University of Wyoming officials explained their “Plan to Restart Campus and Return to Normal Operations” during a WyoCast town hall meeting Monday night.
The meeting, specifically aimed at UW faculty and staff, is the first in a number of online town halls that will engage students, employees as well as the broader Laramie community with the university’s plan to safely resume amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plan will include routine testing, moving many classes online before moving completely online after Thanksgiving break, and will emphasize safety while also attempting to provide an experience for many first-time students and seniors that is ‘different, but not diminished.’
In his opening remarks, UW President Edward Seidel said the decision to bring students back to campus was based on online learning limitations, the fact that certain research areas necessitate face-to-face learning and an economic obligation to the community to bring UW students and faculty to Laramie.
“We have worked extremely hard not assuming that we should open, but to examine every possible pathway for safety, and we have determined that we believe we can open safely,” Seidel said. “We have a lot of procedures put in place to ensure that we can, but we’re also going to make sure we are very nimble as situations develop.”
Interim Provost Anne Alexander said about 800, or 35%, of UW’s courses have been moved online, and faculty who are teaching in-person classes are being encouraged to be flexible and offer alternatives to students who are not comfortable with face-to-face instruction. UW has also added more time between classes to reduce traffic.
Regular testing plays a large role in UW’s plan. All faculty, staff and students are required to take an at-home saliva test prior to returning to campus this fall. The cost of the test is covered by the university, and each member of the UW community will receive an email with instructions on how to order and complete the pre-return test.
Student Health Service Director Mary Beth Bender said that ideally, pre-return tests should be ordered this week and saliva samples be returned next week. Bender said those who are exceptions to the timeline have been notified.
“The goal of that step is to determine a baseline virus presence in our UW community ideally before the bulk of our campus community returns to this semi-closed environment of our campus community,” Bender said.
Bender emphasized that the saliva test does not collect any DNA, and only collects the RNA associated with the presence of the virus.
In addition to a pre-return test, Bender said staff are working hard on a surveillance testing plan where all students, staff and faculty will be tested routinely for the virus. These tests will be saliva tests as well, to avoid subjecting people to repeated uncomfortable nasal swab tests.
“The goal is for that to be a quick and easy collection process with a quick turnaround on those results so we can potentially identify infection before it has a chance to spread widely across campus,” Bender said.
Student Health Services will also be conducting tests for students on campus whenever symptoms of COVID-19 are present.
Aside from testing, UW students, faculty and staff will be required to complete a daily health self-assessment before attending classes or entering any UW buildings.
Associate Vice President of UW Human Resources Tom Koczara said the assessment, dubbed COVID Pass, is a mobile, responsive webpage where students, faculty and staff will answer a list of questions derived from the CDC list of COVID-19 symptoms.
Koczara said if no symptoms are reported, or if symptoms do not correspond to COVID-19, UW community members are issued a day pass that allows them to enter campus for that day. If symptoms reported indicate a possible COVID-19 infection, that person will not be cleared to enter campus that day and will be asked to self-isolate and contact a health care provider.
UW faculty and staff will be required to take a campus training via the Employee Learning Center before classes begin on Aug. 24. Koczara said the training will include an overview of the plans and procedures to restart campus, and basic information about the novel coronavirus such as symptoms and transmission methods.
In terms of sports, UW Athletic Director Tom Burman said student athletes are being tested and asked to quarantine before joining summer workouts. Burman said athletes’ access to UW facilities was limited as was the number of athletes allowed in an area at the same time.
Burman said there have been no positive test results for any athletes.
The UW football season is scheduled to begin Sept. 5, and UW soccer and volleyball matches are scheduled for August. Burman said while nothing has been canceled, those dates are likely to be pushed back.
Sports attendance will need to be adjusted as well, and Burman said the number of people who can enter War Memorial Stadium, which holds 30,000 people, will need to be limited.
Burman said UW athletics is working closely with the Department of Health to develop a strategy, which includes only allowing 20% to 35% capacity at the stadium to allow for social distancing.
Several UW faculty members, including UW Senior Vice President Neil Theobald and Interim Provost Anne Alexander, emphasized the importance of providing some face-to-face instruction despite the inherent risk.
“In spring semester, both our faculty and students expressed concerns about burnout from online learning,” Theobald said. “This approach allows access to critical on-campus learning experiences that simply are not available in off-campus and online learning.”
Theobald said a wealth of research demonstrates that interpersonal and extra-curricular activities are central to student’s continuous learning.
Theobald said although there is risk, UW staff and faculty is working hard to create an environment that manages and limits that risk.
“Face-to-face instruction will make us susceptible to a changing campus and community environment,” Theobald said. “To stay abreast of that changing environment, each day campus officials will meet and review a wide range of data. Based on these data and what they indicate, President Seidel stands ready to shift the mode under which the campus operates.”
Theobald said UW has a wide variety of responses available based on what the data indicates, including pausing face-to-face operations to moving fully online.