals are likely to spread COVID-19 without being aware they have it. This newly expanded testing program will start with the student population, as people move to campus for the mid-semester residential experience. SHIELD T3 also comes with a mobile app to receive testing results. The app will likely experience bugs at the beginning, but it will not stop tests from being given. Even when a significant number of students, faculty, and staff are vaccinated by the summer, the university plans to continue testing to prevent high-risk individuals from getting infected.
COVID-19 tests for students will remain free; however, symptomatic testing will remain at a $20 co-pay charge at the Health Center because individuals are seeking medical advice and consulting with a medical health professional. The AU Administration has expressed that if a student is unable to afford this co-pay, the Health Center will work with them, as AU stressed its commitment to health and safety. Given this goal, AU is the main university leading the consortium effort on testing by working together with other schools in the DMV to utilize SHIELD T3. Together, with masking and physical distancing, the university hopes to curb the spread of COVI-19, which exhibits why testing is so critical because it highlights the level of spread on campus at the current time.
Additionally, the AU Administration is making sure that testing is available for Aramark workers and stated that they are part of the university’s testing regime. Residential staff such as Community Directors, Residential Assistants, and Desk Receptionists will have a level of priority regarding testing – they will be tested twice a week. Campus residents may also be required to get tested twice a week, followed by faculty on campus with tests once a week.
Furthermore, the university’s decision to a tuition and housing cost freeze was completed in efforts to support students and families to address the continuing and uncertain economic impact of COVID-19, as well as to diversify revenue and expand students’ access to higher education. Given this decision, American University has emphasized a great need for focusing on enrollment, retention, and expense management. Currently, the university is on track to meet such goals, as it saw the second-highest number of undergraduate applications and a 20% increase in graduate applications.
However, the 10% AU Community of Care tuition discount provided to this academic year’s students will end in May 2021, and the future of this year’s summer classes is yet to be determined.
While tuition and housing costs remain the same, meal plan prices will increase minimally, citing that they have not been increased in a while and reflects the increasing price of food in grocery stores as well. Additionally, there is no update on the future of the student activity fee.
Importantly, discussions of budget cuts to AUPD have not occurred, nor has the issue come up. The Administration stated that there is a strategic review process that is focused on strategic hirings, such as finding a director for the Antiracist Research and Policy Center. Furthermore, there are no updates on the future of the U Pass, as the final decision falls on WMATA. The Administration admitted that there will be advocacy and a continuing conversation with WMATA in the fall, but their absence is a result of being hit heavily by the pandemic in terms of cutbacks to the Metro’s infrastructure and fallen ridership rates.
As American University uses reserves, endowment resources, and other mitigation efforts to cover more than 40% of the budget shortfall due to COVID-19, there will be no more COVID-19-related furloughs in the upcoming budget. Furloughs as a saving measure have created challenges for many faculty and staff members, and the university said it will resume contributing to employee retirement plans and the annual merit pool in the next fiscal year.
Nonetheless, the specific mitigation efforts that will continue include hiring freezes and prioritizing funds for strategic hiring and plans such as the University’s Plan for Excellence; the new Equity and Title IX Department; ARPC; and Affinity Housing.
Dr. Fanta Aw stressed that the university will continue to prioritize student support services. Mental health will continue to be a priority along with Affinity Housing, as the renovation to Roper Hall continues. Financial aid will also serve as an essential priority, as several students and families are impacted by the economic impacts of the pandemic, by finding methods to expand sources of aid for students.
While AU plans to resume in-person instruction, it will continue to place its highest priority on health and safety and make future determinations based on the country’s overall health and safety conditions.
To learn more about the University’s planning, the trajectory for the fall, and the FY 2022 budget, there will be a webinar with the Administration during the AU Community Forum at 4 p.m. on Thursday, February 25. Signs up and questions are all completed and submitted online. More webinars directly for students, faculty, and staff are coming soon, with dates yet to be announced.
This is a developing story. It will be updated as more information becomes available.