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UNT president, provost and VP of digital strategy and innovation discuss plans to prevent COVID-19 spread

UNT president, provost and VP of digital strategy and innovation discuss plans to prevent COVID-19 spread

UNT president, provost and VP of digital strategy and innovation discuss plans to prevent COVID-19 spread
March 17
10:59 2020

UNT announced it will move in-person classes online, cancel sporting events and advised students to avoid being on campus as much as possible to limit interaction amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The North Texas Daily spoke with President Neal Smatresk, Provost Jennifer Cowley and Adam Fein, the vice president of digital strategy and innovation to learn more details of the university’s plans to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Will the university provide refunds for housing, dining and transportation for students who will no longer come to campus?

NS: At this time, we’re discussing what we’ll do for the students who are unable to use their residence hall and dining. We have not made a firm decision yet.

Will student employees be able to work and clock hours for the rest of the semester as they usually would?

NS: We won’t guarantee that they’ll be able to clock the same number of hours. But we are heavily dependent on student employees. They will certainly be used even as we may move to more restrictive environments and telecommuting. That will be on a case-by-case basis as determined by their supervisors.

Do you have any concerns about faculty and staff being on campus during the pandemic?

NS: We’re already taking steps right now. In fact, we just issued a guidance yesterday to have as many people as possible move to telecommuting. We’re using Zoom meetings and we’re asking for people to develop social-distancing methods when it requires that we are physically at work. We’re trying to limit the number of people. And in the event that the virus spreads to the community in a more aggressive way, we’ll be looking at more types of skeleton staffing to make sure that the students who are here on campus and vital functions are performed.

Is UNT taking measures to disinfect buildings, dorm rooms, buses and other facilities?

NS: There are accelerated disinfecting protocols for all high traffic areas that we’re using right now. Of course, those vary depending on which building is going to be put into use as we have limited student presence on campus through the development of online curricula and online programming. We would say some buildings probably don’t need the same level of attention. But certainly, residence halls, public areas, any areas where students tend to congregate, would be disinfected with a more rigorous schedule. 

As for Student Health Services, will they still be operating and treating students?

NS: From what I understand, we will always accept students. However, they may be referred to local hospitals depending on the severity of whatever symptoms they’re showing. We do participate in monitoring and that’s going to be most students’ first line of defense.

Will the university have testing kits for COVID-19?

NS: At this point, we don’t know. That’s not in our hands. That’s in the hands of the Denton County Health Department. Testing so far, on a national level, has been less available than we could have hoped for. So we’ll keep you posted on that.

What is the protocol for if a student or employee were to test positive for the virus?

NS: [That would be] in collaboration with our local health department because they take over in cases like this and help to inform us how we should deal with them. Students would be quarantined and placed into some kind of isolation. We would backtrack to see who the student had been in touch with. We might ask those individuals to either self-monitor or self-isolate as needed and to get testing as needed.

Are you anticipating having to layoff any employees due to the virus?

NS: Not at this time.

What is the university doing about students currently studying abroad?

JC: We have a range of students that are studying abroad all over the globe. We have reached out to every one of those students and offered them the opportunity to come home and we have assisted with flights if they needed help getting a flight back. A number of our students have chosen to return back to Texas. Some of them have chosen to stay with their study abroad program in the country that was hosting them.

What is the plan for moving classes online, especially those that might be difficult to conduct online?

JC: Right now, our faculty are working to come up with a plan for each individual class and whether or not it can be delivered online or through alternative means. Those plans are coming in as we speak and by Thursday we intend to communicate with all of our students what their individual plan looks like.

There are some courses that can more easily move online and others have highly experiential components. That means we can’t deliver that online. So we’re developing those course plans and we’ll have them ready for students on Thursday.

AF: For courses that will go online, we’ve created some really nice resources for our faculty and students. If you go to for faculty and for students, it’s got all the basics that you would expect about Canvas and Zoom and how to do the standard things to have success online.

We have top-10 tips available for how to have success studying online and another top-10 tips for our faculty of best practices. In addition, we’ll have phone live-chat and email available to faculty who need help making sure they are able to put out the best course possible.

Do you have any concerns about transferring classes online? Whether it be professors or students who are not as technologically literate or those who don’t have as much access to technology?

NS: I don’t expect that come Monday, everything’s going to be perfect. There’s going to be a lot of trials and tribulations. There’ll be more-expert users and less-experts users. I hope we get people’s tolerance and understanding as we try to develop this as best we can.

This is a massive effort and I’m really impressed with all the help, support, mentorships and partnerships that have developed at the departmental level. But we’re certainly going to have a few little glitches that we’re going to have to attend to. I think the technology is there to support us. But not everyone knows how to use it equally.

JC: We’re planning to keep our computer lab open and we’re planning for a laptop checkout to enable our students to be able to continue and have access to technology that they need.

We’re looking at options for distance learning to access certain software that may be necessary in order to support the students’ learning. We’re working through all of the technology issues to make access as readily available.

What about students with disabilities who might have difficulties with online classes?

JC: As we move to online, this can be a challenge for visually impaired students. The Office of Disability Access is working with each faculty member who has a visually impaired student in their class to provide very specific instructions on how to make adaptations to maximize that student’s learning potential. Then there are other disabilities that our faculty are working with ODA on.

AF: We’ve put a lot of time into this the past year, so we’re very prepared. We actually have a whole team within Digital Strategy and Innovation dedicated to working through accessibility issues related to all of our online material for Canvas and these types of systems. We were able to take a lot of that work and kind of fast forward it a bit for this. So on those sites I mentioned before, there’s actually a whole guide for faculty on very simple things that need to be done to ensure all our students can access the material equally. 

As for spring commencement ceremonies, will students be able to graduate on time and will they graduate in-person?

NS: I think the CDC guidelines suggest we don’t hold events for eight weeks with 50 people. We understand there may be new guidance that comes out and limits it even further. If that guidance is in place, it would be difficult to hold graduation. But I’m not ready to pull the trigger yet because we’re in a very fluid situation.

We’d like to discuss the options we have so that when we communicate with students, we don’t just say graduation won’t be held. We’ll offer whatever alternatives we think are reasonable and whatever delayed opportunities that might be available. But it’s important to know we haven’t made a decision on this yet.

How will the cancellation of sports affect UNT and its revenue?

NS: The “money” sports — football and basketball — are over. The other sports actually would probably result in net gains of revenue because you won’t have teams traveling. But I don’t want that to be the message. The message is that we have some really competitive teams, certainly basketball, we would have loved to see going to the NCAA tournament, as we were determined designee. We would have loved to see Rodney DeLong and the softball team, who is just crushing it and looking at another Conference USA title, be able to capture their title.

We’re very disappointed for our athletes who won’t get to compete this spring. But this isn’t just an us problem. It’s a national problem. We hope that everyone understands and comes back, perhaps with some NCAA guidance on being able to continue for another year or another semester, because they got blanked out of this one.

Will the UNT food pantry be open and accessible to students?

NS: Yes.

Will students who don’t have laptops or equipment required for class have extended checkout times?

JC: We’re currently working on those checkout policies and how that’s going to work. We’re looking at extended checkout periods, looking at lab hours and potential remote access to lab software resources, and we’re working with all of our software vendors to see what may be possible to make software and hardware technology is accessible. 

Is there anything else you would like to say about the current situation and the university’s plans?

JC: I think the key issue is for students to pay attention to their university email on Thursday. We will be sending them an email about their specific class plan, and we’ll have more resources for them at that time.

NS: There’s a website we would have students and anyone who’s interested visit at least daily to look for updates on everything that’s going on with the coronavirus in the pandemic and as far as we’re concerned. It’ll be a one-stop-shop. The website it and it’s a compendious collection of all the information updates that we have, as well as resources for our students, faculty and staff.

Featured Image: The Administration Building sits on an empty UNT campus after an increase in COVID-19 cases leads to an extended spring break. Image by Ricardo Vazquez Garcia

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Brooke Colombo

Brooke Colombo

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