Plans for teaching classes and other issues facing Texas A&M University in the midst of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic are being finalized.
Classes in sports facilities, longer passing periods and later schedules are a few of the changes Texas A&M University will implement this fall as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Making these plans and implementing the adjustments is a major part of Provost and Executive Vice President Carol Fierke’s job after university President Michael K. Young appointed her last week to lead the school’s response to the novel coronavirus. She said much of her focus right now is on helping to finalize schedules, which will be released to colleges and departments on Monday to check if any changes are necessary. This month, she and her team will solidify contingency plans for the upcoming semester.
The idea of welcoming students back on campus is exciting but simultaneously concerning, she said. Administrators are making efforts to preserve what it’s like to be in college — with everything from in-person classes to extracurriculars — while keeping everyone as safe as possible, she said.
“It’s going to be different,” Fierke said. “But we want to figure out ways to use virtual meetings, to use videos, to use other technology and identify how to have small groups to recreate the feel of the Aggie experience even though it’s different.”
Reed Arena, the Memorial Student Center ballrooms, Rudder Theatre and the Ford Hall of Champions are spaces that Fierke said A&M will be using for classes so that students can distance from each other physically.
Fierke said she was concerned that there would be push back about the school “commandeering” all large spaces, but was happy that everyone was understanding and accommodating.
The shift means new purchases to make the areas suitable for learning. Each classroom will be equipped with a camera, microphone and computer, Fierke said. This will make it possible for all face-to-face classes to be synchronously streamed as planned.
Other class offerings include a remote option, which will be delivered during scheduled class time and online, where instruction may be completed synchronously during a scheduled class or asynchronously — offered outside the regular class time — according to the Office of the Provost’s website.
Classes will begin at 8 a.m. each day and end at 8 p.m., and a bit later on some days, Fierke said. The first day of classes was moved up to Aug. 19. While the campus will remain open after the Thanksgiving holiday, students will be done with any in-person course work by that time and will be able to take their final exams remotely.
Fierke said the plan is for half of the courses to offer a face-to-face component, with the remainder being accessible in a remote or online style.
An A&M survey found, Fierke said, that students felt that not having synchronous classes or the ability to meet with faculty inhibited their education by causing struggles with time management and feelings of disconnection.
Certain courses were prioritized for face-to-face instruction, including those for freshmen, ones with lab components, studios and capstone courses.
“The set of courses that we have identified for face to face are the ones that pedagogically we think are the most important to have that type of connection with students,” she said.
Faculty, staff and students with high risk factors will be encouraged to consider remote options, she added.
Plexiglass is being placed in areas around campus like classroom podiums, arrangements for virtual office hours are being made, while multiple classroom cleanings and longer passing periods are being worked into the schedules.
To save energy, the university usually recirculates air in the buildings, but Fierke said this fall the air conditioning units across campus will be adjusted to bring in more fresh air throughout the day.
More information on the university’s contact tracing and testing options will become available next week.
Some university auxiliary enterprises, including dining, transportation and housing, lost money in the spring, Fierke said. Plans are being made so that those areas can recover. Despite the financial strain, she said more employees are needed in many areas, such as transportation, which will need more buses to run so physical distancing is possible, and dining services, since all self-serve areas will be replaced this fall.
“There are also additional costs related to preparing for the COVID-19, like the additional technology and energy costs, but we will have to figure out how to manage these,” she said. “This is essential for us to meet our land grant mission, to do our best to bring students on campus to give them the best experience, and also to continue with our research and service missions.”
She said the university has completed an exercise in which it determined priorities and decide what might need to be removed if budget cuts are necessary this year. However, factors such as how many students will purchase meal plans and how much money the university will receive from the state are what leaders are waiting on in order to know what is next from a financial planning perspective.
Fierke and other leaders soon will finalize what the university’s backup plans are if problems arise with the novel coronavirus. She said the worst-case scenario in her eyes includes having to return to completely remote courses as in the spring.
Metrics such as the number of faculty, staff and students who are infected, as well as hospitalizations and deaths are all factors that will be considered in the upcoming plans. Additionally, Fierke said implementing wastewater measuring — which is when researchers check how much of the virus is found in the wastewater — could allow university leaders to see how quickly COVID-19 might be spreading on campus throughout the semester.
Ideally, Fierke said campus will welcome students to Aggieland with the increased safety precautions they’ve outlined. She said she and many others are concerned about the novel coronavirus, yet excited for the university to return to the same liveliness it always does when students are at the school.
“I think we’re all looking forward to having students back on campus,” she said. “There are many faculty who missed the interaction with the students on the remote and who can’t wait to have face to face.”
Updates from the university can be viewed at tamu.edu/coronavirus.