CLARION - Clarion University's decision to conduct its Fall 2020 semester primarily as remote instruction means the on-campus student population will be reduced and that has Clarion Borough Council President Carol Lapinto worried.

"I don't know if the word ‘devastating' is the appropriate word, but it certainly has a lot of people worried," Lapinto said in response to a CLARION NEWS inquiry.

"It will definitely affect our downtown businesses," said Lapinto. "I'm sure they were all looking forward to the students coming back after the early shut-down last semester.

"This is going to affect everyone in some way. The hair salons, the retail shops, the restaurants, the fast food places"

Additional or continued downturns in business not only affect business owners, but the employees of those businesses and all the other businesses that supply or are supplied by downtown businesses.

Lapinto, in addition to being concerned for the businesses in the town she calls home, also is concerned about how the loss of on-campus instruction will affect the borough's finances.

The university's decision

Clarion University announced July 29 it is pivoting to a primarily remote instructional model for the fall as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The approach is designed to decrease population density on campus and ensure academic continuity for students by removing the possibility of a switch to remote learning later in the semester, should conditions warrant it, the university news release said.

Experiential classes, including student teaching, clinicals, externships, internships and co-ops, will continue as scheduled, according to the release. All other classes will be taught remotely.

"Since March, a University Reopening Planning Committee has worked to allow the return of students, faculty and staff to campus," Clarion President Dale-Elizabeth Pehrsson said. "As the committee continued to monitor news about COVID-19, they determined the safest course of action is to move the majority of classes to remote delivery for fall 2020."

Pehrsson said the decision to go with primarily remote instruction also allows students to stay on pace for graduation, and that faculty and staff "stand ready" in that effort.

The library, Student Support Services, computer labs, Becht, Gemmell, Tippin, the Recreation Center will be open, adhering to health and safety protocols; some services will require appointments, the release said.

University housing will be open for students who prefer that option, according to the release. Students will self-screen before coming to campus and then must adhere to established protocol.

Students who wish to withdraw from university housing may do so without penalty, according to the release. Dining venues will be restricted and occupancy limits set for locations.

The yet-to-be-seen

It remains to be seen how many students will opt to come to and remain in Clarion for the remote instruction they can access at home.

Lapinto said the borough was not alerted to the university's decision until it was released to the public.

"I think we would have liked to have been included in those discussions," said Lapinto. "I realize it probably wouldn't have made any difference in the final decision, but it might have helped us prepare."

A significant decrease in the student population in Clarion Borough will reduce revenues in several areas.

"There are the ‘bad' things as people might want to call them, the parking permit fees, the parking meter money, the parking ticket revenues and even the fines at the district and county court levels," said Lapinto. "But those revenues have always been part of the borough's budget and they were figured in for 2020."

Other losses of revenue could include a decrease in earned income tax revenue as fewer students will be employed by businesses in the borough and by the university.

"And if there are lay-offs of full-time, regular employees and staff at the university, that will affect the borough, too," said Lapinto.

Fewer students in university housing and in private rental units means fewer customers for cable TV and Internet services, a utility from which the borough collects a "franchise fee."

Fewer students in town also means decreased tonnage of recyclable materials and that in turn could reduce the amount of grant money the borough receives to operate its state-mandated recycling collection service.

Lapinto noted some students at the university ended up counted as borough residents during the U.S. Census and a lower number of those students could affect federal and state grant and funding programs.

Temporary vendors who visit campus throughout the year such as used textbook buyers must obtain and pay for a borough solicitation permit.

"Plus, if the landlords of the student rentals don't have renters, they might not keep those units," said Lapinto. "The borough has collected all the rental unit permit fees for 2020, but it remains to be seen how that might affect 2021."

(The CLARION NEWS attempted to contact several landlords of multiple rental units commonly rented by university students. None of those landlords returned telephone request for comment.)

Hoping for the best, planning for worse

Lapinto said borough officials will meet with financial planners soon to discuss the situation and to map out strategies.

Trying to project the total of lost revenue also will be discussed.

"The spring shut-down and the concerns that it might continue into the fall and it looks like it will already affected some of the things we hoped to accomplish this year," said Lapinto. "We put off hiring another police officer, we put off buying a new truck for public works and we held back on the amount of street paving this year."

Lapinto noted the effects of the loss of the student population extend past the borough's boundaries.

"The hotels and motels, the businesses in the Cook Forest area really, everywhere around here, is going to feel this," said Lapinto. "We all have to look at this and plan accordingly."

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