The Mesquite sat down with university President Cynthia Teniente-Matson May 6 to discuss the university’s plans for a future of remote learning, sports programming and graduation.
The Mesquite: All summer classes at the university have been moved online. What is the forecast for the fall semester?
Matson: We are intending to have sort of a mixed modality of courses. Some courses will be online, some courses will be in person, face-to-face, some courses might have a mix where they might meet a couple of times over the course of the semester but primarily be online.
The faculty and the provost are working on that right now as we speak. I initiated a task force that is really working out the academic calendar, or the academic form of instruction within that calendar, the same academic calendar we would have had either way. If we have something we don’t anticipate, whether it be a mass resurgence or something else related to COVID-19 that is unplanned for, then we’ll have to look at the option of going fully online, but that’s not what we’re starting with. We’re really starting with wanting to have students back to class and following all of the guidelines that will be available then. So we don’t know for sure yet what type of testing or screening that we will do, but that is all being worked out right now so that we’ve got a solid plan that includes the maximum health and safety for our faculty, staff and students.
The Mesquite: We are all kind of having to plan very tentatively, but that’s good to hear that there will be some sort of plan for almost hybrid learning, if you will.
Matson: Right, it’ll be multiple options. There may be some courses that are fully online, but it won’t be every course fully online like we tried to do this semester. It gives predictability and it gives faculty a chance to plan their course in a way that they know it will be fully online and it gives students a chance to beef up their technology skills. …
We are also looking at how we do orientation. So we know all of summer orientation will likely be online, so for new students and new transfer students, that will be online. But we do the freshman JagX program in person. It will be in smaller groups to meet whatever guidelines we have in place by then and that will be in August.
We’re looking at how we help students prepare for digital learning so that there’s a lot more training and development and teaching about learning in that sort of environment. And then for students that maybe were in high school now coming into their freshman year of college, there will also be some refresher about being back in a classroom and addressing the learning lapse that might have occured between the last time they were in a classroom to being on campus in August.
It’s not just how we teach classes, it’s how we orient people, how we make sure that everybody has a computer or that everybody has reliable access to the internet and the spaces that they can come on campus in addition to study and do group activities; it’ll be different than it was before when everyone was just banished or abolished from campus. We’ll have some better traction for students to have that blended experience on the campus so they can still have study groups face-to-face and those types of things with the proper social distancing. It really is a very different sort of preparation for fall. It’s not just about the classroom, it’s about everything that goes into it.
The Mesquite: A lot of celebrities, organizations, institutions, all of that have been going out of their way to celebrate the 2020 graduates from this spring, which is wonderful. Our university just announced the curbside graduation ceremony which is really exciting for some students. How was this decided upon?
Matson: …I actually had this idea to do a drive-up egg hunt when we were talking about what we could do for Festival de Cascarones. I have been riding my bike for exercise. Sometimes I’ll come to campus, I’ll ride my bike to campus and I’ll ride up and down University Parkway and Jaguar Parkway. … We have these really great, broad streets where cars or people could actually line up with enough social distancing with the way that turnabout is right there in front of the fountain. We could get people in cars to come in and out with enough social distancing, so my big idea was to have General (the Jaguar) give out cascarones or give out eggs or do something that was sort of Easter egg centered, but we didn’t do that.
I said to the team when we were talking about commencement, can we come back to what people really want? It’s a picture. Maybe we could get a professional photographer and really have the seal and the name, Texas A&M-San Antonio, out there so a student could get a picture outside and I could be there and General could be there and it could be something. The team came up with the whole drive-up commencement. It’s taking advantage of the assets that we have and finding a way to bring people together to give students something that also gives them a chance to come in a carload with their family and get a chance to take some photos there with proper distancing.
The Mesquite: Is the plan still to have that graduation ceremony in September for the spring graduates?
Matson: Yes. … So it’s earlier. We would normally have it at 3 p.m. We’re going to do it at 2 p.m. because we’re going to do it on a Friday in the fall term. If everything returns to normal by then, high school sports might be going on, college sports might be going on and lots of other events that happen in the evening. We thought if we do it early in the afternoon, it would still give students and their families and their guests and visitors time to do other things if they were going to do other things on a Friday night besides celebrating the graduates.
We don’t know yet what those social distancing requirements are going to be. … Nobody knows if sports will be able to go on and fans will be able to gather in close proximity, but we’ll come up with something. We can do proper spacing for how students are seated in the (Freeman) Coliseum and we can do proper spacing for the crowd, and it’ll be harder, but we can do it.
The Mesquite: The San Antonio Express-News reported that the hiring for 59 positions at our university has been frozen, but there haven’t been any university layoffs or furloughs. This hiring process, especially with the new athletic program that we’re trying to start, definitely could create some obstacles. How is the university going about athletic hiring and recruitment into the next semester and into the next year?
Matson: We made a decision to request a postponement on launching sports for fall of 2020 and instead to launch in spring of 2021, which would be January sports. So, we had already hired our women’s soccer coach, women’s softball coach and men’s golf coach. The only coach we had not hired yet is the men’s soccer coach. So those three coaches, and then we have an athletics director and a senior associate athletics director, so basically the top two administrators and three coaches are hired. …We’re not going to unhire any of the coaches that have already been hired.
… In terms of recruiting the actual athletes that were going to be a part of the men and women’s soccer team, it was difficult to recruit during this period where no one was in high school, nobody was playing sports and nobody could come to campus.
We are going to still launch esports. We have our coach for esports here and he’s been doing some activities with students virtually. That one’s a little more easy to do virtually … that one’s going to launch in the fall.
The Mesquite: Most universities are experiencing some budget cuts as a result of this semester. Some people are wondering if the budget cuts will affect university-sponsored organizations or funding for campus events as well.
Matson: Our intent is to do everything we can to preserve the student experience, which starts with instruction and then club activities and those types of events. …We’re still planning for those activities to go forward to help students be successful. We’re looking at some administrative operations that we may have to close down. …We’re trying to gather up all the savings that we can to preserve our reserves so that we have a better environment for next academic year that will help smooth over the impact on students.
The Mesquite: The university launched the JaguarLift campaign. Can you tell me more about that, the emergency grants and the General’s Food Pantry?
Matson: We know that we have students that are in distress – financial distress, emotional distress, job loss of themselves or in their families, so we have seen almost a tripling in our needs in the General’s Store.
Through the CARES Act we were able to put out about $2.8 million in emergency grant funds for students that have need that’s COVID-19 related … but there are students that have more need than what those requirements have, so with JaguarLift fund, anybody can seek (the grants) if they meet the criteria. … For example, under the CARES Act, international and DACA students were excluded from any funding the CARES Act, but they could get funding from JaguarLift. It’s another place for alumni, if they wish and they are able to, to give. … We’re all doing what we can during this confusing time.
This Q&A has been edited and condensed.