Fall 2021 Back-to-School Town Hall

At the Fall 2021 Back-to-School Town Hall on Aug. 11, U senior leadership answered commonly asked questions from students, faculty and staff regarding the in-person campus experience we expect this fall.

The presenters included Taylor Randall, U president; Michael Good, senior vice president for health sciences; Dan Reed, senior vice president for academic affairs; Lori McDonald, vice president for student affairs; Jeff Herring, chief human resources officer.

Watch the webinar recording and read the summary below.

Welcome from President Taylor Randall

I want to be the first to start welcoming all of you back to campus. We're excited to begin a transition back to a lot of in-person learning. Before we get into the heart of what we're going to talk about today, I think I need to express deep appreciation to every member of the campus community, the leaders, line workers that have kept us safe as we've moved through this pandemic.

It's really been a remarkable effort. Our goals this fall are the same. We want to keep all of you safe the best we can while welcoming our students back. I spoke with some of our student leaders this morning, particularly in the undergraduate population. They're very excited to be back for in-person learning and really want to have a connection with us.

As always, I think we have to remember that these are trying times and there's a lot of uncertainty. So, if we can be patient with each other and remember that the pandemic is the short-term thing here, and it's the relationships we have with each other and with our students that is long-term.

Let me express as well appreciation for Dr. Good and Dr. Reed for their leadership through this entire process. And particularly Dr. Good for serving as interim president. As you know, he's served multiple roles and in particular, he is one of our state's most trusted leaders during this pandemic.

COVID-19 update from Senior Vice President for Health Sciences Michael Good

As I'm sure everyone has been following, as vaccines began to roll out in our country, we saw the case levels of coronavirus come down and we sustained it at pretty low levels for several months. And then over about the last six weeks—in large part due to the Delta variant of coronavirus, which is highly transmittable and somewhat more virulent than the original coronavirus—our case counts have come back up. We've seen here in Utah the number of new coronavirus cases on a daily basis increase and we've seen hospitalizations across the state increase as well.

Hopefully, you saw the communication from Dr. Reed and I about a week and a half ago asking our campus community to do four things.

  1. Get vaccinated. The vast majority—90% or more— of patients with COVID in our hospital are un-vaccinated.
  2. If you're not vaccinated, please get tested weekly. We have coronavirus testing available to all students, faculty and staff. It's easy. It's saliva-based, and results are returned often the same day.
  3. Wear a face covering indoors. Face coverings slow down the spread of the virus from person to person.
  4. We're asking leaders, student leaders, staff leaders, faculty leaders, university leaders to lead by example and model these behaviors.

Q&A

Michael Good:

I think everyone needs to remember, we are the University of Utah. As a state university, we must follow state laws. So first and foremost, we follow state law. We do keep an eye on a variety of things. Certainly in health care, we keep an eye on CDC guidelines. For example, one of the reasons that we're asking faculty, students and staff to wear masks indoors is that it's based on CDC advice. And we similarly watch the health department and others in their recommendations, but ultimately, we follow state law.

Dan Reed:

There are two state bills, House Bill 308 and House Bill 1007 that explicitly say we cannot require vaccinations or face coverings. We're also mandated to have the majority of our classes in person. Those laws apply to all state higher education institutions in the state of Utah.

Michael Good:

We did not anticipate having the Delta variant, but that is the situation we find ourselves in now. I want to thank students, staff and faculty for helping keep very low levels of coronavirus on our campus during spring and summer. And I’m confident that we, together, will take actions to keep this virus at a low level moving forward. If things do change, we will adapt and change as well. But there are just so many possibilities. We have mathematical modelers that show this wave coming and dissipating within months. And we have other models and predictions that say that there'll be a sustained level of coronavirus. To try to itemize all of the different possible scenarios is really not possible at this time. No matter what comes, we will need to continue to work together.

Michael Good:

In the peak of the pandemic we had between 90 to 95 patients with coronavirus. In the months when the virus transmission came down, we had around 10 to 15 patients in the hospital. In this last four to six weeks, it's come back up to around 35 or so coronavirus patients (the majority unvaccinated). Is the University Hospital full of COVID patients? No. There's approximately 35 and they're being well cared for.

Is the University Hospital full? Yes. It’s absolutely full. This is in part due to the community growth over the past year, and also due to what we’re calling “catch up care.” Health care that was deferred during the first year of the pandemic. We’re also seeing workforce shortages both in our hospital and also state- and nationwide. We have 1,000 plus vacant positions in the health system, and this is impacting our ability to deliver care.

Michael Good:

The short answer is the highly transmissible Delta variant. The vaccine is effective. It drastically reduces and usually prevents illness and death. But it does not prevent an individual from encountering coronavirus and potentially transmitting it to others. And so that's why the CDC is recommending everyone wear face coverings indoors, even the vaccinated. I've made the analogy to a coat or a jacket. When the weather turns cold, we put on a jacket. And when it warms up, we take it off. We can think of face coverings the same way. When transmission rates are high we wear them, when rates are low, we take them off.

Dan Reed:

I encourage everyone to start from a position of empathy and mutual support. We’re all in this together. And navigating this process, as President Randall said at the outset, requires us to work collaboratively, meet people where they are, and respect others’ perspectives. Having said that, the University of Utah cannot require face coverings by state law, so what we really want to be is mask-friendly. If you want to wear a mask indoors—and that is what we’re encouraging—please do. If for whatever reason you choose not to, we need to respect that personal choice.

As for faculty, they cannot require masks in class per state law. They can certainly encourage them from a public health perspective. But they can’t discriminate against students who might make one choice or another. So for example, segregating students on one side of the classroom because they are not wearing face coverings is not OK. We have to treat everybody the same, regardless of their personal choice.

Dan Reed:

Well, you can certainly ask. We're not prohibited from doing that, but I would suggest that the first question you should ask yourself is why are you asking? If you intend to treat someone differently because of the answer, you should think twice about that. We have to respect personal choices and treat people based fairly and equally based on those choices. Now, there is an exception to this—our contact tracing teams. Contract tracers will ask about vaccination status to help make decisions about isolation and quarantine protocols.

Lori McDonald:

House Bill 1007 prohibits the state entities from requiring or mandating a vaccine while it's under this emergency use authorization. We’re all waiting with much anticipation for that process to go through. The FDA looks very carefully at a lot of different data to determine when that might be lifted. If the status changes, the university will look at whether that requirement matches our procedures and strategies. We currently require our students to demonstrate measles, mumps and rubella vaccination. And so we do have an infrastructure for the process if we were to get to that point. And we've also allowed for religious, medical and personal exemptions.

We do not have individual information, but for the summer semester, our data indicated that at least 71% of our students had received a vaccine. We’re still gathering data for fall, but we are strongly encouraging vaccination and trying to make it as accessible and as easy to get to as possible. We will have vaccination clinics all week long next week for those moving into Housing & Residential Education, along with a vaccine clinic at Fan Fest and multiple other events throughout the months.

Jeff Herring:

If that's the decision we make for students, it would likely be the same for faculty and staff. But again, medical, religious and personal exemptions would be available.

Jeff Herring:

First, let me say, I empathize. I've got an 11-year-old who I desperately want to get the vaccine. That being said, we are required by statute to have in-person instruction for this fall semester. Therefore, in-person instruction and the activities to support this are essential functions of the job.

Some might say, “Well, we've been working remotely for the last year.” Well, it’s a different situation now. While some people were working remotely last year, the students were primarily learning remotely as well. With the students coming back on campus, that necessitates a different type of workforce to address student needs to support the institution.

However, we do understand that there are employees with high-risk individuals at home who are unable, not unwilling, to get vaccinated. And so let me be clear, this isn't just the fact that they're under 12-years-old. They need to be 12-years-old and have a high-risk condition defined by the CDC to qualify for a TWA.

Jeff Herring:

Because we have access to this highly effective vaccine, we aren't providing TWAs the same way we did prior to the vaccination. If there's an actual underlying disability that someone has that prevents them from getting the vaccination, we ask you to contact HR, and we will handle that through an ADA accommodation.

We're reserving TWAs to high-risk individuals who are unable to get a vaccine or live with someone who is a high risk, per CDC definition, and unable to get the vaccine. The TWAs need to be submitted to HR. We review them for meeting the criteria, and then they go back to the department for analysis and approval. So just to emphasize that it is not an HR decision if they're approved. We certify that they came in and the request has been made, but then it goes back to the needs of the department in making that analysis. If you have questions, please reach out to your HR representative.

Michael Good:

We really want unvaccinated individuals to test at least weekly, and then others to test as their schedule or life circumstance permits. It is available to all members of the community. We have a very good testing program thanks to our Vice President for Research Dr. Andy Weirich, and also Dr. Will Deer and Dr. John Phillips, who run our Health Science Center course. We're using the research sequencers to run a very high-quality PCR test. It’s a saliva test, not a nasal swab. Tests are offered at the Officer's Club and at the Union. Again, visit coronavirus.utah.edu. The times I've gone, I've been in and out of there in 10 minutes. I usually get tested in the morning and I get my results somewhere around 2-4 p.m.

Dan Reed:

Yes. It’s the same process we’ve used since last spring. If you're symptomatic or asymptomatic/exposed, you and your supervisor should report that at coronavirus.utah.edu/reporting. And timely reporting is as important as it has always been because that's how we do contact tracing and make decisions about quarantine or isolation. And just to be clear about the difference between those, isolation is to separate people who are sick and test positive. Quarantine is for those who may have been exposed, but not necessarily positive while we wait for the incubation period.

Dan Reed:

Very similar to what we did last spring. If you're COVID positive, isolation is still going to be required. If you're unvaccinated and exposed, you're expected to self-report. It's possible that we may need to quarantine some classrooms just as we did last year. But of course, the most important thing to do is exactly what others have said: get vaccinated, wear a face covering, get tested regularly, whether vaccinated or not.

Dan Reed:

They can. It obviously would depend on the severity of their illness. If they're severely ill, we would want to hand that course off to someone else in the unit to manage that in the transition, and that would be a unit-level responsibility. And we know that multiple colleges are working on contingency plans for that. Yeah, certainly in that interval if the faculty member felt healthy enough to continue to teach in that temporary period, then yes, they could do that remotely. But then we would expect after that for them to return to the classroom if it were an in-person course.

Lori McDonald:

I've been so encouraged about the discussions around mental health. This new generation has helped my generation de-stigmatize these issues and talk about them more. And, we know incidents of isolation, depression, anxiety, loneliness, distraction, have increased over the pandemic. It's both amplified what was already there and increased it. I loved what President Randall said at the beginning that this pandemic, we hope, we will move on from, but the relationships that we have are long-lasting. And for our campus community to be caring of one another.

We have a number of student mental health resources available from counseling, to crisis response, to mindfulness. We are just unveiling a new digital platform, YOU At College, which is intended to help students develop coping mechanisms. Those are all available on the Office of Student Affairs website. We have a button that says "Student Mental Health Resources." For faculty and staff, we have the Resiliency Center and the Employee Assistance Program.

I am also very happy that we have had over 200 staff, students and faculty participate in mental health first aid, which is very similar to first-aid training. The curriculum is nationally recognized, and we've brought that here to the University of Utah. And it's just that, tools and skills to learn how to be as supportive to someone who's in mental health distress. Those are available and ongoing, and that's also on that student affairs webpage.

Lori McDonald:

What we've learned during the pandemic is similar to the curriculum. We can offer programming services in hybrid fashions. Have multiple choices for a student to select a virtual appointment with an academic advisor, or an in-person appointment with an academic advisor or a counselor. We will have programming that may have both options, either show up in person and/or connect virtually or one or the other. So, I think we're going to see a lot of creative opportunities to build community, both for student clubs and organizations, as well as student services and support resources.

Lori McDonald:

We are back to a more traditional semester schedule and we will have a full fall break from Oct. 10-17. We will have a Thanksgiving weekend holiday, but courses and final exams are planned to resume after that period as well.

Jeff Herring:

We want to be as safe as possible but also work within the confines of the state statutes. To that end, we work on a very large campus. So, we can't be prescriptive all the way across campus. We've given supervisors, department chairs, deans, a lot of latitude because they are the closest and they understand best the workforce needs that they've got. That being said, we put some values out there of how to help them make those decisions.

About 60% of our workforce will be working in some sort of hybrid relationship where they're on campus sometimes, off campus other times. I think that's going to be the new normal. On any given day about 25 to 35% of our workforce will be working remotely. I think that's significant there in the fact that it will de-densify, the campus. But also alleviate some of the parking sustainability efforts that we've been working with. But at the same time, still provide enough activity on campus to make it feel like it is a truly vibrant campus of higher ed.

Jeff Herring:

We’re committed to making the workplace as safe as possible. And we'll take all the steps that have been mentioned to encourage wearing masks, education, and availability of the vaccines, cleaning the spaces between classes, etc. Having the guideline of values to help supervisors with their analysis for how to make this hybrid work arrangement work. However, I do want to, again, emphasize and be clear that at the end of the day, those are going to be very local decisions down at the department level.

Dan Reed:

No. If your class meets in person, you're not expected to create multiple modalities. You are expected, of course, just as would be true in non-pandemic environments, to accommodate students who are ill and unable to attend class. And there are many ways to do that, but it does not necessarily require creating second modalities.

Dan Reed:

Well, certainly as I said, if the faculty member does get COVID and is well enough to teach, they can certainly offer the class virtually in that transition period, and then come back in person, if the course were in person. It's the same thing that would happen in a normal situation if a faculty member became sick. Colleagues in the unit would step up and help with the process. So, that goes back to what I just said. We're family. We'll work together. That's who we are. That's what One Utah is all about.

Dan Reed:

We are very much expecting to have an in-person experience this fall as mandated by state law. And so, within those constraints of flexibility, I'd certainly encourage faculty to meet with students in person. As Dr. McDonald said earlier, our students have a huge pent-up demand to be on campus and to have that personal interaction, and that's part of what being there for them is about. But, of course, there are exceptions for people who have ADA accommodations. Absolutely. But, think about it from all perspectives. What will help the student? How do you balance your own health and safety? So, there's not a hard and fast answer, but be flexible and meet people where they are.