July 28, 2020

When the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. last spring and UNT worked quickly to respond by switching to remote operations, work in many departments pivoted to support the effort. In the middle of transitioning to working from home and figuring out plans to keep serving the UNT community, Grants and Contracts Administration was just ramping up. Chuck Tarantino, Assistant Vice President of grants and contracts, had only days to complete grant applications for the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.

UNT received three grants related to the CARES Act, two awards for $14.5 million each, one for student aid and the other for institutional support that is being used primarily to convert to online instruction, and an additional $2 million award because of UNT’s status as a Hispanic Serving Institution.

“Because of the CARES Act funds that UNT received, we have been able to review more than 16,500 applications for a COVID-19 Student Success Award. To date, we have been able to distribute over $9.1 million to more than 9,200 students,” says Melissa McGuire, associate vice president for student affairs. “As a result of the assistance we’ve been able to provide, students have been able to remain continuously enrolled, pay their rent, other bills or support their family.” 

In addition to the CARES Act funds, Grants and Contracts Administration continued to process grant applications for research funding. Proposal submissions, which were already high for the year, remained steady throughout the campus shutdown. Faculty not only continued to submit proposals for previously planned work, but they also began looking for ways to help solve new problems arising from the pandemic. Amanda Thomas, senior grants and contract analyst, says that more than 30 grant applications have been submitted specifically for coronavirus-related projects. Many agencies such as the National Institutes of Health announced special funding and fast-tracked approval processes for projects related to the COVID-19 crisis. 

“The biggest challenge was adjusting to remote working while providing service to faculty who still wanted to do what they always do, which is submit proposals, and adjusting to this influx of new topics, which are fast-paced, quick turnaround type things,” Thomas says. “We also had to adjust to structural changes in our office, such as vacant positions, and we had new hires who were only in the office for a few weeks before we went remote. We’ve really adjusted well.”

Tarantino credits his staff with quickly adapting to working remotely while continuing to provide a high-level of service to faculty and staff. The office has received a lot of positive feedback. He says he has been impressed with how well the migration to remote operations worked, and he has seen some unexpected benefits.

“Working through Teams and Zoom has actually helped build relationships that have been primarily over the phone and through email in the past,” Tarantino says. “That’s a big positive.” 

While many applications for research projects are still in the works, UNT has a few projects already approved and underway. Shobhana Chelliah and Sara Champlin have begun a study funded by the National Science Foundation’s RAPID grant program on providing useable health information to linguistically underserved people. Wendy Middlemiss in the College of Education received a planning grant from the OneStar National Service Commission to adapt services of the Texas Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY) program to address challenges related to COVID-19. 

Many other projects have begun while applications are pending for additional funds. Grants and Contracts Administration are continuing to assist faculty process applications as they continue to look for solutions to some of the most pressing problems of these remarkable times.

“We really are a service department,” Tarantino says. “And we’re here to serve faculty.”