Q&A: President Fenves on UT’s plans for classes, graduation amid coronavirus concerns

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Photo Credit: Carlos Garcia | Daily Texan Staff

Rice University has canceled in-person classes for a week to prevent the spread of coronavirus after an employee tested positive. We sat down with President Gregory Fenves to see what UT’s plan would be if the University had to follow suit. 

DT: What events would prompt the University to transfer to online classes?

Fenves said as of Monday morning, since there are no confirmed cases in Travis County, classes would not go online earlier than spring break.

“One confirmed case is probably not enough to transition to online classes,” Fenves said. “If we had multiple confirmed cases, that would be a strong indication that we need to move to more isolation.”

DT: Would switching to online classes prevent COVID-19 from spreading at UT?

“(Isolation) is not going to totally solve the problem because we’ll still have students living together … which we don’t have any direct control of,” Fenves said. “It’s not just such a simple thing. The virus is still there. Students are still interacting with others. (Isolation) in itself doesn’t protect the student very much.”

DT: What is the University doing now to make sure students stay safe?

Fenves said the administration has been preparing to potentially move classes online for two weeks. The University sent an email out to all faculty Sunday night to prepare them for a potential switch to online classes.

“We have been working every day on this in planning for those contingencies,” Fenves said. “It’s a massive operation for students and faculty and instructors to move online. We’re not ready to make that decision, but if we do have to make that decision, we want to have as much preparation as possible.”

The University is working closely with the city of Austin and Travis County’s public health departments in planning. Fenves said UT is not specifically subject to gathering restrictions from the city because it is a public state university, but is following similar guidelines.

DT: How feasible is it to switch all classes to online?

Fenves said many classes already have material online, and it would not be too difficult to switch. 

“We have a pretty solid infrastructure for many courses,” he said. “What we’re working on is adding capacity for video. There will be decisions over whether classes are delivered synchronously … or recorded and available when students are able to take the course.”

DT: Is the University restricting spring break travel?

Fenves said the University will not prevent students from traveling but encourages students to not go to countries with a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Level 2 or 3 travel health notice and hopes students choose to go home instead of traveling abroad.

He said students traveling internationally for spring break and returning to Austin raise more safety concerns.

“We may ask students to self-identify if they’ve been in an area that has had an outbreak,” Fenves said. “We’re working on measures for what we would do with that information in terms of accommodation of that student.”

DT: Will this affect study abroad and graduation?

“Our highest priority are graduating seniors who need to complete their degree requirements this semester,” Fenves said. “Our goal is that students get the academic credit … so if they’re planning on graduating, they’re able to do so.”

He said another University priority is working with students studying abroad who need to come back to Austin. He said switching to online classes should not affect the graduation schedule.