On March 5, St. Joseph’s College President Donald Boomgaarden, Ph.D., spoke at the LIMBA (Long Island Metro Business Action) meeting to discuss the effects that the COVID-19 pandemic had on the educational system. Dr. Boomgaarden said the pandemic has had a significant impact on universities over the past year — not just on students and faculty, but on administrators. During a recent meeting with Catholic university administrators in New York, he learned of the passing of Dr. Dennis DePerro, the president of St. Bonaventure University, from COVID-19.
Around the same time last year, Dr. Boomgarden learned that a COVID case was confirmed at the college’s Brooklyn campus. As a precaution, he ordered both campuses to be shut down during spring break and then made a determination whether to allow students to return to campus. “Soon, it was clear we were not coming back,” he said. “We had to shift to a new modality.”
St. Joseph’s had already offered online learning, with 27 courses being fully offered online. By the start of t he fall semester, 70% of classes were via remote learning, and 30% on campus; those classes were labs and freshman classes to help them get acclimated to the campus. Dr. Boomgaarden taught his American Roots Music class once a week online, which was a different experience for him. It also gave him a chance to see what the students and faculty are experiencing.
“My experience is similar to that of other professors and students,” Dr. Boomgaarden said. “It’s different from teaching from behind the podium.” He also said that hybrid and remote learning will play a greater role in how students are being taught. “Across the U.S., college faculty are being forced to teach remotely,” he said. “Some of them initially resisted the idea, but now they found it easy to work with.”
The biggest challenge, however, was how the medical students could continue their lab work during the pandemic. To solve the problem, Dr. Boomgaarden said, the school reopened the lab rooms and installed partitions at each station. “We’ve continued to teach many labs on the ground, so we haven’t shifted those important classes into remote modalities,” he said.
Unlike other colleges and universities on Long Island, St. Joseph’s does not rely on revenues from dormitories or dining halls, but it had been able to stay financially afloat during the pandemic, with no layoffs or furloughs of its full-time employees. Meanwhile, enrollment numbers started to improve and may be higher than in 2019.
He recalled being at Loyola New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit; the university administrators were unsure if or when they were able to recover, so, in a panic, they started laying off faculty and staff, but when the city recovered and the campus reopened, the faculty returned “demoralized and unprepared,” he said.
Dr. Boomgaarden said he recognized how the pandemic affected students’ mental health and well-being. He announced that, starting in the Fall 2022 semester, the college will launch a Program in Social Work. The program will prepare students for jobs as mental health consultants and help meet a rising demand in mental health services.
To help students in need, Dr. Boomgaarden announced the formation of a COVID-19 relief fund. This is for students who are having difficulty paying tuition or who are facing food insecurity. He said he has had students telling him that they cannot attend class next week because of their job. A majority of students, mostly those in the Brooklyn campus, are first-generation students. “They don’t come from wealthy families,” he said.
He said the community has been vey generous, providing students with devices and WiFi connectivity so they can keep up with their online classes. “They didn’t have the problem of how to use the technology,” he said. “They just didn’t have the machines.”
When asked about the concept of free education for college students, Dr. Boomgaarden said “there’s certainly merit” in that, but issues have to be addressed, such as who will pay for it, how much will it cost and if the students will receive a quality education. He pointed out that, during the pandemic, the private schools seemed to do a better job in educating the students, while the pandemic “showed limitations” of free education. “Education is not cheap,” he said, adding that the concept of free education needs to be “grounded in reality.”
Dr. Boomgaarden said St. Joseph’s is the least expensive private university on Long Island and New York City. The school also offers special discounts on tuition for students, which makes the pricing “comparable” to public city and state universities. He pointed out that the Excelsior scholarship program that Governor Cuomo began only applies to state schools, which he called “a huge mistake” and wondered why the program couldn’t be applied to private schools. “Private schools are a huge generator of financial improvement and a tremendous resource for the state of New York.”
A question was raised about the “deficits” students will face regarding learning. Dr. Boomgaarden said that he has confidence in these students, in that they will have the resilience to overcome the way classes are taught. He added that “one of our primary duties” as instructors is to keep students engaged during the learning process.