University Communities Face the New “Normal”

April 10, 2020 - (9 min read)

Life in the age of coronavirus has established a new “normal” in college towns across the nation, and that “normal” is anything but. College towns and university communities across the United States have seen large numbers of student-residents return to their homes, dealing a blow to local economies and carefully planned strategies for ensuring a correct count in the 2020 Census.

The novel coronavirus has posed ever-evolving challenges to city service delivery and compliance with open meetings laws. Communities have had to establish new methods to ensure public meetings with citizen input and to maintain high-quality service delivery as essential staff members fall ill.

I want to highlight two of NLC’s University Communities Council (UCC) member cities, thousands of miles apart, whose stories are emblematic of what college towns and university cities are facing in this time of coronavirus uncertainty. In my role as chair of the UCC, I have participated in hours of phone meetings and webinars since this global pandemic began, all involving communities with institutions of higher education sharing their strategies for adapting to the new “normal.”

How University Communities Are Coping

Kenmore, Washington, and Early COVID-19 Response

If you had asked National League of Cities University Communities Council (UCC) Vice-Chair David Baker, mayor of Kenmore, WA, back in January what he would be doing on April 1, he probably would have said he’d be getting local college students to claim Kenmore on the 2020 Census and maybe pulling a few April Fools’ gags on friends.

Instead, Mayor Baker is governing in one of the states hit earliest by the COVID-19 outbreak. He and his staff have been in the thick of emergency planning since February. Mayor Baker signed an Emergency Proclamation March 5, much earlier than mayors of many other UCC member cities. By March 16, Kenmore City Hall was closed to the public through April 24th.

The City of Kenmore has also adapted its public meeting process to ensure that citizens can continue to give input to their Council. Kenmore now holds telephonic Council meetings, with at least one councilmember physically present in chambers as Washington law requires.

Kenmore has even conducted a Financial Sustainability Plan Task Force meeting by Zoom, as highlighted in a recent CitiesSpeak Blog post. As is the case in so many communities across the nation, community gathering spaces and park restrooms are closed to reduce the opportunity for sizable groups to congregate.

To address the needs of essential city employees, the Kenmore has updated its telecommuting/sick leave option to cover city employees who live with someone who is a first responder, healthcare worker, or in an at-risk category. It has also adopted a public health emergency personnel policy that provides for closure pay.

The needs of other Kenmore citizens who had been facing housing insecurity have also been addressed. On March 16, the Kenmore City Council ratified a Proclamation and Emergency Rule to impose a temporary moratorium on tenant evictions, including a moratorium on the accumulation of late fees. All of these measures will help to ensure that life in Kenmore is impacted as little as possible in these extraordinary times.

College Park, Maryland & the Census

Meanwhile, on the opposite seaboard, as recently as March 30, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan issued a Stay-at-Home Order to try to flatten the curve and ease the spread of COVID-19 in his state. The University of Maryland counted 14 confirmed cases of the virus among its community members.

Facing these challenges, the City of College Park is working through its COVID-19 response plan (which looks a lot like Kenmore’s plan). Yet, NLC Board Liaison for the UCC, Mayor Patrick Wojahn, still worries about how to get students to claim his city as their residence on the 2020 Census.

College Park was one of the cities that experienced a severe undercount in the 2010 Census. Mayor Wojahn’s concern that students’ absence “will essentially decimate the census count” are well-founded. An undercount could cost the city millions of dollars in federal funds. College Park is heavily dependent on the University of Maryland and its student population for its local economy and, like other similarly dependent UCC member communities, faces the potentially devastating impact of losing a main economic driver for the next five months.

The University of Maryland is shut down entirely for the remainder of the spring semester and into the summer. Local restaurants, many of which struggle when students leave in the summer and on break, have been dealt an even greater economic blow. The recent Stay-at-Home Order may mean the permanent closure of some of these businesses. Many employees of these establishments live in the community and have no way to support themselves if these businesses close. College Park is now looking to the county, state and federal governments for assistance for these businesses and their employees and has begun to strategize about how the city can mitigate the economic damage.

The community has started to explore encouraging students, even while no longer in town, to buy gift cards they can use when they return in the autumn. College Park is also working on a webpage with links to the websites of local restaurants. The goal: to encourage out of town students to purchase gift cards. The city’s website includes a list of “essential” food and lodging establishments and their hours, to let citizens know that the community is still open for business. Additionally, city leaders are considering situational “triage” for these small businesses, in addition to providing access to Small Business Administration (SBA) disaster loan assistance.

Maintaining & Continuing Services

Every community faces its own coronavirus challenges, but all see the value in sharing their stories to help others. Most, like College Park, fear that a severe Census undercount is certain and that they will lose millions in essential federal funding.

My own city of Ames, IA, home of Iowa State University, has a current population of approximately 65,000, counting students as roughly 45-50 percent. Our population could easily drop to 45,000 if Iowa State students don’t claim Ames as their residence on the 2020 Census form. This significant population drop would mean a significant loss of funding, not only for bike trails and crucial infrastructure projects, but also for our flagship public transit system, CyRide, which had over six million riders in 2019 and serves the busiest route in Iowa based on ridership volume.

Like Kenmore, College Park and scores of other communities, Ames, under the leadership of City Manager Steve Schainker and his employee leadership team, has implemented its COVID-19 response plan. Ames has moved public meetings into telephonic or online environments, and worked with local partners in the healthcare, social services, and business communities to address the needs of our citizens and keep struggling businesses afloat.

Schainker, one of the longest-serving city managers in the country at 38 years and counting, has experience dealing with floods and other public emergencies caused by natural disasters, but even he is breaking new ground with pandemic planning and counting on local partners to lead in their areas of expertise. As he reported to Council in a recent letter:

“Local hospital, clinics, and Board of Health are taking the lead in providing health-related information and medical recommendations regarding the virus. United Way is organizing, coordinating, and communicating ways to meet our citizen’s needs for childcare, food security, and other basic needs. The Ames Community School District is continuing breakfast and lunch distribution for those ages 18 and under.”

The Ames Chamber of Commerce, working with the business community, has coordinated assistance for local businesses impacted by the virus. It arranged a “Buy-In Story County” effort that has sold 3,800 merchant gift cards at $30 each, adding $114,000 to the local economy with four flash sales.

The City of Ames is supporting the national strategy to “flatten the curve” by reducing interaction with citizens to mitigating exposure while continuing to provide essential services to our community. The administration of Iowa State University, following the lead of many educational institutions nationwide, has moved all classes online through the summer session. It has cancelled spring commencement exercises and encouraged non-essential employees to work from home.

At the state level, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, as of March 31, in hopes of keeping the Iowa economy as strong as possible, had not yet issued a statewide Shelter-in-Place Order or delegated authority to local leaders to issue one for their areas. As of April 1, Iowa had 497 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with one of those cases confirmed in Ames. That notice led to my self-quarantine for 14 days and conducting city business by phone and email.

New Normal in University Communities

So, while Ames is much like Kenmore and College Park in its concerns about a Census undercount, we are also focused on ensuring uninterrupted essential services, keeping city employees and citizens safe, and keeping our economies as vibrant as possible. Yet, the situation in Ames surely isn’t typical of UCC member communities on the coasts or in harder hit areas of the nation. In Colorado, three members of the Fort Collins City Council, along with Mayor Wade Troxel and City Manager Darin Atteberry, placed themselves in self-quarantine after potential exposure to the virus, as did city leaders from Loveland, Longmont, and Denver.

Such stories make all too clear the need to share among our UCC member cities the successful strategies for responding to the novel coronavirus. As communities that have lost significant numbers of residents with the exodus of students from our university and college classrooms; as communities where students are the lifeblood that keeps the heart of our economies pumping, and as communities that recognize our similar situations even as we celebrate our different means of staying resilient in the face of disaster, we know that the new “normal” isn’t really normal at all. And we hope for a swift return to normalcy.

chair - uccAbout the Author: Gloria Betcher serves as a City Councilmember for Ames, IA. She also serves as chair of NLC’s University Communities Council.