Older professors take extra precautions amid coronavirus pandemic

Brooke Ontiveros

Editor’s note: This story is part of The Daily Texan’s coverage of how coronavirus concerns are affecting UT-Austin. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Professors over 60 are at higher risk for contracting the coronavirus, causing many faculty to take precautions against it.

Recommendations announced by both the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House urge everyone to stay at home and avoid groups of 10 or more people. Some of the older members of UT’s faculty are actively following these precautionary measures. 

"Our first priority is to keep you safe and healthy,” Tasha Beretvas, senior vice provost for faculty affairs, said in a statement posted to the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost’s website. “We strongly encourage you to stay alert to communications from your department chairs, directors and deans who will keep you informed on next steps.”

William Beckner, a 78-year-old mathematics professor, said he has not been at the University since Thursday classes and does not plan to go back for the next two to three months.

“I have confidence that my family and I will make it through this,” Beckner said. “But if I were sitting someplace and gambling on this, a good bet would be that I wouldn’t make it through this.”

Beckner said the classes in the mathematics department have switched to online, and all large meetings occur through video chat. Beckner is largely able to work from home.

Beckner will help instructional faculty prepare course materials for the class through video chat or email because he does not plan to have in-person contact with anyone besides his wife for months, he said.

Beckner said he doesn’t leave his house except to walk his dog. He said he washes his hands frequently and does a lot more online shopping than before. 

“Suppose I were 20 years younger, then I would probably be the designated member of the family to do my shopping,” Beckner said. “But I’m the older member of the family, so shopping is done by my wife.”

Advertising professor Isabella Cunningham said she washes her hands every half hour to prevent infection.

“I am over 70, but not much over 70,” Cunningham said. “Not much at all.”

Cunningham said she intends to work entirely from home, along with many of her colleagues at the Stan Richards School of Advertising and Public Relations. Cunningham is working on how to create an online experience for her internship courses and integrated communications campaign class, she said.

“The doctor cleared me for going out of the house for essential things like going to the drug store, going to the doctor or going to the supermarket when I need food,” Cunningham said. 

Cunningham said she also takes extra care when interacting with her students to ensure their health and safety. 

“Some students were supposed to bring me some materials, and they agreed to bring it to my home because I didn’t think it would be a good idea to meet somewhere with a lot of people,” Cunningham said. “They dropped the material at a safe distance. I picked it up. I gave them Purell to disinfect their hands, asked them if they wanted to wash their hands and they went.”