By Marci Creps
Indiana University hosted a virtual town hall meeting in an attempt to answer the many questions posed by students and staff.
Provost and Executive Vice President Lauren Robel started the meeting by recognizing the struggles people are experiencing with COVID-19. She was clear that from IU’s perspective, the goal for employees and students was to “always take care of yourselves and to take care of your loved ones.”
In an effort to keep those associated with IU safe, the decision was made earlier this week to cancel all IU events including IU-sponsored events held off campus until July 1. Those events include on campus classes as well as freshman orientation. During the question and answer portion of the talk, IU also confirmed that graduate orientation will not be held on campus this summer.
Being online hasn’t been easy. Robel said the university is teaching 100,000 students including students from more than 100 countries.
The extended closure as well as the decision to continue to pay employees has raised many economic issues, Robel said. “There will be answers and probably lots of things that I won’t know right now,” Robel said, adding the university will do everything to keep employees first.
Unclear right now is what aid, if any, the university will receive from the state and federal government.
Vice President of Human Resources John Whelan said the university is working to keep employees in paid status. As a result, the university has paused filling positions and well as pay increases employees would normally see on July 1.
“It’s what we need to do to manage through this situation that has no clear end date,” he said.
Whelan also encouraged employees to ignore rumors that IU will conduct massive layoffs on July 1. “So if you’ve heard that, that’s a rumor,” he said, stating there has been no discussion about that.
Whelan also wanted employees to be clear on who is deemed an essential employee. While some employees may prefer to go into the office to avoid distractions at home, he stressed that the stay-at-home order was about keeping people safe. “If you have not been told, assume you are not essential,” he said.
Robel said that by staying closed until July 1, the university is hoping to have a better understanding of what relief efforts will look like from the state and federal government. That will help to mitigate the financial impact IU has experienced with COVID-19. “As you all know, we do receive a good bit of our funding from the state of Indiana,” Robel said.
Along with financial data, the university hopes to have a better grasp on how to move forward with the fall semester as well as the reopening of services provided on campus, such as busing.
While social distancing is encouraged, Robel said it was OK for people to walk on campus for exercise. She said people should continue safe social distancing but admitted campus is a lovely place to walk. “It will make us all happy to think people are actually walking on our campus and keeping it alive,” she said.
At this time, parking restrictions are not being enforced. The public needs to avoid reserved parking as well as handicap spots, but spots marked EMP can be used by anyone.
Vice Provost for Finance and Strategy M.A. Venkataramanan said people won’t be ticketed as long as they are not parking in a reserved or handicap spot without a proper permit. Robel also reiterated that IU has opened parking lots near the library and stadium for community members to park and use the university’s WiFi.
With this unprecedented event, people had questions about 401(k) withdrawals, parking passes and childcare
Whelan said the federal government is allowing some flexibility on retirement savings, but the university has not made any changes to penalties incurred by withdrawing 401(k) money early. He did, however, said that position could be changed if warranted.
As for parking passes, employees were encouraged to visit IU’s parking website to learn how to virtually cancel their parking passes.
As for dependent childcare deductions, one question posed was whether the deduction could be canceled since most parents are not using childcare now and likely wouldn’t be able to use the funds this year. Whelan said that COVID-19 is considered a qualifying event for making a change to the deduction. He said information on how to do that was on IU’s website.
Associate Vice President of Learning Technologies Stacy Morrone answered some technology questions from the meeting. She said many are having to learn how to do events, classes and conferences online. She said there are resources provided to help with those issues. “There’s lots of possibilities here, and UITS can be helpful,” she said.
She said there is also information on IU.edu to help keep Zoom meetings private, an issue that has cropped up as more people are using the videoconferencing platform. Morrone said there are no plans to discontinue the use of Zoom. She said the university is also offering Microsoft Teams as an alternative.
Student issues were also addressed as some still haven’t moved out of the dorms. Venkataramanan said that with the governor’s stay-home order in place, all appointments for moving out have been suspended.
“We will keep their stuff safe and secure until they come back,” he said.
Vice Provost of Student Affairs and Dean of Students David O’Guinn said students concerned about their apartment leases are encouraged to reach out to student legal services. The office’s website has tips for managing off-campuses leases.
O’Guinn said the university is still helping with emergency funds for students. He said the office has received more than 600 requests from students needing help with food, housing, computer needs and transportation. He said the office started giving funds away on Monday with a maximum of $500 per student being approved.
One question from the session asked if IU planned to refund tuition. Robel said there were no plans to do so as all classes were moving forward. She recognized that some fees for particular classes don’t make sense, but there are no plans to make any changes. She said all fees will be reevaluated this summer.
While there are many questions about when the university will reopen, Whelan said it is safe to assume nothing will reopen next week as Indiana’s governor initially set as a deadline.
“We obviously, at the very least, are going to comply with what the governor’s orders are, but we are not limited to that,” Whelan said. “We don’t know how long this will go.”
The university said that employees will be notified when they will be allowed to return to campus.
“We will do what’s right for our community going forward,” Robel said.
As for the fall, Robel said the university is doing scenario planning, hoping it won’t be necessary. She expressed concern for international students who may not be able to travel to the U.S. for classes. So much is hard to plan for since scientists are still learning a lot about COVID-19.
O’Guinn said the student health center is still open and available to students. He said there have been discussions of changing that, but so far, nothing has been decided.
As for summer workouts for fall sports, Robel said she has not been involved in those conversations, but she said she would look into it.
IU is looking into hosting more town hall meetings as the hour-long session wasn’t enough time to answer all the questions posed on Facebook. The plan is to work through those questions, however employees are encouraged to email [email protected] with questions related to salary and benefits. Whelan said the hr.iu.edu also have an HR related FAQ for faculty and staff that grows often as more questions as posed. Whelan said the FAQ has been getting about 7,000 views a day.