After cutting short the spring semester due to COVID-19, Florida colleges and universities preparing for the fall semester face the reality of a “new normal” in higher education that feels anything but. While much remains uncertain, especially as cases in the state continue to spike, one new truth is clear: institutions will have to rely more than ever on online learning to serve students.
The COVID-19 pandemic has compelled higher education faculty in Florida and nationwide to move their instruction online with little to no preparation or guidance, and it remains highly uncertain when the majority of campuses will be able to reopen safely at full capacity for in-person instruction. Even the universities’ campus reopening plans approved by the Board of Governors last month include provisions for most classes to be taught online, with exceptions made for lab courses and subjects like fine arts. This is why states should be reevaluating their budgets to shift more resources into online learning, so that colleges and universities can provide quality digital instruction to all postsecondary students.
Yet Gov. Ron DeSantis just vetoed the state’s entire budget of nearly $30 million for the Complete Florida Plus Program, eliminating critical online academic support services for colleges and universities and threatening the online library database used by more than one million students, faculty and staff. The veto also eliminated the Florida Academic Library Services Cooperative, a virtual campus program that hosts online journals, e-books, and other resources for schools across the state; and the Complete Florida Degree Program, which helps former college students return to school to complete their degrees.
DeSantis said the cuts, part of his $1 billion veto from the Florida Legislature’s previously approved $93.2 billion budget, are necessary to help the state deal with the economic impacts of the pandemic. But a state is only as strong as its pipeline of talent and education, and its ability to provide equitable access to higher education. Dismantling such a powerful online resource now will only exacerbate talent gaps and, more importantly, the persistent equity gaps that leave students of color behind.
At Every Learner Everywhere, the pandemic has motivated us to accelerate and elevate our work on behalf of these students. How can we plan, design and implement better remote learning? How can we optimize and scale the best and most equitable remote learning experiences for our students? We have been asking these questions since our inception, but today we are addressing them with greater urgency because we know that our collective response to this crisis is pivotal.
A decision like the governor’s is the exact opposite of what institutions in Florida need. Because of the veto, adult learners could lose scholarships they depend on to help them continue their educations. Library databases holding millions of books could be taken offline.
The COVID-19 crisis is a turning point for how we think about digital and online learning for all students, but particularly those who were already considered at-risk before the pandemic arrived. My hope is that Florida lawmakers find a way to restore funding for Complete Florida Plus. It’s the right thing to do. And millions of students are counting on them to do so.
Jessica Rowland Williams is the director of Every Learner Everywhere, a network that helps institutions of higher education across the United States implement innovative teaching and learning practices with a focus on increasing the success for underserved students. She’s on Twitter @DrJessWilliams.