When dealing with an organization of more than 40,000 students, faculty and staff like at Utah Valley University, trying to adequately prepare for a semester in the midst of a global pandemic presents some monumental challenges.
Wayne Vaught, UVU provost and vice president of academic affairs, said in a phone interview earlier this week that he believes the institution is as ready as it can be at this point.
“The biggest things we have tried to do is be as inclusive as possible in all aspects of the university, having faculty, staff, administration and students involved in the decisions we are making,” Vaught said. “We are trying to cover all of the potential contingencies. It’s been a pretty extensive process.”
The demands of trying to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic while keeping the education process running have been a priority for months now, according to Vaught.
“We set up a working group that has met every week since March and the cabinet has met almost daily,” Vaught said. “We’ve sent out surveys to faculty and students, finding out what they wanted and expected in terms of what the fall semester would look like. We also tried to draw on best practices, Center for Disease Control guidelines, and state and federal guidelines to develop a plan that would promote a safer environment. We all know that there are going to be opportunities for contagion and the spread of COVID-19 if we are open and having face-to-face contact.”
The university plans to follow practices that include social distancing, cleaning classrooms and requiring facial coverings to be used in the public spaces on campus.
“What you try to do is implement the policies that health officials are advocating,” Vaught said. “Cleaning our facilities on a more regular basis isn’t going to hurt and I think it will certainly help. Social distancing has been highly advocated, so we have reduced the number of seats available in our classrooms to about 40%. A classroom that held 400 students will now only accommodate 90. Every other row is blocked off and every third seat could be used.”
UVU will be using a variety of methods for instruction for fall semester. It plans to have 44% of classes be face-to-face, 21% be livestreamed and 35% be online.
Vaught explained that the university has spent time over the summer to expand the online flexibility. It wants students and faculty to be able to use the online formats as needed, particularly if they get sick.
“We’ve installed cameras in each of the rooms so that if a student gets sick and we don’t want them to come to campus but they are enrolled in a face-to-face class, they will now be able to watch the class remotely and still stay engaged,” Vaught said. “Similarly, if the instructor becomes sick and we don’t want them in class, they can quickly shift to the live-streaming format. We’re doing everything we can to maintain the continuity of the courses.”
For a university like UVU that offers programs that cover a wide range of specialties, some courses are naturally going to be more challenging to adapt to online instruction.
“Healthcare programs are one that is hard but even more challenging has been in the arts,” Vaught said. “Singing is an area where there has been high concern about transmission rates, as with acting and theater. Aviation is another program we struggled with because we had a student and an instructor in very close contact for an extended period of time. We’ve had to work with each of those programs and asked each to come up with their own plans to meet the health guidelines.”
On the positive side, the institution isn’t seeing a drop in the number of students planning to be at UVU this fall.
“As of the last report, we are slightly above where we were last year at this same time in terms of enrollment,” Vaught said. “We are basically having a flat enrollment at this point although we are in an upward trajectory. We wanted to inform students what the fall semester was going to look like as quickly as we could. We worked with faculty to establish what modality they were going to use and then the students could go in and see that. I think that has provided some comfort.”
He acknowledged that there is only so much the university can do to be prepared.
“The biggest challenges are the things we can’t control,” Vaught said. “We can control the number of chairs in a classroom or how often we clean them. We can’t control the spread of the virus or the numbers of cases Utah and Utah County are facing in any given day. There are all of these challenges that are external to the university that are impacting us. The uncertainty of what things are going to look like in six weeks is a real concern. We don’t want UVU to become a hotspot for the virus so we are doing everything we can to mitigate the risks.”
He believes that the 2020 pandemic has once again emphasized the importance of being able to get the right messages to the right places.
“Moving forward, I think the biggest thing is establishing very clear and effective communication,” Vaught said. “I think we were doing a good job with it but that’s an area that we can think about ways to improve. It’s a challenge you always face. People get their information from a variety of different sources. Sometimes you feel you communicate but for some reason people aren’t hearing that message. We need to make sure we are targeting the right areas.”