Following a year of remote learning due to COVID-19, UTD is implementing changes across the University for Comets coming back to campus this fall.
All areas of campus are now open at full capacity, with the Activity Center also open for guests and community members. Vice President for Student Affairs Gene Fitch said events taking place this semester may also occur at full capacity, though event organizers can place attendance restrictions if they choose. Though the University has lifted COVID-19 restrictions from events, UTD is discouraging event organizers from serving food, unless the food is prepackaged, and encouraging Comets to wear masks and maintain six feet social distancing at events and on campus generally.
“We are relying on our student organization leaders to be just that – to be leaders and monitor these recommendations that we have put forth,” Fitch said.
When it comes to classes, traditional and the in-person part of hybrid courses will be held at partial capacity for the first three weeks of the semester at the discretion of professors. Provost Inga Musselman said the University is implementing this classroom de-densification in consideration of the COVID-19 Delta variant and that UTD will re-evaluate the need for de-densification on Sept. 8. Classes that follow de-densification protocols will either allow students one in-person class experience per week or one in-person experience every other week for classes that already only meet once a week. However, if a professor is already comfortable with the density of their class, they may choose not to implement de-densification and keep the original class mode. Class schedules will not change with de-densification – just the mode in which students attend.
“We do have an academic contingency plan in place,” Musselman said. “We worked with this plan last year, so we have another modality of instruction that we call ‘remote’ or ‘virtual’ that we could pull if need be. We really hope that we won’t have to do so, but it is available to us.”
In their classrooms and offices, faculty can request students to wear masks but cannot require them. If a faculty member is uncomfortable holding office hours – which typically take place in smaller office spaces – with unmasked students, they can choose to host their hours virtually, outside or in a larger room. Musselman said testing options for classes depend on the class mode, and Honorlock is available for Comets in fully online classes and international students who aren’t yet in the United States. For in-person and hybrid classes, faculty can choose for students to take tests or quizzes in the Testing Center, online on eLearning or in class. Faculty can choose but aren’t required to incorporate asynchronous elements into their classes, such as recording lectures for students to view later.
For face-to-face classes, Musselman said UTD is encouraging professors to use seating charts to help with contact tracing efforts. Vice President and Chief of Staff Rafael Martin said the current protocol for contact tracing is that Human Resources or Student Affairs will contact Comets who test positive for COVID-19 and the OEMCP would use professors’ seating charts to identify potential CDC close contacts.
“If a student tests positive for COVID-19 or is determined to be a close contact of someone who tests positive, they will be asked to quarantine by the University,” Musselman said. “Since the University is making that request, the University is also responsible for providing the student in quarantine with their educational materials. So, we will ask the faculty instructor to provide those students with the lecture material that they missed during the time they are in quarantine.”
Comets living on campus who test positive or are close contacts can quarantine in one of 38 apartments UTD Housing has set aside for isolation, while commuters are encouraged to stay home for their isolation period. Isolation rooms are also available for students arriving from international locations. Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Matt Grief said unvaccinated international students will quarantine for seven days immediately upon their arrival in the United States. Regardless of vaccination status, all students arriving from overseas will take a COVID-19 test when they arrive to campus and again three to five days later to determine if isolation is necessary.
Also regardless of vaccination status, all Comets are required to fill out the Daily Health Check every day and comply with COVID-19 testing and proactive testing. Dean of Students Amanda Smith said disciplinary action for Comets who don’t comply include a referral to the Office of Community Standards and Conduct where a conduct record may be issued.
“That’s something we don’t want to see any of our Comets have,” Smith said. “This could impact your ability to retain scholarships, get into law or medical school [and] even some career fields – especially those that are governmental. Second of all, from a campus engagement perspective, we want to be able to have gatherings and fun campus events that the pre-pandemic Comets were able to enjoy. So, the best chance for us to be able to do that is for you to do your part.”
Not all policy changes are academic. For instance, UTD Parking and Transportation won’t require physical parking permits anymore – instead, Director of Parking and Transportation Cris Aquino said Comets’ license plates will double as parking permits. Comets can register their license plates as their parking permits online, where they can also seek all parking services, including exchanging permits and submitting citation appeals and payments. Permit prices are the same as last year and are valid from the date of purchase through Aug. 31, 2022.
“[Online permits] add a lot of value by cutting down the mailing time and the potential for lost permits like we had in the past,” Aquino said. “Now your license plate is your parking permit – there’s no need to display any sticker.”
For transportation services, Aquino said UTD added three new buses to their DART 883 route to replace smaller buses nearing the end of their operational lifespan. DART 883 East services have resumed Monday to Thursday operations and DART 883 West services can now service Comets every 9 instead of 12 minutes. Additionally, Aquino said four new EV charging stations at Lot T, PS1, PS3 and PS4 are now available on campus.
In dining, Director of Retail and Food Services Pam Stanley said Dining Hall West is fully staffed and operational, and attendants will serve Comets as they go through food lines to help reduce contact points. Stanley said all other dining locations, Starship robots and food trucks are open and in full service and vending machines now accept Comet Cash. The Spirit Friday program, where Comets can eat at the Dining Hall for six dollars (plus tax) if they wear an orange or green shirt on Friday, is also back this semester, and Lemma’s has expanded to a second location in the library.
“We’ve been hard at work while you all have been away this summer,” Stanley said. “We’ve completely refreshed the Dining Hall West space. … You’ll notice if you go into the JSOM building, we’ve completely redesigned that market there.”
In the world of athletics, Fitch said the University will regularly test in-season student athletes for COVID-19 and randomly test off-season athletes and staff. Athletic competitions are subject to suspension based on test results, and guidance for competitions will follow CDC, NCAA and ASC guidelines. Fitch also said the University is implementing attendance restrictions at indoor athletic events, where attendees will be asked to sit in every other row.
To help sophomores who weren’t on campus last year integrate into campus life, Musselman said UTD has set up welcoming events for the fall. Events and programming available for sophomores include Weeks of Welcome, minority student success workshops, monthly engagement activities, cultural scholars’ leaders events, first-generation student programs, the National Merit Scholar social, academic coaching workshops, student transition programs, military and veteran resources fairs, peer tutoring and a Meet & Treat hosted by the Student Success Center. Smith said sophomores can also attend virtual orientation again and meet orientation leaders to go on campus tours.
“Staff are mindful of the national discussions and research about these two incoming classes that we have,” Musselman said. “Of course, we’re familiar every year with the first-time freshman class, but our sophomore class is really new to campus as well … so, our staff have been designing programming this fall for these two incoming classes.”