Lariat TV News Exclusive: President Livingstone answers tough questions surrounding COVID-19

Drake Toll | Managing Editor

Baylor President Linda Livingstone sits down with Lariat TV News’ Drake Toll to discuss the tough questions that students are currently asking surrounding the university’s reopen. In the interview, Livingstone addresses triggers that would send Baylor online, offers a message to students who are scared and delivers insight on Baylor’s 4% tuition increase in the midst of the pandemic. 

The following is a transcript of the interview in its entirety: 

In response to a spike during the first week of reopening:

Well, I think you have to look even beyond the reopening. We actually were not surprised to see a spike in cases right after we brought students back. Of course, we brought thousands of students back from all over the country. And we had certainly tested everybody before they came back. But we knew that it was still certainly a possibility to have a spike like that. So I think what’s more important is to look at where we are now. About halfway through the third week of the semester, we began to see all of those numbers come down. All of the graphs are moving in the right direction in terms of positivity rate, in terms of the numbers of students that have active cases now and so on. And so we feel really good about how we handled those early days and where we are right now. Things are moving in the right direction.

Message to students who are scared:

I think it’s really important to understand, particularly in the age group that our students are, if you wear your mask, if you social distance, if you’re not in large groups, if you wash your hands, the risk to students in the age group of our college students is very low, and we’ve had no hospitalizations of our students. And really, those numbers again, are going in the right direction because students are doing what we’re asking them to do. And so I think students can feel confident that if they’re doing the right things to keep themselves and their friends safe. We haven’t seen any cases transmitted in classrooms which is really positive. So we’re doing the right things in the classroom. So I think folks could feel really comfortable on campus, because we are seeing people engaging in the right kinds of behaviors to keep those numbers down, to keep themselves and others safe.

Message to students scared to go off campus and into the community:

I think you have to engage in the behaviors off campus that we’re asking people to engage in on campus. Again, masks, social distancing, washing your hands and so on. I would say one of the numbers that’s really important to watch is what they call the RT number, which is the rate of spread of the virus and how many other people does each person that has it actually infect. And you want that number to be below one. And so in McLennan County, I think it was .9 or .91 or something yesterday, so we’re also seeing better numbers in the county. So I think if students do the right things off campus, just like they are doing on campus, and as we see the numbers in McLennan county come down, they can feel comfortable when they’re out in the community as well.

On trigger number that would force online learning:

Well, I think it’s really important to understand that there’s not one trigger number that would cause us to decide to go into an online format. We are tracking probably hundreds of different data points, you see some of those on the public dashboard. And those are certainly important to watch. And if you look at the public dashboard now, all of those metrics are moving down in the right direction. But we have many other metrics that we’re monitoring as well. And then we have a really highly qualified medical advisory group that reviews those data points every single day [and] makes recommendations to my president’s counsel. And you really have to look at all of that data in total – you look at positivity rate, you look at RT, you look at isolation capacity, you look at your capacity to test and to trace. And as you look at all of those in total, I think what’s more important is to say, do we have the capacity to manage the number of COVID cases that we currently are dealing with? And we feel very good about that. Right now we have a really good plan in place. We’ve adapted that plan as we’ve learned more, and we’re implementing that plan and it’s working. The data shows that what we’re doing is making a difference.

On Baylor’s contingency plan if moved online:

We have contingency plans for many, many different outcomes and it’s not an either or. And so we have a lot of steps we can take between what we’re doing now and whether you went fully online, but we absolutely have, from the very beginning, asked our faculty to be prepared if we had to do that — our staff to be prepared. We are optimistic that we won’t have to take that step, but that will be in a good position to get all the way to Thanksgiving on campus because we believe that’s what’s in the best interest of the well being and both educationally and in many other ways for our students. And we, we know, that’s really what our students and their families want. So we feel good about it. But we certainly have contingency plans for various different scenarios that we might face before the end of the semester.

On if reopening would still be worth it if a student dies:

We call ourselves the Baylor family and we care deeply about the safety and health and well being of our students and our faculty and staff. And I think as I said, we have not seen any hospitalizations on our campus. We have certainly not had any deaths of anyone affiliated with our on our campus since we’ve been back. And we feel good about the work we’re doing, the steps that we’re taking to protect the campus and certainly come around the community to protect everyone that’s involved as we go through the semester.

On the 4% increase in tuition being administered:

So that decision was made last summer, in summer of 2019, by our Board of Regents. We set our tuition rates typically quite early compared to other institutions. And then over that year last year, we made plans based on that tuition increase. It has to do with our enrollment targets. It has to do with what we choose to do with financial aid and how we manage financial aid and that is all built into the tuition increase that we plan. And of course, all of that was done prior to even knowing that COVID-19 existed. So then when COVID-19 came along in the spring, which was really deep into our recruiting process, and deep into the planning that we were doing, we recognized that we were going to have to make some adjustments because of COVID. And so we knew that, from a budget perspective, there were going to be some significant added expenses that we had to deal with because of that, some significant financial support we would have to provide to students because we recognize that the families of many of our students and even our students [themselves] have been impacted economically by this. And so all of that together led us to feel like we were doing the right things with our budget, that we were moving in the right direction. And then of course, as we prepare to set tuition for next year, we’ll factor all of those issues in as well and that will certainly help us determine what we do with tuition for next year.

On students who feel like they’re paying more without the Baylor experience:

I think we have worked very hard, even through the summer, in the spring and through the summer, when we didn’t have students on campus, to build in aspects of the Baylor experience — to do Dr. Pepper hour, we did dia del oso, it was certainly done remotely, but it still gave students the opportunity to participate. Now that they’re back on campus, you know, we’ve got intramurals going on. We’re running the Baylor line when we have football games coming up. And so we are really working very hard to create opportunities for students even in a little bit different environment that gives them that full Baylor experience, whether that’s inside the classroom or outside the classroom. Those Baylor experiences may look and feel a little bit different than they had been in the past. But I can certainly say that our faculty and staff are working diligently to give students a unique Baylor experience. And I think I can honestly say, having talked to many parents, and many students who have friends at other universities, many of which are fully online, and even those that are not, I feel good that what we’re doing here at Baylor is really providing about as rich of an experience as any institution in the country is doing for their students in the midst of the pandemic. 

On if normalcy will be back:

Well, I think that eventually there will be but, you know, we don’t know when that’s going to be. And so we are certainly prepared to continue to work within the context of the virus, until we know that there’s a vaccine that’s widely used by folks and that we can feel comfortable that our campus is safe and healthy to begin to loosen up some of our restrictions. But I think it’s also why it’s so important for us to continue to follow the guidelines that we’ve given around masking and social distancing, and so on. Because the more of that we do, the lower we keep the numbers, the more we can then begin to loosen up on some of the other restrictions around meetings and group gatherings and such that are out there so that even as the virus continues, because we don’t know how long that’s going to be, we begin to create a more normal experience, even within the context of the virus. 

Message to the student body:

I think it’s really important for the student body to know that we’re all in this together. I mean, it takes all of us to make it work on our campus. You know, the university is doing what we can to provide a safe environment, to provide all of the context for a safe environment. We know that each and every one of us, whether students, faculty or staff, needs to engage in the guidelines that we’ve laid out around masking, social distancing, washing your hands. And if we all do that, and we don’t get complacent about it, then I think we can have a very safe, productive, rich learning experience and get us all the way to Thanksgiving and we feel the students have been great. They are working hard. They want to be here. They want to stay here. And so I just really want to commend our students for the way they’ve come alongside the university [and] are partnering with us to get us through the semester.