June 5, 2020
Dear faculty colleagues,
I am writing to provide some additional updates to our efforts to prepare for a fall semester that will be unlike any we have experienced. Before I do, I want to address the sadness and outrage our community is experiencing fueled by the recent senseless and unconscionable deaths of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.
These are our fellow human beings, real individuals who are no longer here. Their loss has shaken our institution, the country and the world. My thoughts are with those of you who are hurting and angry. I hope to be able to support you and to listen to you as we live and work together.
There is much work we must undertake to address the history of racial injustice and violence and its consequences for our country. As educators and scholars, we need to prepare the next generation and give them the skills and tools they will need to confront these issues. For some of us, our scholarship involves shining a light on the history that has brought us here and on uncomfortable truths about the present day. For all of us, we must work to create an equitable, inclusive, and just institution, community, and society.
I know that the pain of the past few weeks has pushed many other things aside. Many of you, however, remain concerned about how the COVID-19 health crisis will impact your future work and, most immediately, about what the fall semester will look like.
You received a fall planning update earlier this week from Interim President Hartzell, and I wanted to follow up on a few key issues. We are deep into the fall planning discussion with a concrete plan to be shared with the campus later this month. The working groups include roughly 250 faculty and staff members. I know that you have many questions about how we will teach and live and about how decisions will be made. In this note, I want to outline our approach and share what we know right now.
At this point there remain many unknowns, some because we need input from everyone who plays a part before we can make decisions, and some because many things will happen that are beyond our control. Our guiding principles are to make use of the best epidemiological advice at the university and from the wider world and to leverage the pedagogical expertise of our faculty to produce a safe campus environment and a quality educational experience.
Testing and Minimizing Exposure
The full details will be shared later this month, but here are a few key steps we will be taking.
- Because epedimiological evidence shows that even simple masks significantly reduce the chances of transmission of the COVID virus, we will require masks for all individuals who come into UT buildings.
- We will set up a system to enable UT community members to screen themselves for symptoms and to report them daily.
- We will put policies in place for students, faculty members, and staff members that make it easy to stay home when they experience symptoms.
- HVAC and air conditioning systems in UT buildings will be optimized. Right now, we expect air in most classrooms will be replaced every 2-3 minutes.
- Maximum classroom density will be no more than 40% of the normal capacity allowed.
- We will conduct daily asymptomatic testing for COVID-19 across campus. This is in addition to providing tests for individuals who are symptomatic or have had possible exposure. Our hope is to be able to conduct up to 1,000 tests per day. We will follow up on any positives with contact tracing and isolation. The broad testing will position us to identify potential clusters and to have early warning of any rise in incidence.
The working groups aim to ensure we can continue to deliver a quality education regardless of the modality.
As a community, we have argued forcefully over many years that in-person residential instruction on a public research flagship campus was the gold standard for undergraduate education. In a healthier world, we would doubtless continue to hold this conviction as an absolute. As we try to balance the safety of our community with the quality of the overall educational experience for our students, both students and faculty members will have to make adjustments that involve inconvenience, extra effort and some degree of risk. We call upon you to employ your ingenuity and enterprise to help meet both of our common objectives. What follows are some decisions already in place and some ongoing work that will flow down to decisions:
- The largest 400 classes will be held online because there are no rooms large enough in which to hold them at 40% density. Sections for these classes may be in person.
- We are going through the fall class inventory to see what delivery modes provide a quality learning experience for which classes. This is something that needs to be done department by department by you, the experts.
- The Office of the Registrar is examining course rosters with two questions: Can we assign rooms at the required low density for those courses that need to be held in person? Do all students who want a residential experience get an adequate amount of in-person contact with faculty and instructors? As we learn the answers to both questions, it may be necessary to ask departments if they are able to change the delivery mode of some classes from in-person to on-line or vice versa.
- This summer, we’re taking our first steps with the School of Nursing and the Dell Medical Schools. Each school has students who are coming back to in-person instruction. Their experience will allow us to learn how some of the guidelines are working, and how we need to adjust.
Faculty Accommodation for Health Reasons, Personal Circumstances, and Preference
We administered a faculty survey to help us understand your perceptions of being on campus this fall. A few highlights include:
- With appropriate safety considerations, approximately 70% of faculty members expressed a willingness to teach a class that involves an in-person component this fall.
- When asked about instructional methods in the online environment, faculty members reported they are most interested in learning more about asynchronous instruction using one-way video and interactive two-way video instruction to enhance their online teaching.
- When asked about the top three challenges impacting the transition to online teaching, faculty members were most likely to identify the following as their challenges: knowledge of online teaching best practices, familiarity with online teaching technology, and the impact of the pandemic on their emotional/mental/physical well-being.
- Approximately two thirds of faculty members consider the frequency of UT communications to be “sufficient,” as opposed to too much or too little.
As departments decide on instructional modes and make final teaching assignments, we know we will need to make accommodations for faculty members, teaching assistants (TA’s) and assistant instructors (AI’s) who are vulnerable or who are living with someone who is. The Faculty Affairs group in the Provost’s Office is working with HR to produce a document on the detailed process in the next few days, but I can share the basic outline with you now:
- Faculty members who qualify for ADA health accommodations or who are in a high-risk group, as defined by the CDC, will be able to request an accommodation to ensure that they can teach remotely or make use of a few different leave or alternative flexible work options. This process will run through HR/ADA and the departments will be notified only that an individual qualifies.
- Faculty members who have a household member who is in a CDC high-risk group and from whom they cannot maintain social distance will be able to seek a flexible work arrangement, through collaboration with their department chair and Faculty Affairs personnel in the Provost’s Office.
- Other faculty members who have strong preferences about teaching mode (in-person, online, blended etc.) or schedule preferences will work with their departmental process as they would with preferences at any other time.
Reach out to the Faculty Affairs team with any questions (firstname.lastname@example.org) knowing that more details will be shared soon.
Under most circumstances, departments are able to find teaching assignments that both meet the instructional needs of the unit and address the needs and preferences of the instructors. Despite the extra complexity that COVID introduces, the survey results and the talent and energy of our faculty give me confidence that we will by and large arrive at a similar place this fall.
We’re working hard to be thoughtful and comprehensive, but also move quickly. There will inevitably be things that come up that we haven’t fully addressed. And we are not operating in a vacuum. We will need to very closely follow the local conditions, the actions of the City of Austin, the decisions of the surrounding school districts and developments in testing and prevention.
I know this is hard and we’re all operating in unfamiliar territory, however, what does give me strength and confidence is experiencing the tireless contributions of our community to understand the issues and support each other.
I cannot thank you all enough for everything you are doing right now.
DANIEL JAFFE | Interim Executive Vice President and Provost
The University of Texas at Austin | provost.utexas.edu