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Wells College may shut down if students can't return in fall
EDUCATION

Wells College may shut down if students can't return in fall

Wells College

The campus of Wells College in Aurora has been quiet since mid-March. On-campus classes never resumed following spring break due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought Wells College's financial issues to the point where its fall semester may be in jeopardy.

College President Jonathan Gibralter this week sent a letter to the college community warning that if students cannot return to campus this fall, the historic college in Aurora would have to shut down.

Every academic institution in the state, under orders from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, is continuing distance learning for the rest of the academic year but decisions about fall classes have not been made.

"If New York State continues its mandate that our campus remain closed through all or part of the fall semester, Wells simply will not receive enough revenue to continue operations," Gibralter said in the letter. "A substantial amount of the College’s operating budget comes from room and board revenue, so without enough students participating in our residential life, the College cannot afford to reopen."

Gibralter said in an interview with The Citizen Thursday that he felt people should be informed of what the college is facing.

"It was important to me to that people understand that this is a very serious situation and that I really feel that people need to honestly know that we have a plan to reopen, but we just don't know what the state's going to tell us and when," Gibralter said.

If the college, which was founded in 1868, can open campus doors again in the fall, plans include social distancing, COVID-19 testing, pre-testing "before students get back," retesting them when they come to campus and taking the temperature of students, faculty and staff every day, Gibralter said. A combination of distance education and in-person education would be implemented so "perhaps some of our students can maybe stay home while others return," he added.

Various revenue sources are "up in the air," the letter said, amid the virus. The college's proposed business degree completion program with Monroe Community College has been delayed indefinitely. The program needed to be approved by the state Department of Education, but the department "cannot act on our proposal or any others at this time," the letter said.

Another revenue source affected by the virus this year was Wells' study abroad program in Florence, Italy. The college mandated that the 173 students in the program return home following the Italian government extending its previous order in March for all college institutions to be shut down due to the county's high amount of COVID-19 cases. Gibralter previously said the program generates about 18% of the college's operating budget. Every student in this year's program came from different colleges.

Gibralter noted the college has made several efforts to move forward. The college received a $1.8 million grant from the federal government through the Paycheck Protection Program and around $623,000 through the CARES Act.

He also added in the letter he has been in touch with U.S. Senators Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, Rep. John Katko, state Sen. Pam Helming, and Assemblymen Gary Finch. Gibralter said he contacted Cuomo "to ensure he understands the economic impact of Wells College on the community." As of last fall, the college had 185 employees.

Wells College's coronavirus-related challenges have also complicated its efforts to to secure re-accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which placed the school on probation in June 2019. The commission said Wells was not meeting its "Planning, Resources, and Institutional Improvement" standard nor its standard financial documentation, funding sources and financial development. In order for its accreditation to be renewed, the college was granted two years to fully comply with the requirements.

Gibralter's letter this week said the college's plan for financial sustainability was presented to the commission in December. The plan was accepted and the commission gave Wells time "to bring our plan to fruition." The college's work to further handle the commission's requirements was stopped temporarily due to the virus. Campus was shuttered in March, with distance learning enacted for students. Due to the pandemic, Gibralter requested an extension of submitting the next monitoring report from Sept. 1 to Dec. 1, which the commission approved. Gibralter previously said Wells had been working on ways to improve its long-term stability.

On Thursday, Gibralter said he is inspired by the support of alumni despite the difficult circumstances and that he wants people to be able to return to campus.

"I just want to get back to my campus and be present with our students and our community. This is hard on everybody, but Wells is about community, Wells is about people being together and I want to get back together with our community," he said.

Staff writer Kelly Rocheleau can be reached at (315) 282-2243 or kelly.rocheleau@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @KellyRocheleau.

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Education and City Reporter

Hello, my name is Kelly Rocheleau, and I cover the education and city beats for The Citizen and auburnpub.com. I've been writing for the paper since December 2016.

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