Students returning to Texas Woman’s University this fall are seeing significant changes to campus activity to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Just 30% of classes this semester feature an in-person component, and those meeting face-to-face have only half of enrolled students present at a time, per TWU requirements that classrooms do not exceed 50% capacity. Events and meetings — whether between faculty and students or among student groups — are also being held virtually, meaning campuses in Denton, Dallas and Houston are significantly emptier than they would typically be during the fall semester.
Safety and cleaning protocols
Students, faculty and staff are required to wear masks in classrooms and campus buildings, and within 6 feet of others outdoors, according to TWU’s fall 2020 webpage.
Residence halls have reduced capacity, and each community bathroom is limited to 20 people and cleaned twice daily. In the dining hall, seating has been reduced; staff is sanitizing food contact services every 30 minutes and cleaning high-contact areas such as digital ordering devices between service periods. TWU community members must self-screen before coming to campus and report COVID-19 symptoms so the university’s contact-tracing team can identify affected spaces and people as directed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Employees were asked to complete virtual COVID-19 training before returning to campus so they would know what precautions to take, Risk Management executive director Matt Moustakas said.
The university also hosted a town hall for faculty and staff Aug. 13 to address campus changes. While Moustakas said they received many questions about what would trigger another campus shutdown, there isn’t a specific event that would prompt closure.
“We hadn’t established any specific triggers — we didn’t pick ‘If X, then Y,’ because it was so changing, what they recommend to look at as far as statistics, what’s going on with the county, what’s going on with Dallas and Houston,” Moustakas said. “I’m still meeting with the chancellor twice a week, along with the cabinet, so we’re taking more of a holistic approach. We don’t know what those triggers will be, but we have plans to be able to pivot online.”
The university’s response depends on what is happening, Moustakas said. Rather than stopping most campus activity as TWU did in March, administrators could take a more piecemeal approach to preserve in-person research and learning that cannot be done online.
Administrators will look at whether TWU’s contract tracing program is being overwhelmed, if the quarantine rooms in residence halls are filling up, and if state or local orders are being tightened when deciding how to respond to an increase in cases, Moustakas said.
But administrators hope the safety measures in place and the university’s culture — which has less of a Greek presence and residential population than larger schools and isn’t considered a “party school” — will help prevent a large-scale outbreak, Moustakas said.
Other precautions include plexiglass in high-transaction areas and the limiting of seating in public spaces. Water fountains have been disabled, but more bottle-filling stations were installed, and the university has doubled the number of hand-sanitizing stations in buildings, Moustakas said.
Facilities are also being disinfected using Environmental Protection Agency-registered disinfectants that inactivate the COVID-19 virus at the end of each day.
It’s been almost two weeks since move-in began, and there’s been no significant increase in cases, which Moustakas said he takes as a good sign.
“We did have some concerns, but you walk around campus, and people are really going above and beyond,” Moustakas said. “You don’t see anyone just walking around flouting the rules. It’s really been going very well.
“I’m cautiously optimistic at this point.”
The number of students taking online instruction versus in-person classes looks the opposite of a normal academic year, vice president for Academic Affairs and provost Carolyn Kapinus said. While normally around 70% of instruction occurs in the classroom, roughly that number of students are participating in remote learning for the fall semester.
University administrators worked with faculty to prioritize areas of in-person instruction over the summer, Kapinus said.
“At the time that we started this, the research was showing that for students coming out of high school and going into college, a third of them really felt strongly about having some sort of in-person experience,” Kapinus said. “They said if it was going to be completely online, they were likely to forego going to school.”
Research also showed the retention rate for first and second-year students is an important indicator of whether they will graduate, Kapinus said. With that in mind, administrators prioritized in-person classes for freshman and sophomores and those that require in-person instruction to meet learning outcomes, such as physical therapy.
Still, with most learning taking place online, Kapinus said many faculty members had to be trained to teach classes virtually.
Administrators and faculty recognize that many students are also adjusting to online learning, Kapinus said.
The Pioneer Center for Student Success offers academic coaching for success in an online environment Kapinus suggests students take advantage of, along with practicing open-mindedness and sharing their concerns with instructors.
Still, if the campus shuts down, some students could be left behind. One study found around 20% of students have trouble maintaining access to basic technology, with students of color and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds disproportionately affected.
But for other groups like graduate students balancing coursework with families and full-time work, online instruction is a better fit. With the pandemic accelerating the move toward increased online offerings among universities, there’s a potential that some courses could remain online — or at least offer an online option — post-pandemic.
“There are some areas where I think we’re really going to see, after the pandemic, the demand for online instruction continue,” Kapinus said.
In the meantime, administrators hope students and faculty will be able to make the best of a less-than-ideal situation.
“Everybody here wants this to be successful and really wants students of TWU to feel they’re having a good experience,” Kapinus said. “We’ve worked tremendously hard to try to gear up for this fall because it’s been really challenging.”
File photo by Sarah Pham.