Texas A&M provost answers FAQ about students’ return to campus

Published: Jul. 3, 2020 at 5:56 PM CDT
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - Students are headed back to Texas A&M University’s campus for the fall semester. A blend of in-person and remote learning will mean big changes as physical distancing is highlighted through the re-opening plans.

On July 3, News 3′s Kathleen Witte sat down with Texas A&M University Provost and Executive Vice President Carol Fierke, who clarified some of the plans.

What will an average day look like for a Texas A&M student?

“First thing is all of our students, faculty and staff, everyone on campus will be wearing face coverings. The students will have about half of their classes that have some face-to-face component and then half of the classes that are either in an online format or a remote format. The difference is the remote format means faculty continues the class the way it was before, just with a camera. Online format means we have redeveloped the course for delivery online using modern technology... Classes are going to start at 8 a.m. and, on some days, they will go to 8 p.m. because we have increased the passing time. Students, typically, when they get ready for a class, they sit in the hallways and wait for their class to start. Well, students are going to have to wait outside and not congregate inside the building. For the classes that will have a face-to-face component, will they be entirely face-to-face? What will that balance be? There’ll be some mixture. One of the ways that we dealt with the difficulty of finding classes large enough to physical distance is to provide cohorts. So, for instance, if you’re in a Monday-Wednesday-Friday class, you come on Monday and then you do remote on Wednesday and Friday... We also have taken over all of the large spaces on campus to have classes where we can have physical distancing, and then in those cases, the students can go every day.”

Is there a remote-only option for every single class?

“Yes. I think it’s really important because we do not want students to come to class if they’re not feeling well. Whether that’s because they have COVID-19 or because they have the flu, we don’t want them to come to class, but we want them to be able to continue their education. We are going to have a remote option for every face-to-face class.”

What will be the general occupancy of classrooms?

“Our maximum classroom occupancy will be 33 percent. In many cases, it will be lower than that, particularly 33-21 in the places where we commandeered large spaces. For instance, we are going to have classes in Reed Arena, the Hall of Champions, the ballrooms in the MSC and the Rudder Theatre.”

When and how will classrooms be cleaned?

“We are going to clean classrooms, in some cases between classes... We have a 45-minute passing time and for that all of the classes are going to be cleaned. Another way we’re going to try to protect students are for the social distancing we might have this is a red seat and the 8 o’clock class sits there, this is blue seat and the next class sits there. To try to keep it so that students can sit in a seat that has been cleaned. There will also be cleaning supplies that if a student wants to clean their own area when they walk into class, they can do that. There will be sanitizing stations so that they can use hand sanitizer. So there will be lots of opportunities for students to practice as safe as possible to decrease the transmission of the virus.”

Why not clean between every class?

“It actually takes about 30 minutes to clean, and so that would mean we’d have to have 45-minute passing times which would decrease the number of class periods. We felt that this was a reasonable accommodation. Also, the current data suggests that the main way that the virus is transmitted is by face-to-face, by droplets. It’s much less likely to get it from a surface.

Masks are required whenever anyone is inside a building, except for in a private office. When students are passing, when they’re walking around outside on campus, are they required to wear a mask?

“The policy currently says that if you can’t practice 6-foot physical distancing outside, they should wear face coverings. Certainly in previous semesters, during pass time, on the sidewalks, it’s not been possible to do physical distancing.”

How will social distancing be regulated and enforced in common spaces, like study spaces, libraries, dining areas?

“In our computer labs, we did implement social distancing in the spring. Probably about every other one, we disabled the computers. We also had monitors that we’d go in and clean when students left. In the dining halls, there’s going to be no self-service. There’s going to be serving, so we’re going to also have people physically distanced in the dining hall because you can’t wear a face-covering while you’re eating. Then it really is important to do the physical distancing. We’ll also have a lot of grab-and-go, so the ability to take your food and either eat it outside or eat it in your own home.

“We are thinking about developing some outdoor student spaces, putting up some tents, having some wifi. That’s still in the early stages. But outside is safer than inside, and our students are going to need to have places to congregate. It’s not going to be perfect because even though it’s out of the sun it could still be warm.”

How will Texas A&M enforce the mask policy?

“Indoors, for instance in a classroom, if you are not wearing a face covering and you don’t have an exemption, the faculty member will ask you to put one on or ask you to leave the class. If the student refuses, we are not going to have faculty throwing students out. They will just take the student’s name, and they will give that name to student affairs. Then there will be a student conduct. We’re currently working on exactly what the sanctions will be. The first one will be education about why did we ask, why do we think it’s the right thing for face coverings to keep our community safe, and from there it will ratchet up. That will be the same way we’ll try to deal with faculty, staff, and visitors. With students, since everything can be done remotely, if a student really doesn’t want [to wear a mask], if it really is against their beliefs, they don’t have to come to class. They can still get an education.”

How will Texas A&M handle mask exemptions?

“There are ADA exemptions. There are some people that it’s medically contradictive to wear a mask. They will have a letter that they could share with a faculty member, although we’re hoping that they can then wear a face shield instead of a face covering.”

Will the school provide masks to students?

“We have decided to have everybody purchase and bring their own masks. And part of that is, from my own experience when I went to look for masks for myself, I found out that masks are different sizes and the faces have different shapes. I think the decision was to allow every person to find the kind of face covering that they felt comfortable in and that fit them the best. We are really encouraging people to have the good cloth face coverings which can be laundered. Over the summer, we did provide surgical masks for some of our researchers when they came back, but it actually is quite expensive. And we also do not want to take PPE away from the hospital settings where it is essential.”

Will there be temperature checks and/or symptom checks at the door to buildings or classrooms?

“We are not doing temperature checks. Looking at the percentage of people with COVID-19 who actually run a temperature, it’s pretty small. My sense is that you should know if you’re running a temperature. Also, in the Texas heat, with the thermal imaging mechanisms, you can read as if you have a temperature even though you’ve just been out in the sun. So, we are not implementing that. We are not going to implement health checks in our buildings either. We have asked every student, faculty and staff to fill out a form at the beginning saying if you have any of these symptoms you must stay home, and you must notify your supervisor or someone in student affairs. We have not implemented having an app [to check symptoms] on a daily basis. Those are things that we could still think about doing. There was the difficulty about how to implement it, and then what if we saw the student who didn’t sign in? What would we do? So right now we are really going to do a lot of communication about ‘Stay home if you don’t feel well. Contact your health care provider if you don’t feel well.’”

What are the plans for COVID-19 testing of students, faculty and staff?

“We also will have the ability for everyone on our community to get a test if they have a symptom or if they have evidence of close contact. That will be run through the student health service. The system has purchased a large number of tests, and so I think we will be able to have that for our community. We are also going to have a mechanism of randomly testing, although we haven’t worked out those details. We are working on doing a wastewater sampling as well just to get a sense of how much COVID-19 there is on campus and are there places where there’s more? And that will tell us that we need to go do testing in that area.”

Are those student health services COVID-19 tests free of charge?

“They will be free of charge to the person, but we are going to ask for health insurance to pay for them when feasible. The ones that we’re going to use for random testing, those you can’t charge to any health insurance, and the system has agreed to paid for those.”

All students will all be required to have their own personal computer at Texas A&M this fall. What if a student doesn’t have a personal computer and doesn’t have the financial resources to get one?

“Right now, we can use the CARES Act funding. A student can make a request, and we have an emergency fund that is funded mostly by CARES Act but some by fundraising. They can ask to get funding to purchase a technology such as a computer.

“We did make that change. We felt that given the remote options and the—hopefully not but possibility that we have to go remote again in the next semester—that we really wanted to have all of the students have the capability of doing that.”

Are there any changes to on-campus living?

“We are still having rooms with two people per room. It’s recommended that they wear their face coverings if they’re not in their room or if they have guests in their room. We are talking to the RAs about keeping better track of how their students are doing. We thought about trying to provide students thermometers, although it’s actually not been that easy to purchase thermometers. So we’ll see whether we can get that done by the fall. They will be given cleaning supplies so that they themselves can clean their areas more frequently than they are cleaned. The bathrooms, the hallways will be cleaned more frequently.”

What happens if a roommate contracts COVID-19?

“We have identified places to move either students who are COVID-positive or their roommates so that we will be able to help students self-isolate or self-quarantine as needed, both if they’re sick or if they’ve been told that they have close contact.”

Say a student has tested positive for COVID-19. What happens next?

“We are in the midst of changing our system of reporting. The Texas A&M School of Public Health has partnered with the Brazos County Health District to set up a contract tracing group, and so what will happen soon, next week, is that we will ask students to self-report to a portal that goes directly to the contact tracing group, and then they will contact people who might have had close contact. They will also contact someone in student affairs to make sure that if they’re in a dorm, the dorm knows about it can rearrange housing arrangements. Once the students have been tested as COVID-19 positive, there will be lots of information to them about what they should do. What they should do in the dorms. If they’re in an off-campus living situation, how to isolate yourself in a household from your roommates so that it will decrease the possibility that the other roommates will also become COVID-19-positive.”

Will their instructors be notified?

“At this point, we are not notifying instructors. Students will notify their instructors that they have a health concern. If they want to tell them it was COVID-19, but they don’t have to. We have put in emergency regulations that you actually don’t need a doctor’s note to be able to get accommodations for health reasons. Because we’ve set up all these remote options, it will be easy for students to continue their education if they feel well enough even while they’re self-isolating.”

How do you enforce the self-isolation of a student who has tested positive?

“So that’s a more complicated question. I think it’s going to be easier for the students in the dorms. We haven’t completely figured that one out, I would say. The issues are both for employees—there are ADA issues about health information and similarly for students we have FERPA concerns with protected health information. I think there are difficulties in letting everybody know which students are COVID-19 and shouldn’t be showing up in your class. We are hopeful that the students will follow the recommendations, but we’ll have to see. If we find that there are lots of students who really are not self-isolating, we’ll have to figure out more sanctions and maybe then we will have to let faculty know what students shouldn’t be showing up in their classes. It is more difficult in that age group because many of them are asymptomatic, and it’s more difficult to self-isolate when you feel perfectly fine. So, I do think that’s something that still need to figure out a better answer to.”

How will they access food and/or other care during their time of self-isolation?

“Certainly in the dorms what we did in the spring and what we will do [is] we’ll deliver food. I think that student affairs in the spring did check in with any student who was self-isolating, asking how they are doing. There was a texting back and forth. Even with the off-campus students, we’ll probably try to make sure that there is some touch from student affairs if they are, and the touch will ask do you need food, do you need medicine? Are you in touch with your health care? Do you need someone from student services to contact you? I think many of them will get food from their roommates, but we will figure out a way to touch base with them. Student health and student affairs did that in the spring semester specifically for students we brought back from Europe who needed to self-isolate and self-quarantine.”

Texas A&M has hundreds of student organizations. What enforcement or rules will be in place for those?

“I’ve been very proud of our students. They have been very responsive to thinking about how to do things safely. For instance, Fish Camp was going to happen on campus, and they looked at what was happening in our community and decided that they needed to move to virtual. All of the student groups are thinking about how to add a virtual component to what they do to keep community. We certainly, for mental health, we really need to keep community going. Then, thinking about how they can have some meetings that are held safely, either by large amounts of physical distancing or by having multiple small groups. There will continue to be student group activities in the fall. It will just look different. But we are going to work really hard to keep community on campus.”

How will Texas A&M protect faculty and staff at most risk?

“The thing that I’m most worried about is how to protect our older faculty and staff on campus who are at most risk of having complications. We are working through how to keep those people the safest. We’ll try to have that group either work remotely or teach remotely.”

If the situation worsens throughout the semester, what contingency plans are in place?

“We have the ability to do all classes online… We are also thinking about contingency plans. What are the metrics that we’re going to try to keep on campus and when are we going to decide that we’re going to make changes? We are working hard at what those metrics are. I think that we want to have some intermediate actions from where we are planning in the fall to going 100% remote. We’re trying to figure out what those stages would be.”

How will Texas A&M support these instructors as they move into this relatively new world of online-mostly teaching?

“In the spring semester, we had a few days over spring break and then an extra week. Members of the provost office and across campus built these Keep Teaching websites and Keep Learning websites that had enormous number of tips about how to do this. We use Zoom. That was very useful. We learned a lot about Zoom during the semester and how we could better use it. I would say that one of the places that we didn’t have optimal activities was how to do remote exams. We’re working very hard on how to optimize remote exams for the fall semester. I still think that that is still a gap across the nation that I hope someone will come up with the technology solution to.

“The faculty, I was incredibly impressed with them. All of our faculty managed to do it, even those faculty who said they were never going to be able to. The academic innovation and the technology staff on campus had numerous training sessions and were very patient with some faculty who were far away from being able to do this. But they all managed to do it. I actually think that it’s going to be easier in the fall. We’ve done it once. We learned where the worst pain points are, and we’re able to work on those over the summer to make it smoother and better. Actually, we found there were some things that worked better. Turns out that students are much more willing to ask questions through a chat function than raising their hand and actually verbalizing it. Also, many students really like virtual office hours because they could, when they had a question sitting at their desk, they could get a relatively immediate answer without having to get up and move. I think that there are things that we learned from the spring semester that we will keep doing even when we get back to more normal.”

Why has Texas A&M changed the timeline of the semester?

“We decided to start three days earlier. Starting three days earlier allows us to finish all of our classwork by Thanksgiving. That way, the students, if they want to leave, they don’t have to come back. All of our final exams will be done remotely. It also gives us more time to do the final exams. That was one thing that we did find, that it actually takes longer to do and set up final exams remotely because you always had some fraction of students who had some technology issue, so that will give us more days for the final exams.”

COVID-19 has canceled Texas A&M commencement ceremonies so far. What is your message to those and future graduates?

“One of the disappointments for many students was we did not have face-to-face graduation in August. I think actually with the increase in cases, it’s going to turn out that that was a really good decision even though there were many disappointed students. But that then also allowed us to have a longer time for move-in so that there wouldn’t be everybody moving in at one and a lot of families and students interacting with each other. We felt that that was important for us to get the right start for the semester. Our plan is to allow any student who wants to walk to be able to have that in-person walking across the stage when it is safe.”

Research is a pillar of Texas A&M. Is that still happening? How is it still happening?

“We restarted research on June 1, and I think many of the labs are up and running. They are doing physical distancing. They are doing cleaning. Some of the labs are working in shifts because we had to decrease the occupancy. One of the things that we haven’t restarted is research with human subjects. We’re still trying to figure out how to do that safely both for the human subject and for our researchers. Most of the Texas A&M Health Science Center departments and colleges have moved forward with the clinical work for their students. So, we are restarting but, we are watching it carefully. Hopefully we will not have to go backwards in terms of what they’re doing because that’s a very important component of the university and for our land-grant mission.”

What do you want to say to non-Texas A&M community members who are concerned about the fall semester bringing a spike in cases?

“A significant portion [of students] are in our community this summer. I actually don’t know the number, but clearly we have a very robust summer program, and many of them did come back and spend time. We are working with the students to message what safe behavior is, how it’s selfless service to wear a face covering, and that if you value the ability the ability to have face-to-face classes, if you value the ability to meet in small groups, you really need to follow these defined safe practices or those things are going to go away. We are developing a large messaging campaign.

“I think that there is probably a misconception about the 18-25 group that we’ve seen—those are not all A&M students. It’s a mixture of both A&M students and community members. I think that all of us need to work with that age group to help them better understand that their behavior affects the entire community.”

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