WT releases plans for gradual reopening

By Chip Chandler

Though summer at West Texas A&M University will look different, it will mark a turning point as the University makes strides toward a safe resumption of operations by the time fall classes begin Aug. 24.

“We are forever grateful that our University family brought our Spring 2020 semester to a successful end, despite virtually unprecedented challenges,” said Dr. Walter V. Wendler, WT President. “As we look forward to the fall, we will not forget these trials, and we will use them to make us all better Buffaloes.”

A plan to reopen all 11 campuses and eight state agencies was adopted May 29 by The Texas A&M University System’s Board of Regents. Precautions laid out in the plan will be implemented immediately or as soon as possible.

Chancellor John Sharp said the campus experience is invaluable in bringing camaraderie, offering personal experiences and reinforcing the traditions that shape students into the leaders of tomorrow.

“You can get a degree online,” Sharp said. “But it’s very hard to be an Aggie online.” He said the same held true for the other 10 campuses – each with their own rich traditions and opportunities for personal experiences.

The plan calls for social distancing by allowing for smaller classes, longer class days to reduce congestion between classes, Saturday classes, adjustments to the academic calendar, and a phased-in arrival on campus in August and again in January.

About a quarter of WT staff members returned to work May 18, and another approximately 50 percent will begin returning to campus June 1. But in recognition of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, staff will incorporate several techniques and schedules to ensure safety. If conditions permit, remaining employees will return to campus July 1.

“The idea is to provide campus leaders with discretion to make plans that work best for their division personnel across campus,” Wendler said. “We, as a campus, take both personal and institutional responsibilities seriously and will continue to make informed decisions as this situation continues.”

Employees in high-risk categories or those caring for children or other family members may be exempt from returning to campus June 1 or July 1.

The Summer I session, which begins June 1, is completely online. Plans are being developed to offer some face-to-face instruction during the Summer II session, which begins July 8, but only if conditions permit.

Employees are expected to self-monitor for symptoms daily before coming to campus and must be free of any symptoms before returning to their offices.

Safety protocols will be required, Wendler said, and strict cleaning guidelines will be in place. WT’s plans are consistent with guidance provided by the Center for Disease Control, the State of Texas, The Texas A&M University System, Randall and Potter counties, the cities of Amarillo and Canyon, and the Bi-County Health Department.

SSC, the University’s custodial partner, will ensure working and common spaces are cleaned effectively and frequently during each working day, and employees will sanitize work areas at the end of each day.

Staff members will be expected to wear face masks of some kind when outside their office, in common areas or when interacting with colleagues or visitors. Face-to-face staff meetings are discouraged and limited to 10 or fewer, and employees are asked to stagger entering and departing times to avoid crowds. Each staff member is required to complete online COVID-19 safety training before returning to campus, as well.

Individual Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) including a mask, gloves and hand sanitizer will be provided to each employee, who also are allowed to bring their own PPE. Hand sanitizing stations are located around campus, and signs will be posted around the University to remind staff and visitors to observe safety protocols.

“Our purchasing department has worked hard to locate and secure PPE for the remainder of the summer and the upcoming fall semester for employees, students and guests,” Wendler said. “This will be a continuous task until further notice.”

Plexiglass dividers have been installed where employees and students or visitors interact in high volume, including the business office, mail services and dining areas. Food service will continue with a greater emphasis on take-away orders and minimized reliance on self-service options.

All agency and university facilities — libraries, recreation facilities, and student centers — will be open and operated under appropriate precautions.

Activities such as clubs, lectures, fraternities/sororities, study sessions, and intramurals will be provided as much as is practical and safe. All face-to-face co-curricular activities must observe precautions recommended by local health authorities, including physical distancing and face coverings.

Buffalo Sports Complex will begin reopening June 1 as well, following State of Texas and City of Canyon guidelines for parks, said Justin Cornelsen, director of recreational sports. Only outdoor courts will be available, including basketball goals, tennis courts and sand volleyball pits. No team activities with groups of more than four will be allowed.

The Virgil Henson Activities Center will begin reopening in phases on June 15. Phase 1 will include the weight room at 25 percent capacity, basketball courts and racquetball courts by reservation only, and the indoor walking/jogging track. Outdoor equipment rentals will resume then, as well. Social-distancing and other safety protocols will be required.

The Regents support the resumption of athletic activities for the 2020-21 academic year, but the timing and format will depend on conditions and direction from athletic conferences.

A&M System guidance on fall university-sponsored student traveled is expected by July 31.

Students and campus visitors are expected to follow the same guidance as employees, and visits to campus should be postponed when possible to reduce traffic in common areas.

Tours and undergraduate visits will be allowed beginning June 1 for one family at a time. Staff members will wear masks during visits, and though academic department meetings will not be held, academic counselors will meet with families to provide information. Virtual self-guided tours are available anytime on WT’s website, and guided virtual tours are offered weekly at 2 p.m. Tuesdays.

The use of facilities by outside groups must be approved, and safety requirements and recommendations in effect at the time of the event should be observed.

Summer camps, which ordinarily bring thousands of visitors to campus in June and July, were canceled for 2020. Refunds were provided to those who had already paid registration fees.

“While I know camps are a great way to promote and recruit future students to our campus as well as provide employment opportunities to our faculty and staff, we must remain vigilant in our efforts to flatten the virus curve,” said Randy Rikel, WT vice president for business and finance.

In preparation for the fall semester, universities and agencies are directed to prepare facilities, obtain cleaning supplies and protective equipment, and develop processes and protocols for implementation of this guidance.

All faculty, staff and students will receive regularly updated information, including any reported cases.