Past Town Meetings

July 1, 2020 


June 10, 2020

On June 10, President Shirley Ann Jackson held a virtual Town Meeting to update the Rensselaer community on return-to-campus planning and COVID-19 safeguards.

Town Meeting Opening Remarks

Return-to-Campus PowerPoint

Q&A from the President’s Town Meeting

President Shirley Ann Jackson. We have an exact research plan, that is very detailed. As to when, I keep reminding people that there are a number of places that have talked about starting research, but in point of fact, what they are talking about is their plan to start research and we will be sharing that plan with our research community shortly.

Senior Associate Vice President for Research Robert Hull. We do have very detailed mechanistic plans to make sure all the moving parts mesh to open the labs safely, and we’re using this overarching metric that we want our researchers to be as safe in the lab, at least as safe in the lab, as they are in their daily lives. We will be reaching out to center directors and individual faculty with detailed questionnaires to make sure we’re implementing the social distancing, personal protective equipment, the cleaning, and other safety protocols, so you’ll be seeing details on that very soon.

Provost Prabhat Hajela. The safety and security of our community, including faculty members, was our primary consideration. We have a set of guidelines that we have established as to how we would exclude faculty members who have vulnerabilities from being exposed to or being put in a high-risk situation.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. How that would work out relative to how they would deliver instruction remotely or be in the classroom would be a risk-informed decision that would come through a discussion and information from a physician. There are some stringencies within the classroom that would protect faculty that we are putting into place with respect to even greater social distancing between the faculty member and students if there is an issue, as well as what kind of personal protective equipment one would wear and, in the extreme case, to have the person assigned to remote instruction. But that’s for the provost and the vice provost to work through because we have to cover the in-person instruction classes, but we are very mindful of some people having vulnerabilities.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. There are two things, well three, actually. The first is that we would be having cleaning supplies and asking people just as a matter of being careful, to take the supplies as they come into the classroom and clean their personal spaces, their desks, the chairs, etc. The second thing is we are structuring the classes so that there isn’t crowded entry and egress. The third is that as much as possible, if there’s time, there would at least be spray disinfection of the classrooms and importantly, every night every classroom will be cleaned. It’s a combination of people looking after their personal space, disinfection based on the class schedules as much as we can, and complete cleaning and disinfecting every night.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. Well, you know I am a trustee of MIT and I will tell you MIT has not started any full research. Secondly, some of what the reopening is research administration as opposed to research fully. Secondly, in cases — and in New York City they are very careful — the first research that would be allowed is not unlike what we’re doing. Research that relates to critical national needs. We are not at the point, and finally ,we have to ensure that everyone is trained through our protocols, that all of the personal protective equipment is in place, and that training has to do with how people adhere to the protocols but also the staggered schedules and how people actually populate the labs. Even when we “start up,” or as we move to that, we’re moving into a phase to start training people specifically to this as we set up our testing and so on and everyone has to be tested as well. So it’s not that there’s a startup and one walks in and goes back into laboratories in terms as business as usual. Also, when we start, we would not have graduate students’ offices occupied in the first instance. And there are some other restructurings and there are a lot of things people have to be trained to, so I would ask that you confer with Dr. Hull and Dr. Hajela so that people can begin to be trained for these protocols.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. Because the universities are in Phase 4 and that means that’s the last phase of any reopening of a university. An interesting thing is that it’s not just that researchers that go into labs, there are a lot of things having to do with the graduate students, what kind of staff support is needed, and how all of that gets phased in. So again, I would ask that you confer with Dr. Hull and understand the stages and we’re only going to do them when we get the word and clarity of what startup in research really means. We’ve been specifically told that we should not get ahead of the governor.

Prabhat Hajela. We pivoted to remote instruction rather quickly in the spring semester, but now that we’ve had some time we’ve actually had faculty committees looking at pedagogical innovations about various aspects of instruction including courses that may be better structured in the studio format, or things like lab orientation — how we could actually bring them, the students, in a remote setting in a more effective way. So we are looking at all those things. We have also deployed instructional designers who are training faculty how to better design their courses so they can transition their content to either purely remote or a hybrid instruction mode. This kind of training will actually go on for the next two or three months as they prepare for the fall semester.

Prabhat Hajela. They can, yes. Our baseline is that all courses will be available in remote format as well, therefore any participation by remote students in a class that’s being taught live is entirely possible.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. If they have something secured, they should be working with their school deans as well as Student Life to work through the fact that they would wish to be away in the fall. But that then may mean that in the spring, because we would ask them to be away, then if they were taking courses, they would be taking them remotely.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. Well, the clubs and activities would still go on, but in a socially distant way.

VP for Student Life Peter Konwerski. The thing we’ve been stressing since the start of these conversations, and even as we started this spring semester, we really practiced a number of social distancing protocols and I think that is the goal. As the president said earlier, the threshold will be no more than 10 for events and that will really limit the type of events, but it doesn’t mean we won’t have a creative student body who can do gatherings virtually and build a sense of community. Within Student Life, we are deeply committed to thinking about this and using our class structure to really think about the freshman-year experience and how the student experience happens with clubs and organizations. We’ve already had a number of conversations, and we actually have an evening meeting at 5 tonight to talk with student leaders about, not only our protocols, but how they will use their creativity to apply and meet the standards and keep our community safe and healthy. So naturally we will de-densify our venues and we will monitor those thresholds so we don’t get gatherings of groups larger than 10 and some of that will require us to remove furniture and change the way we have egress and access, as the president has outlined. But we expect that it will be a student experience but that it will be different and we will all have to adjust and work together to make it the most positive and best experience as possible given the pandemic that we still expect to be in in the fall.

Dr. Les Lawrence. There are multiple tests that are now approved by the FDA: there’s the nasopharyngeal, the one that goes all the way back to the nasal passages at the top of the throat, which most people really don’t like — it’s the same one we use for influenza; there’s the anterior nares — the anterior part of the nose test which is now approved that people can take themselves; there is also a throat swab and we hope before the fall that saliva will be approved for general testing. Our plan right now is to go with the anterior and mid-turbinate nasal swab, which each student, faculty, and staff can administer themselves. There are several reasons for doing this — one is for comfort of the student, faculty, or staff member; the second reason for doing it is that we won’t have to burn through as much personal protective equipment because if our nurses are required to take the sample they have to have on a face mask, face shield, gown, gloves, booties, and they have to replace at a minimum the gloves with every patient. So we’ll end up going through a tremendous amount of personal protective equipment, whereas if we can have the individual collect a specimen themselves that again, will not only be more comfortable but will slow the burn through the personal protective equipment. Now we will monitor, we will have the individual come in to our specimen collection area and monitor them taking their own sample. We anticipate there will be a few who will be too squeamish to take their own samples and in that case our nurses will have to assist them or take the sample for them.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. In addition, something you should know is that there will not be a mixing of the taking of the samples with the other medical activities that go on in the health center.

Dr. Les Lawrence. This fall, we will have three separate facilities — we’re going to have a specimen collection area, which is separate from our other areas. That way no one is exposed to any illness as they come in to give their specimen; we will have a respiratory clinic area — anyone who has a respiratory-type infection will be sent to that area. This is to minimize the exposure to other people who may be coming into the health center. And then there will be our general health area. So, three different areas and this is to reduce the risk of transmission of COVID as people enter those areas to either do the specimen collection, come to our respiratory clinic area, or to come to general health. We wouldn’t want someone who has severe acne, who wants to still get their acne (treated) to be exposed to someone with a respiratory illness.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. We’re going to be offering the classes in a hybrid mode, such that any class we would be offering in person a student could take remotely. We anticipate that there could be students, including our international students, who may not be able to get here — or people who have vulnerabilities and other reasons. So the answer is yes, the students can do it and we will handle it on a matriculation basis. It’s the choice of the student to let us know how they plan to matriculate. But the important thing is to register —to matriculate.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. That’s correct. We would prefer that those whom we would want on the campus, do come to the campus, but if there are reasons that a student can’t do that then we’re prepared to accommodate that.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. No, other than some very rare cases that we’re considering in terms of specialized programs. But other than that, no — because the whole point here is to have the de-densification in order to preserve the social distancing.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. Absolutely, yes.

You mean the students who are in the Arch summer semester now but remotely?

VP for Student Life Peter Konwerski. We are deeply committed to building that sense of community and that’s one of the reasons we want them back on campus in the fall. We’ll be doing a number of activities over the summer, and their class officers have been doing a terrific job in just the first week in building that sense of community, but we really value the fact that they as a class, the Class of ’22 will be able to participate this fall on campus. Now obviously, they’ll have to still maintain social distancing but there will be opportunities for us to sort of group the group or gather the group, they just won’t be in large gatherings. We’ll be doing a number of initiatives, obviously many of them that will be school-based, or in other special interests, or especially as we think about the CCPD office as we help them find their placements for the spring, we’ll be doing a number of activities that are designed around industries and around various fields and professions.

 President Shirley Ann Jackson. I think the overarching message is that within the constraints of dedensification, social distancing and so on, that our intent is to provide as robust a program as the students would expect when they’re here and as robust a program as is possible online, and in some ways, as we go along, we’re adding more and more to the online experience as well as the counseling and outreach and community building and activities. Interestingly enough, when they’re on the campus because of the social distancing criteria and the limit to the sizes of meetings, the argument could well be made that there will be a lot more individualized attention and interaction as a consequence of it. We may be finding a new normal that will propagate even beyond this period that we’re in. I should say that when the students come in the spring, we’re hopeful that the pandemic will be better in control and we may be closer to a vaccine so that some of the stringencies of some of these protocols will be relaxed because we’ll have a full sophomore class here. We’re anticipating moving to a different set of protocols that will still be focused on health and safety but we will have learned a lot about how to manage within a different densification model, but not the complete the model which is why we would still have the juniors away, except in rare circumstances.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. I understand completely. Our provost has been on a group with provosts and presidents of the Council of Independent Colleges and Universities where they’ve mapped out a set of baseline criteria that satisfied what is known of the New York hurdles and criteria, but then we’ve created our own against that — in some ways more conservative. But New York is structured this way — there are different regions of the state. The state has been divided into different regions by the governor — 10 or so different regions — and each region has to pass a certain number of hurdles that have to do with things like infection rates going down, ICU capacity, etc., and once they’ve passed certain hurdles they’re allowed to open in phases. In Phase 1, certain economic sectors are allowed to start up, but start up in a way that they have to satisfy certain criteria. So there’s Phase 1 and Phase 2, which is where most of the regions are or are moving to. New York City is just now reopening. Higher education is a Phase 4 enterprise and so the phases are according to timing. We’re hopeful that in July we’ll know, sooner if possible, but we are creatures of what New York state allows. But you can be sure that the minute we know, you’ll know. But we thought it would be important to have this Town Meeting and share our plans and we will be publishing them on the website as well, so that in terms of preparation you can plan against it and hopefully the last thing will be to develop your travel plans. We’re pushing on every front to get the word from the governor as soon as possible. I’m on what is called the New York Forward Advisory Board that draws people from different economic sectors and we meet with the governor’s representatives to press the issue, and we are in touch with a gentlemen who is another university president who actually heads up the whole education sector for the governor. The education sector, again, in each region, is a Phase 4 sector, and there’s high sensitivity about the residential college experience. We have high sensitivity about it, which is why, when you see our full plan, you’ll see how comprehensive it is and some might think how stringent it is. But it really is about the health and safety of our students and everyone on the campus. We’ll let you know because it’s important and I understand that.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. The juniors are invited to be here and my understanding is that the ROTC units are doing their own planning. We are also in discussions with them about what they’ve done when students are remote and what their plans are.

 Provost Prabhat Hajela. We have been in conversation with the commanding officers at the various ROTC units on our campus. They are paying remote attention to (your son) staying in physical fitness even while they are away from campus, but when they do come back they are required to go through the various routines that the Air Force expects of them. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be subject to whatever the university rules and regulations are in place at that particular time. The Air Force unit is part of an educational unit on our campus and they will adhere to the guidelines that the campus has for the safety of all students and the commanding officers fully understand that.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. If a student does come who has special health concerns, we would accommodate that in the housing and how we structure the class instruction. If, on the other hand, a student has special health concerns and or their family feels it’s imprudent for them to come, then we would accommodate them in the remote instruction. We are prepared for whatever form there would be and as we de-densify the campus it does allow us to try to accommodate students as much as we can. So it’s important to just let us know and be in touch with Dr. Lawrence so that we can figure out the best pathway for the given student.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. We have an approach that we’re taking called It’s TIME, and time is an acronym, which stands for Training, Implementation, Monitoring, and Enforcement, which really means compliance, and so we’re going to launch a set of activities to educate everyone what the protocols are and the requirements and how they would transition back into the campus.

VP for Student Life Peter Konwerski. The president outlined that the goal is to lessen risk and mitigate consequences and so we need a collective action and we need to act as a community. Peer influence, and especially student-to-student, is one of the most powerful influences and that’s why you see us using things like resident assistants, I-PERSIST, mentors, and tutors and student leaders helping monitor, but also model the way. We’ll continue to ask our students to comply with our PPE requirements and clean their workspaces and stay in a de-densified way, but we will only be successful in lessening the curve and in keeping ourselves healthy as a community if we all work together. So all of the faculty and staff will be trained, but all of our students will also be trained; they’ll be trained in numerous conversations, they’ll be online and virtual trainings, there will be other conversations when the students get to campus, and there will be a series of events and communications and signage that reinforce our messages around compliance. And when we talk about compliance, we’re really asking everyone to do their part to keep our community safe. We have a multifaceted, tiered approach of communication and training that will start shortly in the summer and then will continue into the fall and carry throughout the whole fall. And those messages will really just help us reinforce that we’re all a community, we all need to hold each other accountable. We’ll ask that if you see somebody to intervene and support your peers just like we do around high-standard intervention or alcohol education, or Title IV training — we ask the students to work together to keep our community safe and collectively we are a much better community when we work together.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. To be a little bit more specific, we actually have an online training capability through a system called Percipio and we intend to use that to provide specific online-based training as well as a creation of a series of webinars and like activities as part of the training. And that’s for everybody — faculty, staff, and students.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. Our commitment is of course to provide on-campus housing for all freshmen and all sophomores while they’re here. Our de-densification model doesn’t allow us to provide 100% housing for students in the other class years; typically, our seniors by and large choose not to live on the campus and many of our juniors. And the fraternities and sororities with houses will be affected by the de-densification requirements, so that housing on average may not be available. The intent is that we do have an off-campus commons office and that office is specifically charged with helping students find appropriate housing. And it may seem like it’s a challenge to find off-campus housing in this environment, but in fact the landlords are quite hungry — but we want to be sure that students are helped and get the appropriate advice so that they can live in a safe environment. But we’re going to help out as much as we can and to the extent that there may be some extra housing, we would particularly use it for students based on a risk and health-related basis.

VP for Human Resources Curtis Powell. With the Americans with Disabilities Act, they have identified, given COVID-19, individuals who have high risk. Our protocols will be very similar to what Dr. Lawrence will use with the students. If there is someone who has identified that they are a high-risk group because of COVID-19, we will take that into consideration based on medical documentation. We will review that and make the necessary changes or reasonable accommodations for that specific employee. So those are protocols — we’ve already exercised some of those with our essential staff that are in place — we’ll use those same protocols for faculty as we move through this process.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. The actual start of the semester doesn’t change, but we would be inviting students who would be here to come a few days earlier to be sure that the training and the assignments and so on are well pinned down because the operational mode will be different. The actual semester will run and start when it would start. But yes, we would like students to come a little early to make a smooth transition into being on the campus.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. The likelihood is that we won’t be able to have people live in the houses in the fall. However, we would still like the Greek community to be able to do a rush and rush activities. Peter’s organization, particularly through the Greek Life office, has been asked to work with the leadership of our Greek community to structure how we would be doing that. We also feel, and we would like to have the help of the Greeks, relative to helping us, not as official contact tracers but to be able to help monitor their members’ health and help us to keep everybody safe. And if we need to have the contact tracers to really work with you to be able to do that, that would be really helpful. But we do intend for you to be able to carry out rush activities albeit in a modified way because we think that’s important to continue.

VP for Student Life Peter Konwerski. We are meeting with the Greek community this afternoon, and to say that we had a really strong partnership in closing this spring in keeping the community safe, that’s a testament to the strength of the partnership and the commitment that we’ve all brought to making sure that our students in Greek life and across campus are healthy and well. We’ll be talking today about those standards and trying to make sure that everybody understands the reasons, and we’ve had those conversations over the last two months with the Greek community, and we both share — there are concerns about the health and safety and they recognize that as well as the financial implications. We do have resources, and Travis Apgar, dean of students, has been working with the staff in Living and Learning, and we do have some of our staff who are already identified who will be working with the Greek community, including John Lawlor, dean of living and learning. We continue to have staff and personnel working on the community and we continue to move forward on the Greek life initiatives. It is an important priority as we’ve discussed; it’s an area of the community that we want to continue to see growth, we continue to invest in, the recruitment to make sure we can be effective in recruitment, but we also recognize that it’s a partnership and we all need to continue to work together. I just want to compliment the group — we’ve worked well together and we need to continue working as a Greek life Commons, as the president often says, as a community we’ll be stronger and we’ll move through this. We will all be faced with challenges this fall, but we know there will be resources and support and I’ll be stepping up myself to continue to provide that support to our Greek leaders, our Greek members, and our Greek chapters.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. We want the activities to continue as much as possible, but in a different form. And I think that’s the challenge, but it’s one that I think people can handle. And I think it’s important for the Greeks to know that we don’t intend to have them to go out of existence or be bankrupt because of what’s going on and that’s why we want to continue with the membership intake and so forth.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. The semester doesn’t end at Thanksgiving break — it’s just that the in-person part of the instruction switches to the remote level. Students who are not in residence will not be charged room and board. I leave it to Peter and his organization, working with the student leaders, relative to the club specific fees, but we don’t expect at this point to make changes to tuition or health-related fees because in point of fact we’re having to do more things to be able to do all of the things we’re doing in the classroom to provide the safety there, with the use of technology, with the remote learning to do things in parallel in terms of the hybrid of teaching, even making up exams that have to be given in different times zones to accommodate students in different time zones, and ensuring that we get computers into the hands of every freshman irrespective of their financial circumstance. These things are big expenses for the university as well as the testing, tracking, tracing, etc. protocols. People sometimes equate the tuition with whether I’m sitting in the class or not and the real issue is the delivery of the education at a high level and to make all of the kinds of accommodations we know will have to be made and others that will come up that we don’t even know about at this point. Our intent and expectation is that the teaching and learning will be at the Rensselaer high level and we’re very sensitive about that and we’ve really beefed up and strengthened things with the tele-health and counseling. There’s a lot that’s going on that Dr. Lawrence is putting into place that requires help as well from the CIO organization and others, and the contact tracers. And all these things are critical in moving forward, and if you could help to promulgate those key ideas, that would be helpful.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. No, the maximum is set — it is 10. And there are specific physical distancing criteria and the Student Life division is creating a reservation system to have meetings and events observed and to have the appropriate spaces for them, with the right protocols in place.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. Yes, it’s all written down and we’ll be publishing it online. We’re just finishing dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s. We’ll be putting the basics of the plan online and the actual plan right down into the different areas, and it is hundreds of pages long. But those parts that are important for you we certainly intend to share. And even educating people to them.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. The answer is, we’ve done the financial planning relative to what’s required to carry out the various protocols. Where those resources sit depends upon on what it takes to do it. A lot of it will come through the Administration division in terms of how the spaces are set up, how they are cleaned, how they are disinfected.

Provost Prabhat Hajela. The adjustment to the pass/no credit was done for that one semester; during the Arch semester we have reverted back to our previously adopted system and that’s what we’re going to stay with as we come back for the fall semester. It’s important for students to understand that having a pass/no credit grade sometimes impacts their ability to get into graduate schools; employers look for grades on specific courses as they recruit them into their organization, and we do not wish to water down their transcript in such a way that they are not competitive.

President Shirley Ann Jackson. I would ask you to focus on the smaller gatherings and as we go through and we see how the public health situation evolves, and how we look at how we phase in the sophomores as the juniors transition, like we know that we’ll have more people living in our housing because of the sophomores, that’s where we expect to make the biggest adjustment. But the limit on the sizes of gatherings and so on could evolve depending on the public health guidelines. So I would say stick with how you can be creative with the guidelines that we’re starting with and then we evolve from there.

VP for Human Resources Curtis Powell. As we reopen the campus, we will stagger employees back to campus because we want to ensure the de-densification. There will be a process as we do that.

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