How Baylor planned its return to campus

Students walking in front of the Student Union Building during a unique Move2BU. Brittney Matthews | Photo Editor

By Vivian Roach | Staff Writer

Baylor’s plan was always to get back to campus after classes went online for the second half of the spring semester in March. As the phases of the COVID-19 pandemic evolved, so did the plan to return to campus.

Jason Cook, Baylor’s vice president for marketing and communications and chief marketing officer, said the top priority for the school was ultimately to get everyone back safely.

Cook said the question was “what can we do in terms of health and safety protocols and academically to get our students and our faculty back on campus this fall?”

With the uncertainty of COVID-19 and changing scientific information as the medical community has continued to learn about the virus, any plans needed to be very flexible.

Cook said other schools around the country have influenced the decision to return to campus, especially with two of the largest universities in the country being located within two hours of Waco: Texas A&M and the University of Texas. The schools have been in communication, bouncing solutions off of each other.

However, Baylor’s main focus has been on the prevalence of COVID-19 in the city of Waco and its impact on local health institutions. Though the university has taken significant efforts to have in-person classes this fall, the ever-evolving nature of the virus’s spread will be a key differentiator across the country.

When Baylor officials first started discussing concrete plans in early summer about a return to campus in the fall, there was a significant push from students and parents for as many face-to face classes as possible. Cook said there was even a little frustration that there were not more face-to-face courses being offered. However, as the summer progressed, there has been a shift, with more students and parents requesting online courses. Cook said about 1,400 students have requested a completely online schedule this fall, which advisers and professors are working through to deliver a completely online version of their courses.

“We worked to prioritize incoming freshmen having an in-person instructional component this fall, whether face-to-face or hybrid, unless they requested an all-online schedule,” Cook said.

“For freshmen, to plug in and find a sense of community within the university, these are such formative times as young adults in and outside of the classroom,” Cook said.

President Linda Livingstone sent an email Aug. 10 outlining the extensive measures the faculty has taken to most effectively convert their courses to an online learning environment.

“This year, Baylor’s annual Summer Faculty Institute, our five-week, intensive development opportunity for faculty, explicitly focused on hybrid and online teaching.” Livingstone said. “The Institute focused on answering questions like, “What does it mean to serve in the context of a pandemic? How do we use technology to teach interactively?”

Faculty members have also been enrolled in a mentorship program where they are paired with an experienced online instructor in a similar academic discipline or career stage to facilitate conversation.

Faculty seminars have been focused on online learning and teaching methods, and in addition to a purely academic focus, the video series “Being Baylor Online” shows faculty conversations about Baylor’s commitment to integrating Christian missions through online learning.

Right now, in-person classes are prepared to be delivered online too, Cook said. The faculty has been asked to prepare their curriculum to be delivered in a range of modalities, whether that may be a face-to-face, hybrid or online method.

“There have been several different COVID-19 task forces since January, and the latest group is focused on a health, medical and safety standpoint. Back in the winter, it was more of an emergency management situation.” Cook said.

Cook said the current task force includes a multidisciplinary group from across campus, medical professionals, researchers, epidemiologists, and several administrators.

In the case that the return to campus is compromised, the school’s task force created a dashboard to manage many different data points across campus. There is not one lone factor or number that would trigger a decision in terms of what the university does, but a wide range of considerations including what is happening in the local community.

Thursday, President Livingstone said in an email to the Baylor community that the dashboard will be updated daily at 3 p.m.

“The dashboard will include daily reported new cases, total active cases, positivity rate and cumulative cases, as well as several other important data points,” Livingstone said.

Baylor’s COVID-19 testing program has seen a positivity rate of about 1% as of Thursday. Additionally, the school will be testing about 10% of the campus community every week to track the prevalence of COVID-19 throughout the semester.

“The key is that we have learned that we are not in control of the situation, the virus is in control, we need to be prepared, we need to be flexible. But be assured we will start the semester in-person on Aug. 24th,” Cook said.