University President Discusses Fall Reopening Against Pandemic Backdrop
Texas A&M University-Commerce is set to resume its fall semester on Monday, August 24. With the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic class offerings range from in-person to online-only to a number of hybrid curriculum options. The student experience for commuters and residents alike is going to differ in a number of ways from any previous semester in the school's history.
Fall sports have been postponed by the Lone Star Conference out of an abundance of caution for players, coaches and fans. In-person gatherings are being retooled to comply with the recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to maintain social distance and to limit community spread of COVID-19. I'm Jerrod Knight with 88.9 KETR and I recently sat down with Dr. Mark Rudin, TAMUC president, to learn more about how the fall semester is expected to come together.
Jerrod Knight: With the state of Texas continuing to report daily new cases near its high daily mark, my first question is whether the institution is nimble enough to withstand another shutdown should one come this fall?
Mark Rudin: And the answer is yes, I really think we are. If you if you look back at our spring semester when we made that decision to go fully online, and shut down face-to-face instruction during the initiation of the start of the COVID crisis. We were one of the few schools in Texas that was able to do that and not miss a day. So we have taught so much so many of our classes already online and we have a lot of expertise in our faculty and our faculty have stepped up big time in this they have demonstrated flexibility and being able to adapt and reboot while maintaining academic excellence. So I feel very confident that even though we will be entering into this fall semester with a combination of online hyflex and and face to face classes, I think we'll be okay if we need to flip the switch and go fully online. I would say this also, I feel so confident in our faculty that, you know, this is rapidly changing. I feel confident that if we needed to flip the switch to online, I think in some cases, we could flip the switch back to where we were if the if the, the COVID crisis eases off and later on in the fall, whatever that may be. So I think we're I think we're set up very well. And I would tell you much better than a lot of schools.
JK: Does the University have the authority to shut down without an order from the governor's office?
MR: Yes, it's my understanding that we do. I would caveat that though saying that. It would it would be in our best interest to check in with the Texas A&M University System to make sure that however we accomplish that is consistent with their, with their goals and where they want us to go in terms of offering academics at our university but my understanding is that we don't need permission from the state to do that.
JK: Are you noticing a massive difference in the productivity the output of the institution as a whole, during times where folks are away?
MR: I would I would not say productivity, I would say, and maybe in some isolated cases, maybe things aren't getting done as quickly as they could get done, because you have to arrange zoom meetings. And then it's a lot easier when you're in person, right? If we, for example, if you and I were going to do this remotely and try to make it happen, we have to schedule and so forth, besides just me coming over here and talking to you. But I think the university faculty and staff have really stepped up. And I think it's important for folks to know that this is a constant work in progress here. Right? I would say that we still have faculty and staff that are working remotely. And when the semester starts, we still may have faculty and staff working remotely. I think so many times in the past, this institution has waited from an edict from above, from the president saying, here's what we're going to do. I've tried to take a different approach and delegated that out to the VPS. And then eventually to the supervisors and say, you all make that decision. I can't sit here from the President's perch and say, "How am I going to deal with this person that may be in this office over here that may be immunocompromised, and this group over here that doesn't this essential over here?" I really need to rely on that administrative managerial chain to make those decisions. And, and, and Jerrod, I really do think it's worked out so far. And I hope that will continue. Right. I don't want some a staff member or a faculty member to come to work, if they feel in any way that they're going to their health and safety is going to be compromised. We don't want that. We want to get them to campus. We want to do everything we can to make them feel and allow them to do their job in a safe manner. That's a that's a case by case call. In terms of our faculty, I think we're in a pretty good place right now. And I attribute that in part to our Provost john Humphries, and Associate Provost, Ricky Dobbs. I think we did the right approach. Again, we did not hand an edict from above and say this is going to be the distribution of classes. And here's how we want you to teach your classes. We really went to the Deans and the department chairs in the faculty hands and said, "You all figure it out." You know, Jerrod, if you're scheduled to teach in the beginning English class, you need to decide and understand you want to get back in the classroom. We have some we have some restrictions there, right? We have to limit the number of students in a classroom. But if you feel more comfortable online, then let's pursue that. And we see other schools that their faculty senates are pushing back a little bit saying we don't feel comfortable doing what you're asking us to do. We didn't do that. We asked them what they wanted to do, and they responded accordingly in and are afforded the opportunity to offer courses in the most health- and safety-oriented way.
JK: What does the fall look like in terms of a resident sudent? Students have to wear masks when they're in public spaces, but they don't necessarily have to when they're inside their rooms. what's what's that dynamic going to be like?
MR: The expectation this fall is that our students that are living in the residence halls are going to be encouraged to wear their face coverings when not in their personal rooms. Right? And you know, we are It's one thing for Mark Rudin to, say, ask the students, "We encourage you to do that." I think we're thinking of, maybe a better approach is to use this peer to peer interaction, get get our Student Government Association involved in this and have them spread the word about the benefits of, of wearing your facial face coverings and so forth and have that discussion. Going back to the residence halls, students are also going to be discouraged from leaving the university for the duration of the semester to limit exposure, those they visit elsewhere and to limit exposure that they may bring back to the residence halls so that there will be a little difficult but again the encouragement and and have them understand that their actions could impact others. And we need to have that discussion early and often with the students. If a student does leave the residence hall and suspect that they've been exposed to COVID-19, we're going to require that the student reports his exposure to a student health center within 24 hours of the suspected exposure to make sure we trace that. We're also looking at common spaces in the residence halls such as restroom facilities, lobbies, shared kitchens, and so forth. We're looking to make sure that those have reduced or designated furnishings to encourage physical distancing and will enhance sanitization of those areas also. Finally, students in our we're going to have this discussion again early and often with our students. Students living in residence halls will be prohibited from day or overnight visitors. And that's going to be a little change from what we've done in the past and our residence halls. We cannot take the chance, and compromise the health of those around us by inviting people that we don't know where they've been. We feel like we're going to do the best job we can to create a safe environment for our students. Jerrod, I have no control over that. We have no control over that of outside visitors. And God forbid if they're actually staying overnight. We can't have that in our residence halls. And some folks have asked me, you know, "How does individual responsibility play into this plan?" You know, we have a reopen plan that is on our website - posted on our website. But a central core tenet of that plan is this whole idea of personal responsibility and the fact that the centerpiece of self certifying certain things as a faculty, staff or student, and you'll see in postings on the front of doors across campus in this reopen plan, that these individuals are going to have to self-certify that they are not actively infected with the COVID-19 virus that they do not have. fever, cough or other symptoms of COVID-19 is listed on the CDC website. They have not been in close contact with anyone known or suspected to have tested positive for COVID-19 in the previous 14 days. And finally they have not returned from travel or traveled through an area with state or local restrictions that mandate quarantine up to the previous 14 days, right.
JK: I think it's going to be a tall order to ask students not to go home on the weekends. Personally, I have learned not to make plans beyond the next couple of weeks, because it's almost invariably going to be just torn apart. We've spent a whole lot more time at home than we thought we were.
MR: I know. You know, what's interesting is the question I get all the time is, "Hey, what is the fall semester gonna look like?" The answer is, I don't know. I know what it looks like today, when you and I are talking, but you know this as well as I do, Jerrod, that tomorrow something else could happen. And we take this reopen plan that we have on a website, we throw it out out and we start over and what how do we adjust? How do we adapt? I don't know the answer. I know that fall of 2020 is going to look different than fall 2019. How's that for an answer? Right? I will do the best we can. We're asking our faculty, staff and students to do the best they can to deliver an academic, social cultural experience for our students in very disruptive times.
JK: The Board of Regents requires incoming freshmen to live on campus, has that been lifted?
MR: No, not to date. No, it hasn't.
JK: So they're going to have to be here?
MR: They'll continue to be here. Okay. Yep. And I would say, you know, going back to what you said about how we do things differently events and those type of things. We just have to adapt and adjust. You know, another good example will be next Friday the 21st I'll be giving the fall assembly. And it was I always look forward to that so much because everyone's back in Ferguson [Auditorium] and there's hundreds of people in there and you're ready to go. We may have 30 people in Ferguson because of social distancing, and YouTube Live the presentation, I'm looking forward to the discussion. I wish it was back to the good old days, right. And then it was so much fun to walk out of that fall assembly and see the and be part of the freshmen walk. No freshmen walk this year because we can't do that. So Judy Sackfield, our interim, VP for student success, and Dean of Students is working with her team to figure out what do we do to create something on campus experiences on campus so the students just don't go to class or online and sit in their rooms. We have to figure that out. It's our challenge to figure that figure that out, and we're, we continue to work on that. I think the best thing we have to offer right now and again, there's there's still a lot of discussion going on about fall sports moving to the spring. I think that we... a good part of this is that the NCAA is allowing us to grant those athletes another year of eligibility, if they don't play a full season. So that's a very positive thing. I have to be honest with you. And you didn't ask me this question here, but I'm going to tell you anyway, this is this is, "The World According to Mark." Okay, so this is not the LSC Presidents [Council] or anyone else. But as I sit here today, I'm not fully convinced that things are going to significantly change with the spring that we're going to be able to have competitions - sport competitions - in the spring, either. Right? I mean, think about it, that the data still is rising in a number of different areas, and it'll start coming down. We hope keep your fingers crossed, that the curve will start to bend and level off. But because it goes down, that doesn't mean there's no new cases. That means there's fewer new cases, that doesn't mean there's less morbidity or death. It could be I take that back. It could be less death. But still, unfortunately, deaths that occur.
MR: Yeah, non-zero. And then you think about, you know, the flu season that's coming up, and you're going to introduce a whole new population of by virtue of the flu immunocompromised individuals that are going to be dealing with this also, I don't see this idea of, "Let's move sports to the spring, and we'll flip that switch to January one and play ball." I guess I don't see that right now. Maybe, maybe in April, maybe in that area. I'll continue to hold out hope for that. But we'll do everything we possibly can at A&M-Commerce, to get our student athletes back out in the field of competition that they've been preparing for their entire life.
JK: We're talking with Texas A&M University-Commerce president Dr. Mark Rudin on 88.9 KETR about how student life and the day to day operation of the institution is expected to be markedly different as the fall semester begins in late August. We're talking about the steps that are being taken to conduct the business of higher education while attempting to keep stakeholders safe and healthy until something resembling normalcy returns.
MR: Will there be a vaccine? Will be effective? I don't know. You know, you hear some experts that say this is going to be with us forever. And that, you know, just much like the flu, you're gonna have to get your COVID-19 annual vaccination and maybe a cocktail of vaccinations. We may not ever be able to get to 100% but boy, in Fall '21 I would love to have a fall assembly with everyone there and this and the students participate in the in the fall freshmen walk, that would be so neat, but we can't do that this year. So let's do the best we can.
JK: Many of the students who are enrolled here are on some form of athletic scholarship, are those students going to continue to benefit from those athletic scholarships, even if their sports - fall sports - are being canceled or delayed?
MR: We are going to do absolute best to honor all those scholarships. Because even though we've canceled competition, there was still hope. And the LSC Presidents [Council] did, in our vote, say that even though we may be pushing competitions back some sports to the spring, we're still going to allow practices to start no earlier than August 24. So we will have football, soccer and volleyball practice starting that time so that the teams will still be conditioning, still will be practicing. So I don't see any scenario where we would pull those scholarships.
JK: People are coming up to you, I know they do - you live on campus. People are coming up to you, and they're asking you questions. What's, what's the tone? Are people hopeful? Are they you know, are they sort of stuck in the realism of it? You know, what's, what's the tone?
MR: Yeah. You know, there's, there's looks like there's two camps. In this whole discussion here. There. There are faculty, staff and students and let me let me talk about students for a second. There are students that "I want to get back to campus. How do we get back to campus, I want to see my friends, I want to go to class. Even though those classes are online. I want to sort of hang out with my buds at school." But the other camp is The prospective students and their parents or guardians that are waiting to see what happens. We're only about a little bit over a week out from the first day of classes. But we still have a significant number of prospective and particularly freshmen that still have not made that decision. And mom and dad, we're finding out more and more than mama dad or probably, if not, the decision maker, are playing a big role on that, that they want their son or daughter to be going back to school and this semester, or do they want to see the coast clear, and then maybe come back in Fall '21? We have probably close to 1000 kids that are in that camp right now. And they're going to go one way or another. Right. And I've just told our folks that if they want to come here, let's accommodate them. If they want to put it off for a year. Let's still have that discussion and see how do we - because we want those individuals to pursue their career. So a lot of jittery people out there. I would say given everything that this university has been through in the past year, and especially COVID, I just looked at our enrollment numbers for the fall, again, comparing where we are right now in '20 versus where we were at this date in '19. Looks like our enrollment numbers are flat. I'll take that, given what I hear coming out a lot of schools and our student credit hours, which how we are funded. Right now, we're actually in the middle of the census time period where we're, we receive our formula number, and we're funded by student credit hour and actually right now, we are up about over 3% in student credit hours, which is a good thing. And get this - during the summertime summer, this past summer, summer session one again, we were in the middle of saying oh my gosh, how what's going to happen? And we were still doing some homework on this trying to mine this information, because we gotta be honest, we don't know why... But in summer session one, our headcount was up 21% and our student credit hours was up 27%, which is amazing, right? Why did everyone go right from spring semester into graduate work in the summer? I don't know yet.
JK: How does A&M-Commerce obtain the latest data with regard to students, faculty or staff members who may have received positive COVID-19 diagnoses? And how and to what extent is that data being communicated to the campus community?
MR: You know, your first question about how do we collect that data? It's two pronged approach. We need self disclosure. And now we have testing set up on our campus and free testing for our faculty, staff and students. Well, we're using these tests that we have received, graciously received from the system office to test symptomatic individuals to do some surveillance testing. Have some tests, special groups, so let's say that there is a someone test positive in the west wing of [the] Phase Three [residence hall.] We may go there and do a little contact tracing and say, "We need to test you other five people." So it's a combination of, of us being able to have that testing capability and self disclosure. And we made the decision long ago that we are going to be fully transparent on what's going on in our campus. And we have now we are going to go into the process now of finalizing this we're going to post on campus, we're going to post the number of COVID cases for our faculty, staff and students on our website. We're posting the number of positive covid cases on our website, you can go to our main website, and you can click on the link of "stay healthy lions" and if you follow that link, it'll take you to how many faculty, staff and students are currently tested positive.
JK: And that's separated to by on campus and off campus depending on I mean, the relationship to the institution is how they got there, but they may not be on campus.
MR: And It can get complicated pretty quick, right? Because I can tell you right now, last time I looked at it, we have no on campus cases, but we have four off campus cases. Okay, and we have four off campus, but one of those was living on campus, got it and decided to go home and spend, you know, go home with mom. And so it's no longer on campus. Right. So there's a lot of intricacies there. But we just felt like the value was in expressing the magnitude of the issue on campus/off campus - four versus 50. Right? I think we need to let - we need to be fully transparent and let our campus community know exactly what's going on on our campus. And it'll further help us make these decisions about, okay, who needs to be on campus, who's comfortable on campus? How do we accommodate? When do we start beginning... do we start flipping the switch? I mean, what's that, you know, how do we move that forward? So I think this transparency is going to be the way to go.
JK: Is contact tracing happening within the content of campus?
JK: Somebody here is charged with that?
MR: Yes, it is. We have the Vice Chancellor for Health Services at the Texas A&M University System has graciously offered contact tracing expertise. We have contact tracing currently going on by our own personnel. So I think together, contact tracing is going to be a big part of our COVID portfolio here.
JK: Dr. Rudin. I appreciate your time.
MR: I appreciate your time. It's always good talking to you. I'd love to come back... love to come back in mid fall and say, give a status and how's it going? I just come here with the hair all frazzled and sweat. I don't know. I don't know what I'm doing. I don't know what I'm doing here. [Laughter.]
JK: I'll say this. It is absolutely, though, refreshing and calming for somebody like me to hear you say that you have no idea of what the future is going to look like - it's up in the air. We don't know.
MR: I'll tell you this. One of the pleasant surprises that we've experienced over these six months is the support and help from our System office. They have issued a number of guidance memos that have been extremely helpful. But I'll tell you what's been even more helpful than that, Jerrod is that they have also been willing to communicate and talk to us. And, and they don't have all the answers. They know we don't have all the answers. We're in the trenches together. We're pounding this, you know? There's something to be said about the System office saying, "We don't have the answers, but let's figure out how we put our heads together and make it work." That is so comforting to know in its own way, right. It was such a, I can't... I can't speak more highly of the leadership and all the offices within our Texas A&M University System office. They have stepped up big time in this, and I don't think we'd be exactly, we'd be okay. But I think we're that much farther ahead as a university because of that support.
JK: Dr. Mark Rudin is the President and CEO of Texas A&M University-Commerce. This conversation is archived online at KETR.org. For KETR News, I'm Jerrod Knight.