University’s increased COVID-19 response fund leaves much to be desired

Though primarily created for student use, some students said they have not been made aware of this financial opportunity. GRAPHIC BY SAMANTHA BERLANGA/SAN FRANCISCO FOGHORN

Following a shift to remote learning, job losses, and unexpected changes in housing arrangements, USF students were left grappling with financial stress. In order to support these students, USF created the COVID-19 Response Fund in the spring of 2020. Primarily financed by donations from the Board of Trustees and the USF community, the University released an Aug. 11 general update on how the funds are continuing to be utilized. 

In the past year, some students were provided additional support with the federal emergency grant funding through the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations (CRSSA) Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act

However, students were still left with anxiety over expenses they could not afford, especially those who did not qualify for federal aid. In addition, the distribution of CRRSA funds by USF was slower than other contemporary higher education institutions

The COVID-19 Response Fund’s main objective is to provide needed assistance to students affected by the pandemic, including costs related to housing, food, emergency travel, and remote learning. The office of financial aid also determines what pandemic-related needs qualify for assistance from the fund.

“I heard about the COVID-19 Response Fund through an email sent out by USF. I was too late to apply in 2020, being informed there was no more aid left to give,” said senior English major Lucia Verzola. “After applying for the second round in Spring 2021, I received an amount of $500 that went toward my rent. Though it was something, it wasn’t as much as I was hoping, being a full-time student who works three jobs to support myself.”

Students receiving this financial assistance included, but were not limited to, DACA-identified and undocumented students who are excluded from grant eligibility according to guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Education. 

“By coupling CARES Act funding with USF-funded grants, we are able to distribute financial assistance equitably to our diverse community in keeping with our mission,” said Senior Vice Provost of Academic Affairs Shirley McGuire, in an email back in May 2020. 

According to Robin Dutton-Cookston, Director of Development Communications, over $1.5 million has been raised for the fund as of Aug. 1. This includes $1 million from the Board of Trustees and 960 individual donations from members of the USF Community.  

Though the fund was intended to be widely available to students, multiple articles featured in the Foghorn, as late as May 6 of this year, have reported on the financial aid office’s struggles with communication

“I don’t think USF has been very supportive of its students’ financial situations during this pandemic, but I don’t think USF is very supportive of that in general,” said senior English major Rebecca Madsen in an email to the Foghorn. “I wasn’t aware of the COVID-19 Response Fund; it sounds like a good program and it’s frustrating that USF isn’t spreading the information about it better.”

When asked for further clarification, the office of financial aid referred to the provost’s office, since the provost is the “account owner.” Subsequently, Provost Oparah’s office was unavailable to comment at the time of this story’s publication. 

Since the COVID-19 Response Fund’s creation, the allocation of the donations has been expanded beyond an individual student basis. Among the issues addressed is the purchasing of equipment needed to create hybrid-flexible classrooms “to support in-person and virtual learning as the campus has reopened,” said Dutton-Cookston. 

Although the University maintains that students “remain at the heart” of the fund, Dutton-Cookston said, “At this time, the funds are called unrestricted, which allows the greatest flexibility to help Father Fitzgerald and University leadership respond to this crisis, by allowing us to quickly direct the funds where they are needed most.” 

Lucia Verzola, who provided comment for this story, is editor in chief of the San Francisco Foghorn.

Callie Fausey is a senior media studies major and the Foghorn’s scene editor. She covers news related to arts and culture. She can be reached at cfausey@sffoghorn.com 

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