After six weeks of de-densified instruction, UTD administration made the decision to return campus to full density.
Classes will be back in person full-time beginning Oct. 4, and professors have been given the option to terminate use of most online components of learning, including live online lectures and recordings. The directive came directly from President Benson, who has been working closely with the provost, other communication staff and Vice President and Chief of Staff Rafael Martín who is the main person responsible for coordinating the COVID-19 response across campus.
“I feel like we’ve had a pretty comprehensive response and conservative response to the pandemic thus far,” Martín said. “With circumstances at the start of the fall semester, with the Delta surge, we felt that it was best to de-densify some of the larger in-person classes. But we obviously have made a promise to our students that we were going to be back in person for the fall semester. I’ve been involved in pretty much every step of the decision-making process as it affects campus. Obviously, consulting with a lot of other leaders across campus, this current decision is no different.”
The COVID-19 Proactive Testing Program’s success was one of the deciding factors to bring campus back to normal. The results and data compiled from the program were used as evidence to support ending de-densification. The Daily Health Check system as well as the voluntary symptom reporting form have allowed for identification of potential cases and contact tracing very quickly.
“Ultimately, the decision came down to our belief that we have created a very safe environment on campus, and I think the results of our Proactive Testing Program have demonstrated that we have less than 1% COVID positivity,” Martín said. “We’ve tested almost 85% of the students thus far since the start of the fall semester. We’re getting ready to transition testing all our faculty and staff who are on campus in the next week or so.”
Students’ compliance has also been taken into consideration, bolstering administration’s decision in hope that case numbers will stay low. Out of the entire student body, less than half a percent have reported testing positive and having any close contacts on campus. Martín said those numbers give administration confidence in returning to normal operations.
People would be hard-pressed to find a more vaccinated population anywhere else, Martín said. OEMCP data from the voluntary reporting form shows that students’ vaccination rate is 75%, and faculty and staff are 85% vaccinated.
“I am really proud of our community in the response that they have given. When we contact people who say that they may be symptomatic or who have tested positive and ask them to isolate or quarantine, virtually everybody is compliant with that request and that’s really allowed us to keep the case numbers low. I’m not aware of any cases of transmission on campus in a classroom environment and very few cases outside of the classroom environment on campus,” Martín said.
There is no specific benchmark or criteria to decide to return to full density. Though proactive testing and compliance were heavily considered, there is no upper or lower limit of measurement that was considered in the distinction between de-densification or not.
“The CDC hasn’t released any kind of guidelines saying if you’re below this percent positive on campus, then you’re safe,” Martín said. “It’s really more of a judgment call, but we did look at those factors, the testing and the case numbers that we’ve seen on campus. We also looked at kind of the environment in the North Texas region, and we have started to see just over the last week falling numbers of cases.”
It is currently unclear whether professors will be required to adhere strictly to this full density plan or if it is simply a recommendation. As of now, Martín said faculty have had and will continue to have a lot of discretion in how they deliver their courses. They are encouraged to return to in-person fully, though decisions about consistency among departments or the campus as a whole remain to be seen.
“You know, students want to come here to be in-person to learn in person,” Martín said. “And I think now is the time that we feel like we can do that. The aim is to try to get students back in those environments at full density so that they can get the full benefit of that course and not lose that educational experience.”