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TOPEKA — Kansas’ system of public higher education took a $90.7 million financial hit in the current fiscal year from the spread of COVID-19 that in March abruptly transformed operation of universities and the community and technical colleges.

The financial estimate for the year ending June 30 didn’t include disruption of sports and research activities at the seven universities, 19 community colleges and six technical colleges governed by the Kansas Board of Regents.

Bulk of the budget problems are at University of Kansas and Kansas State University. The KU and KU Medical Center campuses calculated current fiscal year operational costs of the pandemic at $30.5 million, while K-State put the figure at $22.1 million.

The community colleges reported $9.8 million in costs and technical schools put the figure at $4.2 million.

Here are other estimates: Wichita State University, $9.1 million; Washburn University, $4.9 million; Pittsburg State University, $3.5 million; and Emporia State University and Fort Hays State University, both $3.1 million.

Federal stimulus funding to higher education could take the monetary sting out of the virus, but much of the money appropriated so far has been earmarked for the direct benefit of students.

Threat of massive infection rates among students, staff and faculty returning from spring break in March convinced the Board of Regents to allow closure of campuses and the transition to online instruction for duration of the spring semester.

The decision saved lives, said Blake Flanders, president of the Board of Regents.

"Our plan is to begin the fall with face-to-face instruction," Flanders said. "Right now, we know any plans we make might have to change. It’s a little bit of shadow boxing."

Many college and university employees continue to work from home and summer courses are to be handled online. The Board of Regents is planning to open campuses by August while implementing public health interventions to limit the spread of COVID-19, test and track infection, and isolate the sick.

Flexibility is required because predicting the path of COVID-19 months into the future is difficult, Flanders said.

He said one strategy under consideration would be to structure the fall semester calendar to eliminate all breaks from classes through Thanksgiving. Students would then be released but not brought back to campus to finish the semester. Instead, students would complete course work and take finals online.

He anticipates the higher education system in Kansas will experience enrollment declines.

Flanders said financial loses in the fiscal year starting July 1 could be much greater if COVID-19 again forces campuswide closures.

The COVID-19 approach of Kansas colleges and universities could differ because infection rates could vary from county to county. The virus tends to concentrate in population centers, as well as nursing facilities, meatpacking plants and correctional facilities.

The Kansas Department of Heath and Environment reported Wednesday that 205 residents of the state have died and 9,300 Kansans have been infected with the virus during the pandemic.

Dr. Girod

KU Chancellor Doug Girod, who is a physician, said health and safety challenges of reopening the university’s campus to about 25,000 students and 10,000 employees would be unprecedented.

"We’re discovering, like everybody else, it was a lot easier to close down than it is to open back up," the chancellor said. "It’s not going to be our typical opening. The worst thing you can do is open and have to turn around and shut back down again. We want to do it right, we want to do it slow and we want to do it safe."

He said a key factor would be the degree students, faculty and staff followed recommendations on social distancing, personal hygiene and wearing of protective gear to disrupt COVID-19.

Massive parties during the Memorial Day weekend caught on video at Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri point to the difficulty of convincing some people to accept the advice of public health officials, he said.

"As you saw on the video," Girod said, "there is a big component of personal responsibility that comes with this."

KU normally has about 4,000 students in residence halls on campus, and about that many students live in fraternity and sorority housing. The majority of students live off campus beyond the reach of KU mandates.

Girod said some of the reluctance to remain vigilant could be a reflection of the good job Kansas did in flattening the curve of coronavirus infection, hospitalization and death. Many people don’t know anyone who contracted COVID-19, the chancellor said.

He said the university was preparing to ramp up its testing capacity, engage in contact tracing when someone tests positive and set aside housing units to quarantine students.

KU put together a separate long term financial estimate that put the university’s pandemic-related revenue shortfall at $120 million through the upcoming fiscal year. It assumes students resume in-person classes in August on the main campus in Lawrence and the KU Edwards campus in Overland Park.

Sports angle

Jeff Long, director of athletics at KU, said protocol for coaches returning to offices on campus included temperature checks and a mandate that each wears a mask at work. Adidas gave 2,000 masks to the KU athletics department, he said.

"We will do the same with student athletes when they return," Long said.

He said KU Athletics anticipated a 10% to 20% revenue shortfall even if the money-making football and men’s basketball seasons were played without interruption.

He said the first KU football game scheduled for Sept. 5 against University of New Hampshire would likely be different than a standard home opener. He has looked at modeling that spread 15,000 people throughout the football stadium for social distancing purposes, but he can’t bring himself to review what that would look like for basketball games in Allen Fieldhouse.

"We don’t know how we’ll be coming back into David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium or Allen Fieldhouse at this point," Long said. "Our fans want to come back."

Girod said there were two tracks to normalcy at U.S. universities that bring together people from around the world.

"It’s either going to take widespread vaccination or widespread infection," he said. "One of the two to really get us to a place where we can safely have that shoulder-to-shoulder experience that we’re used to."