Amid COVID-19 concerns, UT limits student travel; not switching to online classes yet


AUSTIN (KXAN) — At a press conference Tuesday, leaders at the University of Texas at Austin explained measures they are taking to protect the campus against the spread of COVID -19.

At a time when many other higher education institutions have announced plans to switch to online classes as a result of the outbreak, UT Austin leaders said they don’t believe that measure is necessary yet on the Forty Acres, especially given that no known cases of COVID-19 have been detected in Travis County. However, UT is preparing resources for the possibility that courses may need to go online and limiting international travel for students as a precaution.

Academic support and potential online classes

Larry Singell, the senior vice provost of resource management at UT, explained that UT accelerated a purchase order of Zoom Video Conferencing this week, noting that UT had made the decision to work with Zoom prior to the coronavirus crisis, but recent developments made that deal happen faster.

Singell noted that some UT staff and faculty are “highly trained” to deliver online instruction and those people are helping to put together a plan to make broader online education accessible to all students.

Libraries could be used to help students who may not have access to the internet or resources when in-person classes are canceled. Singell mentioned that UT could ask libraries, “to come up with a contingency plan, to understand that essential personnel need to be here in order to support the educational mission and identify what those are.”

While some faculty at UT may have experience teaching online classes, Singell acknowledged that many academic programs may not adjust as easily to a video-conference style classroom.

“If you’re trying to teach a ceramics class, it’s very difficult to do that in an online setting,” he said.

Singell explained that UT will be in contact with the City of Austin, the State of Texas, and peer institutions to decide whether classes should be taken online after spring break.

“Right now — although I am not a doctor and you should let a doctor talk about that — it does not appear that it’s necessary to go to an online format, so what we’re tying to do is provide a contingency planning in preparation for that,” Singell said. He anticipates that UT will have instructions out by the end of the week about how UT will proceed with academics after spring break.

Singell added that UT also still needs to have more conversations with faculty about how to bring classes online.

“What we’ve done is sent out a set of protocols with regard to, here [is] the menu of things you can potentially do, but we have not sent out a set of instructions about what are the various things that you need to do in order to accommodate how you can do it,” he said.

For example, UT is working to put together a video training on how instructors could use Zoom Video Conferencing. But Singell noted a challenger remains that there are some classes where “Zoom might not be the optimal way.”

Medical precautions

Dr. Terrance Hines, Executive Director and chief medical officer for University Health Services at UT, explained to the press that this week UT opened up a dedicated respiratory clinic– a separate waiting area for students with respiratory complaints to help isolate them from people who might otherwise be well.

Hines also noted that for people who have respiratory problems but are not sick enough to come into the clinic, UHS has developed information to help these patients treat themselves while staying at home. Often, Hines said the recommendations can include self-isolation and regularly monitoring your temperature. He added that UT wants community members to let them know if they have a fever higher than 104 degrees Farenheight or symptoms like shortness of breath.

Hines said the “million-dollar question” is what type of health concerns in the community would trigger canceling classes at UT. Travis County does not have any known positive cases of COVID-19 as of this article and Hines declined to estimate whether it would take one positive case or multiple cases to bring the university to cancel classes.

“Our message from the very beginning has been all about prevention,” Hines said.”There is not a vaccine for COVID-19, but the basic principles of hand hygiene, of social distancing, avoiding touching your face, not sharing food drink with others, those apply not only to this situation, but also to seasonal flu.”

Hines said that UT has been emailing and posting to social media to carry these messages through the campus community. He added that UT has “plenty of hand sanitizer available” as well as masks for students and personal protective equipment for staff.

“If you are sick you need to stay home, you need to not go to work, don’t go to class, if you do think you need to go to the doctor’s office, call in advance, they may want to make special preparations for your arrival,” Hines noted.

Travel policies

Randy Penson, Director for Global Risk and Safety with UT’s Texas Global, explained that they are looking at possibly tracking the travel of UT community members through voluntary reporting. They also noted that in the past few days UT has suspended travel for undergraduate students to all CDC levels 3 (China, Iran, South Korea, and Italy), 2 (Japan), and 1 (Hong Kong) destinations. UT said they have also recently suspended undergraduate travel to Spain, France, and Germany.

As for graduate students, faculty, and staff looking to travel to those locations, Penson said they will need to seek approval from the university.

Penson said that there is not currently a requirement for UT community members to report where they make personal trips, but he noted that UT is “looking at possibly tracking personal travel voluntarily.” The purpose of that type of tracking, Penson said, would be to share best practices when appropriate, such as self-isolation.

For people who plan to be traveling internationally, Penson said, “I don’t think there should be panic, but you need to be smart, and if you’re traveling abroad — know the case numbers, COVID case numbers there, and their travel restrictions — you got to plan for questionnaires and quarantine and self isolations, and delays.”

Penson also recommended that those traveling internationally enroll with the Smart Travel Enrollment program with the U.S. State Department.

Soncia Reagins-Lilly, UT’s vice president of student affairs and dean of students, issued a letter to students earlier this week detailing what students can do if they feel like they are coming down with COVID-19 symptoms.

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