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Exclusive interview: Holloway, Conway talk pandemic student aid, spring semester plans, pay equity negotiations

University President Jonathan Holloway and Rutgers—New Brunswick Chancellor-Provost Francine Conway spoke on various issues, including whether the University plans to require booster shots for students at this time. – Photo by Rutgers University - New Brunswick and Rutgers University / Twitter

University President Jonathan Holloway and Rutgers—New Brunswick Chancellor-Provost Francine Conway provided updates on plans for the upcoming spring semester and coronavirus disease (COVID-19) student aid, as well as pay equity and intercampus equity issues in an interview with The Daily Targum.

For the upcoming spring semester, Conway said the University will return to pre-pandemic levels of in-person classes. There will still be online classes available, particularly at Rutgers’ professional schools, to accommodate non-traditional or working students who require greater flexibility in their class schedules, she said.

“Most departments are only offering about 10 to 15 percent of their course offerings online, and the remainder — the bulk of it — is in person,” Conway said.

She said the University is testing scheduling models that evaluate whether 30 minutes between classes will better enable students to commute between campuses. Additionally, the University is examining issues regarding the Rutgers bus schedule and considering the preservation of a “pass/no credit” option for classes, she said.

With regard to the emergence of the new omicron COVID-19 variant, Holloway said the University does not know enough about the variant to commit to any actions at this time.

“It’s going to be another two to three weeks before we — ’we’ being the scientific community, not just Rutgers — knows enough,” he said. “The whole suite of possibilities is in front of us in terms of potentially mandating boosters.”

Holloway said the scientific community has not yet reached a consensus on the type and level of vaccine booster dose that is most effective against COVID-19, so the University cannot mandate them at this time.

As an institution of higher education, the University follows a specific protocol that gives it legal authority to mandate vaccinations for its students, he said. Conway said that legal agencies are still discussing whether this applies to booster vaccinations as well.

In the meantime, Conway said students, faculty and staff who want a booster shot can use the University’s online portal to register for a vaccination appointment at the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy on Busch campus.

“Getting access to the vaccine for boosters is not a problem — we have plenty of supply throughout the state within the Rutgers community,” Holloway said. “The fact is, we can manage whatever need, whatever demand there happens to be for booster shots.”

In terms of COVID-19 testing at Rutgers, Holloway said that when the delta variant emerged, its high infection rate made testing fairly ineffective at curbing community spread. He said testing may be even less effective with the omicron variant.

Holloway said the University still encourages everyone to get initial vaccinations, including the four percent of Rutgers employees who have not received a vaccine yet. Reaching a 100 percent vaccination rate at Rutgers has been challenging due to the size of the University and individuals’ different comfort levels about getting vaccinated, he said.

“I’m optimistic we will get where we need to be, but where we need to be is kind of a moving target,” Holloway said.

Regarding COVID-19 emergency assistance, he said that the University initially received $128 million for student aid and has since been able to support more than 39,000 students, but future aid remains uncertain unless additional funding is received.

“What is really challenging with our budget environment is that the relief funds that were coming from federal and state coffers, we’ve got them, we’ve received them, we’ve distributed them,” Holloway said. “Unless we see more coming in, there’s no promise that we can do anything more than we’ve done already.”

Conway said the aid was granted based on demonstrated financial need, and students who were to receive assistance for the spring semester have already been notified. Instead of focusing only on a small subset of students, she said the University focused on providing assistance for as many students as possible.

In addition to award packages, this aid included the Scarlet Promise Grants and funding to help food-insecure students gain access to meals, Conway said.

Regarding the University’s ongoing issue of pay equity, Holloway said the administration is in the midst of the rolling pay equity resolution process, which took a long time to start due to a months-long initial negotiation process with labor unions.

He said that some individuals expected the resolution process to be done by the time of the December Rutgers Board of Governors meeting and mischaracterized his earlier comments about the length of the process. Holloway said he originally expressed it was his hope and commitment that the resolution process would get rolling by December, not already be completed.

He said he hopes that the University will reach an agreement with the unions about the appeal process within the coming week. This would be a step forward in the pay equity processes that they have been striving toward for the better part of the year, Holloway said.

“I want to move quickly on this,” he said. “We want to do it with precision, and that will include having an appeals process as well when people don't like the decision that's been made. So, we are in that process moving forward.”

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