With fall semester classes ready to begin next week, the University held an Employee Information Session via Zoom on Wednesday, Aug. 19, to provide updates and answer employee questions as the institution faces an academic year unlike any other in its 146-year history.
The session was moderated by Brian Frost, past chair of the Faculty Senate, and was attended by more than 1,300 members of the University community.
"Look out for your colleagues, so that when stress gets to them, you care for them."
President Marc Johnson acknowledged “the environment of anxiety that we are all experiencing right now,” as the University reassembles following March’s mass movement to remote delivery – including classroom instruction and many of the University’s operations – in the wake of the outbreak of COVID-19.
“The tensions have continued to accumulate since March when the COVID hit,” Johnson said, noting that in addition to the many uncertainties regarding the pandemic, the people of Nevada and the nation have also dealt with the upheaval of a social justice awakening following the killing of George Floyd. “Since March, we have all lived with these anxieties.”
Still, Johnson said he was proud of the work the University has done over the past five months, noting that students, faculty and staff have all worked together.
“You’ve been carrying on and we thank you so much for carrying on with the missions of this university … all with a great deal of creativity under constant change,” he said. “Please realize that all of the decisions we’ve made are being made in an environment of uncertainty. We ask that you all be flexible, and resilient … Look out for your colleagues, so that when stress gets to them, you care for them.”
Frost added that from a faculty perspective, one of the key watchwords this semester will be patience.
“Students new and old have enrolled in our classes and are expecting us to deliver the high-quality experience they’ve grown accustomed to,” he said. “It will be different what we and they are accustomed to.”
Cheryl Hug-English, director of the Student Health Center, said that the University’s campus health plan is indicative of what is happening nationally on many college campuses – that is, best practices are being followed while also acknowledging the University’s unique nature.
“There is not a one size fits all approach to managing coronavirus,” she said. She praised the people of the University for “a tremendous effort,” in mitigating the risks associated with COVID-19. “This has been a lot of cooperation and a lot of individual effort,” she said.
Hug-English said the Student Health Center has been conducting daily COVID-19 testing over the past two months. Testing is available Monday through Friday for students, faculty and staff. Faculty and staff must bring their insurance information. The testing, she said, is available to anybody experiencing symptoms, or who has come into direct contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19. Individuals are asked to call the Student Health Center one day ahead of time in order to schedule an appointment.
Hug-English said the center has ordered a point-of-care testing machine, which when it is received, will be able to test and process results in a 15- to 30-minute period.
“It will provide a more immediate result,” she said, adding that there will be a $40 charge.
Hug-English said the University is not conducting pre-entry COVID-19 testing for employees and students.
“There are lots of different approaches,” she said. “We’re following CDC guidelines of those who have been symptomatic or who have been in contact with COVID. We need to remember that the test is a moment in time. By the next day, that test is meaningless. This is why the CDC is recommending that we focus our efforts on those who are symptomatic or in direct contact.”
Hug-English said “close contact” is defined as being with someone who has COVID for more than 15 minutes, and less than six feet apart.
"We had about nine percent positivity in July. August has dropped to a six percent positivity rate."
Since the Student Health Center began conducting tests, Hug-English said that “a little over 35 students and a handful of faculty and staff” have tested positive. She noted that these were individuals who had contact with campus, and were under doctor’s care and had self-isolated.
“In July, we tested over 500 individuals,” Hug-English said. “We had about nine percent positivity in July. August has dropped to a six percent positivity rate.”
Hug-English pointed to the University’s coronavirus website for step-by-step advice and procedures when, for example, an instructor is told by a student they have tested positive, or when a co-worker in a work space tells other co-workers that they have tested positive. In general, she said, it is important that faculty members reach out to their vice president or dean, and that employees reach out to their supervisors to make the decisions needed to make learning and work place areas safe. “You don’t have to deal with this alone,” she said. “I’m available. These are complicated decisions to make.” She said if a student tests positive, their instructors will be notified. She said for University employees, positive tests “are very situationally driven,” and quick decisions based on density in workspaces (think a series of cubicles in a tight space versus the Wiegand Fitness Center) are taken into consideration.
“We’ve (posted on the website) guidance for you as faculty and supervisors,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is clarify those steps, for you, our faculty members, for what is involved next.”
When asked about the University of North Carolina’s recent decision to move instruction completely online after only a week of classes following an outbreak of COVID-19, Johnson said the University is prepared to pivot if a similar scenario happens on campus.
“We actually have talked about under what conditions we’d have to go back to fully online education,” Johnson said. “If we have an unusual spike, we will take it to the Issues Management Team (the group of upper-level administration that has been meeting regularly since March) and make that decision.
“(Provost) Kevin (Carman) and his team have done an excellent job in preparing that we can pivot on a dime if we need to go all remote on a fairly short notice.”
Carman said that despite the uncertainty, overall enrollment for fall is “actually looking pretty strong.” He said the University’s enrollment is down slightly from a year ago, about 1 percent, at approximately 20,500 students enrolled for fall 2020. He added that 57 percent of classes this semester will have some portion of in-person teaching, with 43 percent purely online.
Carman said efforts are being made to ensure students have spaces to find wi-fi connectivity when they are not in class. Given the variable nature of some students’ class schedules, which could include a mix of online and hyflex, which would have them in-person in class on certain days but not all, finding convenient, socially distanced work and study spaces for students has been a top priority. He said capacities include about 750 students in the Mathewson-IGT Knowledge Center, 200 in the Joe Crowley Student Union, 200 in the Pennington Student Achievement Center and perhaps 100 or so in Lawlor Events Center. He added that since classrooms will be used less frequently, students will also have access to empty classrooms for wi-fi as well. The campus’ approximately 2,300 residence hall students will also have connectivity in their rooms.
“It’s going to be a patchwork of a lot of different solutions,” Carman said.
“You all are working so diligently and creatively to carry on the mission of the University. We’re all in this together.”
Vice President of Student Services Shannon Ellis told the gathering that move-in day for the campus’ residential communities began on Tuesday and will run for four days. Instead of the usual 3,300 residents, due to social distancing and public health guidance, approximately 2,300 students will be living in residential halls this semester.
Ellis said sick rooms for students who are showing symptoms of COVID as they await results of tests will be available in residence halls. There is an entire floor of a residence hall available for any students who test positive but do not have the means to remove themselves, per their license agreement with the University, from their residential community.
In terms of the University’s budget reductions, Johnson said the University has lost about $39 million of its FY 2021 budget due to the pandemic. He said most units are relying on vacancy savings “to get us through this time … Most units are dealing with short staffs.” Johnson said the Nevada System of Higher Education is continuing with plans for six furlough days, or a 2.3 percent salary reduction, in the second half of the 2021 fiscal year.
Even with short staffs and furloughs planned to help offset further budget reductions, Johnson said he has been “heartened” by the University’s resiliency in the face of an uncertain and volatile pandemic.
“You all are working so diligently and creatively to carry on the mission of the University,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”