August 20, 2020
Dear UT Community,
We’re just a week away from the start of classes, and I want to update you on additional plans and resources for the fall semester and some of the efforts we’re making to keep our students, staff and faculty safe.
Our decisions about returning to campus in hybrid mode this fall have been driven by the health needs and concerns of our entire community, and I want to assure you we will maintain our focus on that priority throughout the semester. In recent days, we have closely followed the experiences and strategies of other colleges and universities across the country, including peer institutions that have struggled with COVID-19 cases such as the University of North Carolina and the University of Notre Dame. Our university is learning from them and strengthening our understanding of what it takes for a community to mitigate the effects of a virus that can, if unchecked, spread rapidly — I hope that you are as well. I believe our students and other community members can respond to these stories by behaving responsibly and protecting each other, enabling us to continue to have safe in-person experiences on campus this fall.
That said, it’s important to note that while we are providing a blend of course delivery formats to our students, many students have chosen to learn fully online this fall. 76% of the seats taken this semester will be for courses that are completely online, another 19% are for hybrid classes that combine online elements with in-person elements and only about 5% are fully in person. There will be far fewer students, staff and faculty on campus than normal, and those who are here will be expected to wear masks and maintain social distancing requirements and encouraged to sign the Commitment to Protect Texas Together.
Just as important, our health, academic and occupational health experts will continually monitor patterns of COVID-19 infections in the university community, conduct root cause analyses for clusters that will emerge among students, staff and faculty and make recommendations about changes in safety protocols, enforcement, messaging and education. Working with university leaders, I will put those recommendations into action and approve any significant policy adjustments that are needed throughout the semester.
We will also authorize staff members in residence halls, academic buildings and elsewhere to make immediate decisions as needed to reduce the spread of the virus — and I will continually communicate with the UT community about these developments and decisions.
I know that many in our community are wondering whether there is a specific set of triggers, or case amount, that would lead the university to move even more classes online or close buildings during the fall semester. While there is no one factor that would lead to such decisions, there are some key metrics that we will be following to guide us in the weeks and months ahead. These include:
The number of COVID-19 cases relative to the population of the university;
The severity of the cases;
Our ability to effectively contact trace and limit spread; and
The number of cases observed among community members on campus compared with those studying, teaching or learning off campus.
These four points are among the many factors university leadership and health experts will consider when making policy decisions in the days and weeks ahead.
Below are some other important announcements that will help you plan for the fall semester.
Protect Texas Together App
Today, we officially released the Protect Texas Together App for students, faculty and staff. The app is available to download here. It is designed to help individuals track their symptoms each day and — based on those symptoms — indicate whether they are cleared to come to campus. Downloading and using the app, while strongly encouraged, is completely voluntary. The app was developed by UT students and employees for UT students and employees, with a strong focus on protecting privacy.
As a reminder, here’s some information about how the Protect Texas Together App works:
Users can track their symptoms each day with the app, which can provide a daily campus pass for those without any major COVID-19 symptoms.
If the app’s algorithm determines that an individual may have COVID-19 based on the symptoms that person selected, the app will decline to provide a pass and instead direct the user to contact either University Health Services or UT Health Austin for guidance or testing. Faculty and staff members can also go to the provider of their choice.
Beyond daily symptom screening, the app allows users to easily and quickly log in and out of campus rooms (for contact tracing purposes), access local COVID-19 information and resources and connect their EID to a proactive community test ID, should they volunteer for asymptomatic testing.
For those without a smartphone, a phone-based survey application is also available by dialing 800-325-8903. This uses the same algorithm as the app to indicate whether a person is safe to come to campus, but works on any phone. The phone-based survey requires a unique access code, which is available here. Those without internet access or in need of further assistance should call the UT Service Desk at 512-475-9400.
Campus visitors without EIDs can use this symptom-monitoring app developed by the CDC if they wish.
Classroom and Campus Safety Preparation
We have been preparing classrooms for the semester by blocking off, zip-tying and stickering seats to accommodate for socially distanced learning. Additionally, UT staff members have been installing approximately 3,000 hand sanitizing stations, numerous plexiglass shields and informational signage across campus to accommodate the health and safety needs of students, faculty and staff. The goal is to have over 100 campus buildings certified and prepared for in-person learning by this Friday, August 21.
To support a healthy return to the Forty Acres, we are requiring that all students, faculty and staff complete an online, interactive training program called "Staying Healthy in a Changing Environment." This training will provide helpful information for navigating the presence of COVID-19 during the fall semester, protecting your physical health and the health of fellow Longhorns, while maintaining your mental well-being. You will receive a personalized email during the coming days with information about how to access the training.
Staff to Continue Working from Home
As a reminder, all UT staff members who are able to work effectively at a high level from home should remain off campus during the fall semester and continue working remotely. If you have questions about whether you should be working from home, please coordinate with your supervisors.
Cancellation of Family Weekend
Family Weekend is one of our great UT traditions, where thousands of UT parents and family members join their students on campus for a few days of fun and activities each fall. Unfortunately, due to the ongoing risks presented by COVID-19, we have decided to cancel this year’s Family Weekend. It was a difficult decision, but ultimately there was no way to safely bring together so many people from communities across the state and nation for a weekend and move ahead with our traditional programming.
In the near future, I hope parents and family members can again see and experience our UT community in action. Until then, we’ll be patient and do our best to provide engagement opportunities online through Texas Parents whenever possible.
Public Safety Off Campus
While not directly related to COVID-19, many community members have expressed concern during the past week about public safety issues in Austin. I want to assure you that the safety enhancements we have made on and off campus in recent years remain in place and will be expanded as we move forward.
We have already improved lighting and monitoring systems, limited building access and expanded nighttime transportation programs. The University of Texas Police Department is coordinating with other law enforcement agencies to create a safer environment for UT community members off campus and throughout our city. Earlier this year, the UT System Board of Regents provided funding for UTPD to expand its coverage into areas surrounding campus and bring enhanced safety technology solutions to areas in West Campus. And the UT Austin Police Oversight Committee will also be conducting an exploration of creative approaches to community policing, on-campus safety and wellness issues that will help ensure that these additional safety measures serve all members of our UT community.
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Next week, our community will reignite the learning, teaching and research that makes The University of Texas so special. Regardless of whether you come to the Forty Acres, live in Austin or stay in your hometown during this fall semester, please remember that you will be a vital part of Longhorn Nation.
Our university exists to solve big problems and produce leaders, ideas and discoveries that change the world. We get back to that on August 26. I can’t wait.