Salem State Viking Hall

This 2015 file photo shows Viking Hall at Salem State University during a ribbon cutting for the new campus dormitory.

Colleges forced to switch to online-only courses because of the COVID-19 pandemic are offering reimbursements on housing and other fees for services students are no longer using.

Salem State University announced this week that students will be reimbursed for housing, meal plan and parking charges tied to services lost to the coronavirus outbreak.

“Our goal is to get the refunds in the hands of the students by May 1 at the latest,” said Bonnie Galinski, associate vice president for enrollment management at Salem State. “Folks have lost jobs and are struggling with other expenses.”

Montserrat College of Art in Beverly has offered its students something similar, said Kurt Steinberg, Montserrat’s president. Housing charges are being prorated, he said, and further refunded “to all those who aren’t able to come back.”

“We do have, on campus, somewhere between 60 and 65 students,” he said. “We were trying to reduce the population as much as possible, but also be sensitive to the fact that we have students with certain needs that wouldn’t allow them to leave campus. Also, we have some international students that don’t really have a place to go, because they can’t leave. We’re trying to take care of those.”

Gordon College, meanwhile, is still working out the fine print on its decisions, according to Rick Sweeney, vice president for marketing and external relations.

“We’re working through that process now,” Sweeney said. “We’re going to be sharing a plan with parents and students on April 15, and I fully expect we’ll make some type of adjustment. We’re just working on the details on how that’ll work.”

As the impact of coronavirus becomes more apparent, officials are coming to the realization that even commencement could be on the line if it can’t go online.

“If we do end up postponing commencement, I want to let them know exactly what the plans are,” said Steinberg. “We’ll do something to recognize what is an incredibly important achievement in our seniors’ lives, and they’re being cheated out of it right now — which is unfair.”

The commencement issue is affecting everyone differently. That’s partly because some colleges are affected by what others do, including North Shore Community College.

“Our commencement is pretty tied to the SSU commencement because we share their facility and actually split the setup cost,” said retiring college president Pat Gentile. “Our students, those that are graduating, are going right to work or a four-year college. If we postpone our commencement, it’ll be difficult to get people together again, so we’re trying to reimagine our commencement.”

Salem State has postponed its ceremonies and is still working on dates, according to university President John Keenan. Gordon College, meanwhile, has moved the ceremony to the fall while still planning to graduate seniors in May from the Wenham school.

“We’re looking to combine (commencement) with homecoming, which is scheduled for Oct. 2 and 3,” Sweeney said. “The students — seniors and graduate students — who are expecting to graduate in May, they’ll graduate on time. We’re just moving the ceremony.”

But when it comes to North Shore Community College, commencement isn’t the only issue facing its students. With no on-campus housing and only six students housed on Salem State’s campus through their partnership, COVID is affecting community college students much more deeply than those who are used to living on campus.

“About 60 percent of our students have somebody who’s a dependent, whether it’s a child, parent or spouse, and they have family commitments,” Gentile said. “We’ve gotten, in the last week, about 80 requests from students seeking to get some financial help to be able to stay in school. So it’s been a lot of work and a lot of concern for our students and, obviously, our employees are concerned.”

That has put a new kind of pressure on the NSCC Foundation, Gentile said. Separate from college finances, the nonprofit organization helps students through the “Short-notice Aid for Verifiable Emergencies” (SAVE) Fund, as well as other campus community investments.

For all their differences, each local college has to deal with the same global crisis.

“This is the kind of situation that most institutions, whether they’re higher ed or not, don’t have a playbook for. So they’re creating one,” Sweeney said. “I suppose it’s comforting on one level that we’re all on the same boat and figuring it out as we go.”

Contact Salem reporter Dustin Luca at 978-338-2523 or DLuca@salemnews.com. Follow him on Facebook at facebook.com/dustinluca or on Twitter @DustinLucaSN.

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