University of Alabama System Chancellor Finis “Fess” St. John IV continues to be one of America’s foremost leaders on safely and responsibly getting the nation’s students back in classrooms this upcoming academic year.
As reported previously by Yellowhammer News, St. John is part of an exclusive national group of education leaders who have consulted with Vice President Mike Pence, leader of the Trump administration’s Coronavirus Task Force, and other key administration officials on an all-of-America approach to respond to COVID-19 and drive a phased national economic revival.
St. John’s status was elevated even further this week, as he was chosen to represent all of the nation’s public four-year university systems and flagships at the administration’s Summit on Safely Reopening America’s Schools.
Held at the White House on Tuesday, the summit focused on “reopening America’s schools in safe ways that respect the holistic health and learning needs of America’s students,” an email from the administration said.
The summit was live-streamed, featuring expert insight and best practices from state, health and education officials from across the country.
Trump administration officials such as White House Coronavirus Task Force Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx, Health & Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and Education Secretary DeVos participated in the summit, which included panel discussions on “the ABCs of reopening schools safely and implementing safe school reopenings.”
The summit concluded with a roundtable discussion with President Donald Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, VP Pence, Second Lady Karen Pence and top stakeholders from K-12 and higher education institutions, including St. John.
The UA System is comprised of the University of Alabama, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), UAB Health System and the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH).
St. John delivered a statement approximately three minutes in length during the roundtable.
He highlighted the four pillars of the UA System’s return-to-campus plan: testing, tracking, tracing, and treatment. St. John also thanked the president and the administration for their support of federal COVID-19 relief programs made available to higher education and health care institutions nationwide.
“Our students are yearning to come back to campus,” St. John noted. “[The pandemic] has reaffirmed the value of on-campus instruction at our institutions of higher learning.”
The chancellor explained that expert medical input and research went into the system’s return plan, emphasizing that the board of trustees has already committed to in-person instruction being available at all three campuses to begin the fall semester. The goal of this plan, as the system previously announced, is for its three campuses to be the safest universities in America when on-campus instruction resumes.
On Tuesday, St. John advised that “keeping” campuses open after reopening them will be “the hardest part.”
“I want to thank you and the vice president for the assistance that we’ve received through these federal programs,” he told Trump. “Without those, it would have been difficult for our medical center to continue [and] for our campuses to make it through these difficult times.”
The chancellor further noted these federal programs afforded them the ability to test every single student for COVID-19 before they return to campus.
“We promise to do our best to provide this essential service to our students and our citizens, and we greatly appreciate the assistance you’ve given us,” St. John concluded.
Trump then responded to the chancellor.
“Thank you very much,” the president said. “It’s a great place, a great state. And you’re right about one thing [especially], there’s nothing like a campus.”
Trump continued to extol the benefits of utilizing traditional in-person instruction versus solely remote instruction.
“That’s great, great statement actually,” Trump concluded to St. John.
At a different point during the roundtable, the topic of college football also came up. Trump again turned to St. John for his input.
The president asked if the Crimson Tide will be playing football this year.
“Mr. President, that’s not the first time we’ve heard that question, I can promise you,” St. John quipped, drawing a round of laughter from the room.
“We are planning to play the season at the University of Alabama,” he added, with the president interjecting, “Good.”
St. John then continued to acknowledge “great difficulties and complexities” involved with playing the season.
“[W]e are hoping for [the season to be played],” he said. “It’s important to a lot of people, but we’re doing our best on that one, too.”
Trump responded, “Say hello to the coach, great coach.”
Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn