UT’s COVID-19 educational module falls flat

Abhirupa Dasgupta

On Aug. 20, Interim President Jay Hartzell announced that all students, faculty and staff returning to campus in the fall would be required to complete an online training program entitled “Staying Healthy in a Changing Environment.” This program will address the campus response to COVID-19 and describe how to stay physically and mentally healthy during the fall semester.

I commend the University for taking the initiative to educate students about COVID-19. However, I’m concerned this module neglects on-campus residents’ specific concerns and, more importantly, fails to provide timely information, as it was only released yesterday.

Susan Hochman, associate director of assessment, communication and data informatics for University Health Services and the Counseling and Mental Health Center, explained that the program was organized by the Compliance and Education Taskforce, a campuswide taskforce that included administrators from Human Resources, UHS/CMHC, Longhorn Wellness Center, Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs, and more. The general course was created for all universities by Everfi, the digital curriculum creator that is also responsible for the AlcoholEDU and Sexual Assault Prevention courses that all incoming students have to complete. 

“(The modules) met the needs of what we would put in if we were to create something on our own, and the fact that it allows us to customize and put in our own resources, information and policies was really important to us,” Hochman said. “So there was really no need to create something from scratch.” 

However, these modules do not cover specific UT residence hall policies or concerns.

“The module is meant for all students, regardless of their living situations,” Hochman said. 

Not all living situations are equal, though, and the students living in high-volume housing on campus are particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19. Five of the 10 clusters of confirmed cases at UNC-Chapel Hill and five of the six clusters at East Carolina University were in on-campus residence halls. The close quarters, shared bathrooms and overall cramped space make social distancing very difficult and socializing extremely tempting, especially for young students who have been deprived of social contact and are anxious to make new friends. 

“(It has been) very strange, especially as an incoming freshman, because I already have no idea how it’s supposed to go, and now there’s even more uncertainty,” said Marlee Randel, Plan II and philosophy freshman. 

Randel received emails over the summer from University Housing and Dining, detailing some of the changes to dorm policy in light of COVID-19, and her orientation advisers explained how dorm life would look different in the fall. However, Randel still doesn’t feel quite at ease. 

“I’m definitely still a little bit nervous because I feel like I have a lot of questions,” Randel said.  “I’m hoping that on my actual move-in day, I’ll be able to get those sorted.”

That’s the thing, though. Randel shouldn’t have to wait until she’s moved into her dorm to figure out just how much or how little the University is doing to keep her safe from COVID-19. She definitely shouldn’t have to rely on a module that doesn’t take her specific and vulnerable situation into account for the information she needs to protect herself — especially when said module, which is supposed to be mandatory for all students, wasn’t released until the day before classes start. 

In times of uncertainty, overcommunication and consistency are key. It is extremely disappointing that a task force composed of University officials from so many departments was unwilling to create a resource that would address the specific questions and concerns of students in unique, vulnerable on-campus housing situations. It is an absolutely egregious oversight that the one generic module meant to hold all students on campus accountable for their safety information was not published until the week classes start. 

Classes begin today. The majority of students who will be living on campus have already moved in. We are all here. Where is the University?

Dasgupta is a neuroscience and biochemistry junior from Frisco, Texas.