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What a lesson: Coronavirus forces Nevada's higher education system to adjust

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Let's talk about social distancing.

Meet UNLV sophomore Janae Richie-Dean. Instead of being at UNLV, she's back at home in Hawaii. We chatted over FaceTime.

Class for her is now a computer. “Definitely online it takes away that aspect of the classroom and really being able to sit there and discuss with your teachers and your peers,” she told me from a few thousand miles away.

Such is college in the year of the coronavirus, which closed Nevada's eight institutions of higher learning. For thousands of students, education is now online.

“I can say that our faculty and our students really stepped up and adapted. We are on track to ensure that no one's losing credits, that they will be able to graduate on time,” says higher education Chancellor Thom Reilly.

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And that graduation is also changing: Reilly tells me the ceremonies this spring are being postponed and most likely rescheduled later when hopefully the virus is receding.

“I have asked each of the institutions to develop alternative plans,” Reilly says. “They talked to their students. No one’s interested in doing a virtual graduation, but each of them are looking at a delayed opportunity, so that would either be combined with a summer or fall graduation or a separate time when students can come back and be celebrated in the traditional fashion of graduation.”

Closing campus forced thousands of students living in dorms to leave.

Students like Janae were lucky: she had a home to go to; other students did not.

Nevada allowed those young people to stay in their rooms: 10% remain at UNLV; 5% remain up at UNR.

“They’re former foster kids, they're the homeless youth. They're international students who can't return. But there are individuals who do not have a home to return to,” Reilly tells me.

That's one-way coronavirus hit. The other: how the university system reached out to help.

Last week UNLV’s School of Medicine swung into action to provide drive-thru testing. Nevada’s higher education system is doing other things, too.

“We have groups looking at making masks, working with the homeless population, so many of our students and faculty have really kind of stepped up, particularly in the health care arena,” Reilly says.

The coronavirus forced the education system to adapt in other ways, too: it is delaying the search for presidents at the system’s two flagship universities, UNLV and UNR, as well as finding a replacement for Reilly, who last year said he would leave when his contract expires in 2020.

The Board of Regents, the body that oversees Nevada’s higher education system, will meet in an emergency meeting next week to consider extending Reilly’s contract and UNLV interim president Marta Meana until December 2020, to give them time to find replacements.

In June, Reilly says he expects an acting president to be chosen for UNR, whose current president, Marc Johnson, is leaving this summer. Yesterday, MGM Resorts announced former Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval was leaving the company to pursue the UNR position on a permanent basis.

“That position, the president of UNR, will attract national attention,” Reilly says. “The fact that the former governor is interested in the position, I think, attests to what a great position that is.”

“Governor Sandoval would be a good candidate, but we have a process we’re actually going through. The search is extended to the beginning of August, so we won’t be looking at paring down that list of applicants until the beginning of August,” says Reilly.

Meana is not pursuing the UNLV presidency permanently, Reilly tells me. “We have four finalists that we have identified and we’ll be bringing them to campus the first week of September,” he says. They have not been identified publicly yet.

In the meantime, class continues, albeit online. UNLV freshman Nick Beker says he misses campus.

“We get to use the gym. We get to go to the library. All these tools are now just not available to us, and it’s very strange because these things are kinda part of my weekly routine,” Beker says.

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