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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Siphosethu Boya, right, and Tami Bankole, both of whom are involved in the work/study program at Lee University, pose in front of School of Business on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2020 in Cleveland, Tenn.

Grace Neff is a 30-year-old mother of a 12-year-old boy. She is also a senior English major at Dalton State carrying a 3.9 GPA who has paid her bills, including her tuition, by working three jobs. Two of those are jobs on campus, and like a lot of college students, she has concerns about how the coronavirus pandemic might affect her work/study opportunities as area schools open up in the coming weeks.

Neff is a manager at a coffee shop in Ringgold, Georgia, in addition to working part time at the campus book store. She is also the director of the Peer Educator Leadership Team within the Tutoring and Supplemental Instruction Department at Dalton State College.

That last job has given her a keener insight into what the fall semester might look like, she said, as her role also involves helping plan a lot of the student activities on campus. She's been in constant contact with school staff since last spring, getting ready for classes beginning this week.

"The biggest thing is, we have to prepare for every outcome," she said.

"Are we going to have to stop in the middle of the semester and switch completely online for tutoring? How are we going to transition again?"

Neff said she fully expects that to happen, or is at least preparing herself mentally for such an event, but she is also trying to get a handle on what things will look like if it doesn't.

"Preparing for all outcomes in the middle of a semester is difficult," she said.

"Who is coming back? How many? If enrollment is down, what does that look like, and how do we deal with that, budget-wise? Can we do events? Will we have the budget? Food has to be packaged a different way. It's very complicated."

Some area schools created a fund to help students pay for everything from rent to emergency medical bills this past spring, when the pandemic forced schools and businesses to shut down.

The Dalton State Foundation, for example, created through private donations the Roadrunner Student Emergency Fund. Jodi Johnson, vice president for student affairs and enrollment management, serves on the committee and said she has read hundreds of requests from students in the past five months requesting help to pay for travel, housing and food.

"Many of our students work in the service industry — food service or retail," she said. "It's especially bad if they have health issues because many don't have insurance, or very little. And now they've had their work hours cut entirely or reduced. Their margins were already tight."

Johnson said the average amount paid to students through the fund is about $1,500, with the least being $500 and the most about $3,000. She said the plan is to get back to normal as quickly as possible with students in the work/study programs, which includes about 5% of the student body.

"If the campus is physically open, all of those jobs will be populated," she said, adding that the financial benefit is only part of the benefit. "They also learn to interview and about responsibility."

About 50% of the students at Covenant College on Lookout Mountain help pay for school via work/study, according to communication specialist Lydia Berglar. Covenant also created a new fund to help students with tuition, and she said the school has been devising a plan to make things as safe as possible.

"They do a lot of work for us, and we would miss it," she said of students who work on campus. "In general, there are a lot of restrictions with mask wearing and social distancing. Some offices have enough room to make it work, and if they are more crowded, we may have to make adjustments, so it will vary."

Lee University has created a new sanitation program for the fall called the Thrive Team, which will put about 100 students in charge of keeping the campus safe for faculty, staff, and fellow students.

"Students can work 10 hours a week, earn minimum wage and help the university meet the COVID-19 cleanliness expectations of parents, students," and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Phil Cook, vice president for enrollment at Lee.

Freshmen and sophomore students with financial needs will be given priority consideration, according to Cook. According to Marian Dill, Lee's director of financial aid, there are several benefits to developing such a student workforce.

"The obvious benefit is responding to COVID-19 and keeping the campus as clean as possible, but there are benefits for the student worker as well," Dill said. "Creating a special student workforce offers opportunities for students to earn funding, which helps them to attend, persist and build their resumes for finding employment after graduation."

It will be pretty much business as usual at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, according to Endia Butler, student employment coordinator.

"Nothing much has changed other than social distancing/masks/safety precautions, etc.," she said.

Work/study jobs on campus have not been affected so far, and the number of students the program can have and funding it receives have not been affected.

"We will have around 205 work/study students. Not all of them will be on campus, but I don't know the specific numbers as to who will be on campus or working remotely.

"Work/study students work in almost all of the departments and buildings on campus."

One worry is that students who managed to make things work financially via work/study might have to take out loans to pay for school. Neff said she hopes that won't be the case, but because Dalton State is "very reasonable, I could make it work. It'd be around $2,000. That's a lot less than some schools."

Contact Barry Courter at bcourter@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6354.

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