Although positive strides have been made in counteracting the impact of the outbreak of COVID-19 since mid-March, President Marc Johnson said on Wednesday during an online meeting with faculty and staff that the campus community must continue to prepare for every sort of contingency as individuals return to campus to work and study.
“For all of you the watchword is this is the time to prepare to be nimble,” Johnson said during the meeting, “Planning for the Return of the Pack: Employee Information Session,” moderated by Faculty Senate Chair Brian Frost. “We don’t know what the future holds. We need to prepare to be nimble, and prepare for everything that comes.”
Even with a great deal of uncertainty in the world right now – including nationwide protests in the wake of the killing of George Floyd – the University has entered its second phase, in alignment with the State of Nevada’s guidelines for Phase 2, of returning to campus. More than 1,300 faculty and staff attended Wednesday’s meeting, which was on Zoom. At the beginning of the meeting, both Frost and University Diversity and Inclusion Officer Eloisa Gordon-Mora, both acknowledged the pain and tumult the nation has experienced since Floyd’s death.
“Many across the county vilified these peaceful protests and emboldened the racists among us; all of which continues to expose the systemic racism ingrained in our country,” Frost said. “We can do better; we must do better. We need to let our Black faculty, staff, and students know that we see you, that we hear you, and that we stand with you.”
Added Gordon-Mora: “This is part of the American history of where we come from, but what we would need to address decisively, through dialogue, through education and as a social-justice-committed institution of higher learning is where we want to go.”
Johnson said the University’s 43-page plan for returning to campus, much of it including the plans of vice presidents and deans detailing how operations and work would be safely accomplished through Phase 2, has been approved by Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly and will be available to all members of the campus community in the coming days. He said it is expected that University will remain in Phase 2 at least through June.
Johnson said the various unit and division plans incorporate social distancing, regular disinfecting regimens, use of face coverings and other health precautions, as well as explanations of what groups of individuals are expected to return to work in the coming days and weeks.
“Please consult with your supervisor,” Johnson said. “They have which plans and which portions of units are to return to campus on a particular date.” Johnson added that the University will continue to work with and make accommodations for individuals who belong to vulnerable groups, care for individuals who belong to vulnerable groups, or might have childcare responsibilities that prevent them from doing their work on campus.
“We’re developing a series of request forms so individuals can make the request to remain working remotely,” he said.
Provost Kevin Carman said the University’s plans for instruction for later this summer and into the fall semester will be informed on whether the state is in Phase 2 or Phase 3. The University is currently “100 percent online” with remote instruction for the first half of summer session. For the second half of summer session, and supposing that the University remains in Phase 2, there will be limits on in-person classes of no more than 50 people in a classroom with six feet of social distancing. Carman admitted that bringing room capacity and social distancing into a safe alignment will be a challenge, and that there will be options available to keep instructors and students safe.
“We will have a variety of modalities,” to choose from, he said of the second half of summer session and the fall semester. “Several classes can be taught entirely online, some (using larger classrooms where adequate social distancing can be ensured) will be taught entirely in person. Some classes will be taught via Zoom for students who wish to participate remotely. Some will be hy-flex, with half of the students in class one day, and half participating remotely.”
He added, when asked if the University is allowing for instructional flexibility for faculty, “We are always open to a variety of modes of delivery.”
Carman said face coverings will be required for students in all classrooms, and supplies will be provided to clean work stations and lecterns between classes.
“Everyone is going to need to take personal responsibility and clean their seats and work stations, wear their face coverings and take all the proper precautions necessary,” he said, adding about students having to wear face coverings in class, “The answer to this is somewhat complex. We need to build a culture of expectation that everyone will participate and take measures not only to protect themselves but everyone else in the community. … Our emphasis should be on education and not on enforcement and this is why this is such an important area of emphases for everybody.”
Dr. Cheryl Hug-English, director of the Student Health Center, echoed Carman: “Continuing the preventative measures that helped us arrive in Phase 2 will be critically important.”
Hug-English said that given the virus’ volatility, it is too early to say for certain if there will be a second increase in COVID-19 cases in Washoe County in the fall. Data for the state and Washoe County continue to trend favorably, she said.
“We don’t know yet if this virus will have an additional surge in the fall,” she said. “The last two and a half months have allowed us to plan and prepare.” She said the University’s implementation of COVID-19 training for employees to return to campus, the cleaning and disinfecting regimen used by Facilities Services, safety precautions that will be used in classrooms, the use of face coverings on campus and readiness plans that have already been formulated for isolating and quarantining in the event of a positive test on campus, are all encouraging deterrents that the University currently has in place.
She said there will not be a requirement for individuals to have a COVID-19 test before returning to campus, although testing is available for faculty and staff through their private providers as well as at sites in the community. Campus testing will be prioritized for individuals who are symptomatic; student testing will be done at the Student Health Center. The Family and Internal Medicine Departments in the School of Medicine also have testing available for faculty and staff who don’t have a primary care provider.
In terms of travel, Hug-English noted that Gov. Sisolak has relaxed his travel advisory for the state, although he is still asking Nevadans to consider carefully if any non-essential travel is necessary. Employees on University business in the state will be allowed to travel, although they must follow University guidelines such as limiting automobile capacity to only two people, said Tim McFarling, associate vice president of human resources.
McFarling said his department is still ironing out the receipt of daily healthy assessments that per the state’s guidelines are required of employees who are back working on campus. He said the system thus far is perhaps working too well – his department has received more than 11,000 emails “that document what you’ve been doing.”
“We’re trying to unravel a burdensome requirement,” he said, noting that in the next few days a solution will be announced that will place less of a paperwork requirement on employees and their supervisors. “Give us time to let you know how it will work.”
McFarling also echoed Johnson in that accommodation can be had for employees who have reason not to work on campus.
“We’ve got a mechanism that is in place on the HR website,” he said. “Faculty and staff are encouraged to work with their supervisor for alternative work arrangements.” He noted there are several avenues available to employees, including accommodations through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act.
In terms of tight work spaces such as areas where cubicles are used, McFarling advised all departments to develop schedules, utilizing combinations of days where an employee might work in-person and then perhaps work remotely, so that safe social distancing could be maintained.
“It’s important that the supervisor work with employees to see what they’re comfortable doing and then adjust to that,” he said.
He said the University is requiring all faculty and staff to wear face coverings (other than in their own office) during Phase 2.
Denise Baclawski, senior director of planning and construction for the University, elaborated on the ongoing work that Facilities Services is currently doing to maintain campus safety and to prepare for the additional number of employees who will be returning to work.
She said there have been 326 requests for physical protective barriers in work areas where there are significant personal transactions. So far 223 have been installed.
In addition, signage for common areas and for assigned space in departments is also being added to remind people to maintain social distance, wear face coverings, wash their hands and to be mindful of other COVID-19 health precautions. 150 ADA-compliant hand sanitizing stations are being placed near main building entrances, with the installation to be completed by the end of June. 600 ADA-compliant sanitizing wipe stations have been ordered and will be placed in classrooms.
Baclawski said that all HVAC systems, including air filter efficiency, is being closely monitored and maintained at national safety standards. HVAC is now operating 24/7, even in buildings that are currently unoccupied, to ensure safe air exchange. Facilities Service staff are flushing and circulating all water in all buildings.
The cleaning and disinfecting protocol by custodial staff will be to sanitize all common areas and high touch points every day, Baclawski said.
Asked about impacts on the University budget – Gov. Sisolak had requested budget reduction scenarios for all NSHE institutions up to 14 percent earlier in the spring for the next fiscal year – Johnson was frank. He said the governor will be asking for all state employees to take one day per month furlough during the coming fiscal year.
“The state would take that off the top before they charge the rest of us on our reductions,” he said. “We are looking at our 14 percent plans. We’re hearing from the Regents next week about an additional source of funds that may retrain our budget cutting at the 14 percent level. There are no specific plans approved as of yet.”