Despite the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to rage in Texas, UT decided to hold some in-person classes this past semester. This decision pushed some faculty, teaching assistants and lab workers to work on campus, risking exposure to COVID-19.
Next semester won’t be much different from the fall. Continuing the hybrid teaching model means that some teaching assistants and lab workers will once again work in person. Since we still don’t know exactly when a vaccine will be available to everyone at UT, proper personal protective equipment is essential to protect one another.
In order to truly protect Texas, the University must take responsibility and centralize the distribution of PPE to ensure that TAs and laboratory personnel are adequately equipped as long as the pandemic continues.
Protect Texas Together’s Guide for Employees Returning to Campus outlines the protocol for in-person work. Highlighted is the importance of always wearing a mask and constantly cleaning surfaces. However, the responsibility of having these tools is, for the most part, on individual employees.
Kathleen Harrison, communications manager for the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, said in an email that individual departments are responsible for the procurement of PPE.
“Colleges and schools are responsible for their internal management and distribution (of PPE),” Harrison said in an email. “Units across campus may order supplies through the procurement process and distribute them as needed.”
Harrison said employees are expected to provide their own face masks, though some are available upon request.
However, the decentralized system of PPE distribution through individual departments has not worked effectively so far. This semester, TAs faced challenges getting the proper equipment when teaching in person.
Government graduate student Ian MacFarlane taught in person this semester as a TA. MacFarlane said he was not aware of protective equipment made available to him from UT other than a reusable mask.
“I was offered a see-through mask, but I just used my own,“ MacFarlane said.
The University has demonstrated the ability to directly distribute resources across campus through their deployment of hand sanitizer stations as part of the Protect Texas Together initiative. Choosing not to make masks and sanitary wipes as freely available makes it more difficult for employees to keep themselves and their community safe.
Having to formally request protective equipment during a pandemic is an unnecessary extra step for instructors and staff who are already being put at risk when they come to campus.
Designating a station in each building for PPE and cleaning resources would allow staff to grab an extra mask if one breaks or to easily clean a classroom or surface before use. The stations don’t need to be a dramatic overhaul — staff members simply need to have access when needed.
The use of PPE shouldn’t be a carefully premeditated decision. In order for PPE to be effective, employees must be using it constantly. Increased availability is a step to help maximize its effectiveness and achieve this goal.
While increasing access to PPE could increase expenses for the university, UT has the chance to show that it prioritizes people over dollars by investing in the safety of the community.
Accessible hand sanitizer is not enough to combat a pandemic. Our faculty and staff are courageously leading classes in order to provide students with as close to a normal experience as possible. The University must show its commitment to safety by making PPE easily accessible on campus.
Lee is a civil engineering junior from Plano, Texas.