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RUSA releases report on coronavirus relief fund

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At its meeting on Thursday night, the Rutgers University Student Assembly officially approved a report on the RUSA Recovery Fund (RRF), the Assembly’s coronavirus (COVID-19) disease economic relief program for students created in the Spring 2020 semester.

After classes were moved online in March, the Assembly passed a resolution to allocate an initial $125,000 for students facing economic hardship as a result of the pandemic, according to the report. The Assembly then worked with Associate Dean of Students Timothy Grimm to manage the application review process as well as the distribution of funds.

For a student to qualify for funding, they must be facing unforeseen, short-term circumstances that are outside of their control, according to the report. The application allowed for students to give a written explanation of their situation and an itemized list of need categories. Students could also submit documentation to verify their expenses, such as leases, receipts or medical bills, but not having documents did not exclude students from receiving aid.

Additionally, if a student had received funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, it did not affect their eligibility for the RRF. The RRF aimed to meet student needs not met by CARES Act funding, according to the report.

Students were split into three categories: high-need, moderate-need and low-need. All high-need students received funding and consisted of students who had need-based financial aid, emergency expenses and came from families with added need, such as undocumented and international students, students from low-income backgrounds or students in the New Jersey Educational Opportunity Fund program, according to the report.

Moderate-need students had less need-based financial aid but demonstrated additional expenses due to COVID-19, and low-need students had little need-based financial aid and needed funding in non-emergency categories. The majority of applicants were from high- or moderate-need categories, according to the report, while low-need applicants were redirected to resources other than the RRF.

Grimm would review the applications initially and recommend the amount of funding for each student, and Assembly President Nicholas LaBelle, a Rutgers Business School senior, would provide a secondary review and approval. The amount of funding issued to a student was supposed to cover their listed expenses for approximately one to two months, according to the report.

As of Aug. 20, a total of $90,532 had been disbursed to students. Of that amount, $37,985, or 41.96 percent, went toward rent relief, $38,256, or 42.26 percent, paid for food expenses and $14,291, or 15.79 percent, paid for additional expenses, according to the report.

A total of 138 students applied for the RRF, with 129 of them receiving funding. Of the 129 students, 87 were from the School of Arts and Sciences, 11 were from Rutgers Business School, 12 were from the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, 10 were from the School of Engineering, three were from Mason Gross School of The Arts, three were from the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy, one was from the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy and one was from the Rutgers School of Nursing, according to the report.

“The recovery fund ... funded students of all schools — not just (the School of Arts and Sciences) — like all professional schools. We actually overfunded, according to population size, the professional schools,” LaBelle said.

Additionally, the report contains data on applicant graduation years. The Class of 2020 had 56 students receive funding, while the Class of 2021 had 30 students, the Class of 2022 had 29 students and the Class of 2023 had 13 students, according to the report. One graduate student applied and was awarded funding.

Unlike the CARES Act, students with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) status and international students were eligible for the RRF. DACA students made up 11.59 percent of recipients, despite DACA students making up approximately 1.25 percent of the student population, according to the report. Alternatively, 5.8 percent of RRF recipients were international students, despite these students making up 9.01 percent of the student body.

The RRF has $34,468 remaining to disburse to students and applications are ongoing. Students who already received funding are eligible to reapply, and those who were denied funding can appeal. Because the pandemic is ongoing, the report lists a number of recommendations to continue relief efforts over the Fall 2020 semester.

The report recommends reinvesting $1 million to the RRF by consolidating funding from the Fall 2020 semester allocations with funding from Rutgers Business Governing Association, Engineering Governing Council, School of Environmental and Biological Sciences Governing Council, Mason Gross Student Governing Association, Pharmacy Governing Council and Douglass Governing Council, as well as potential donations from alumni.

LaBelle said if there were no alternative sources of financial aid, financial models predict the Assembly would need at least $6 million to distribute to students for COVID-19 relief. Due to programs like the CARES Act, the Assembly determined a goal of $1 million can ensure the RRF will be able to help those who do not receive alternative sources of funding or need a supplement to the other funding sources.

To reach this goal, LaBelle said the Assembly is reevaluating this semester’s club allocations. Normally, it takes back unused club funding at the end of each semester to reallocate for the upcoming semester, which is combined with money from the Student Activities Fee. At the end of the Spring 2020 semester, there was approximately $596,000 leftover to be used this fall due to student organizations moving to a virtual format.

“When they made the budget in the spring (it was) with the assumption we’d be back on campus, paying that amount for fall clubs,” he said. “We're obviously not back on campus, so now the question was like, ‘hey clubs, do you need that surplus amount, and if not, can we reinvest it back into the Recovery Fund.’”

The Assembly sent out a form to each student organization asking it to specify how much money it will need for virtual programming so that the leftover funds can be used for the RRF, LaBelle said. If an organization does not respond by Sept. 15, the Assembly will automatically take back funding and reassess how much should be reallocated to the RRF.

LaBelle said the Assembly is currently in talks with all of the governing councils to negotiate contributions to the RRF and said they will likely be passing legislation to finalize their contributions by the beginning of October.

The report also suggests creating a COVID-19 Response and Recovery Department that would help evaluate RRF applications. Increasing the Assembly’s role in RRF application evaluation through the department would help expedite the process and give more attention to each applicant, according to the report. The department would also include representatives from each of the governing councils who contributed to the RRF, LaBelle said.

One of the expenses the RRF does not cover is tuition and parking fees, according to the report. LaBelle said, although the RRF does not cover tuition directly, helping individuals cover other expenses, like internet access or textbooks, can ease their financial burden. He also said the Assembly is actively working on other initiatives to address the cost of tuition.

“(The RRF is) really more for rent, food, medical expenses and necessities for folks, because folks are really struggling with basic stuff. You can't learn if you can't eat,” he said. “I'm trying to make sure that folks get the support they need.”

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