UVM President discusses fall reopening plans, changes to campus life

Local News

Earlier this week, the University of Vermont detailed initial steps that will be taken in order to reopen this fall, including health screenings, testing and contact tracing for employees and students.

The recommendations were developed by the UVMStrong—Fall 2020 Advisory Committee, and shared with the campus community on Monday in a letter sent by UVM President Suresh Garimella.

On Tuesday, Garimella spoke with Local 22 & Local 44 about the key aspects of the reopening plan.

Q: How does this plan balance the desire to maintain aspects of a traditional college experience with the importance of health and safety? 

Suresh Garimella (President, University of Vermont): I’m confident that the framework the board approved will enable UVM to offer a high quality education for our students and a productive work setting for our faculty and staff in an environment that puts their safety and well-being first.

Over 50 people on our campus were involved in the planning effort, and we’re regularly consulting medical experts, public health experts, the Vermont Department of Health, and the Governor’s office. We’re certainly grateful for the help and support we’ve gotten, including from the City of Burlington. UVM Medical Center is an important partner as well, and we continue to have those conversations.

I think it’s a balance, how do you ensure there’s high quality education provided, while ensuring the health and safety of our community? I will say that while many aspects of campus life will not be the same – Fall 2020 will look nothing like Fall 2019 – I look forward to welcoming our community back to a vibrant reopening of our university.

Q: How prepared is the university for adjustments that may need to be made depending on the outlook of COVID-19 this fall?

President Garimella: The set of strategies we announced is only the first set. We’ve gone through a few weeks of thinking, we’ve gotten a lot of community feedback on important issues, and we’ve considered them all carefully but there’s a lot more to continue thinking about. We continue to deliberate and add to this list, and of course we adapt as needed to the changes driven by the pandemic. This is where I think our partnership with the Governor and the Department of Health is key. Obviously, the Governor will drive what the regulations are in the State and we will need to adapt. All of my communications have been clear this is the plan we’re proposing, and we’re fairly confident this is what will happen. But, COVID will do what it will do, and we’ll just need to adapt to that.

Q: What are your key takeaways from this plan to resume in-person classes?

President Garimella: It’s a multi-faceted approach, there are many aspects to think through. Of course, this includes ongoing testing strategies for students and employees, contact tracing, and we’ve got an app that we are setting up in collaboration with the Department of Health. There’s efforts to provide supportive isolation and quarantining, and we’re setting aside rooms for that. Certainly, classrooms need to be rethought and other campus spaces as well to ensure there’s physical distancing. Space capacity, we’re looking at how much we can fit where, what other rooms we can bring in to service for this kind of situation. Then, it’s a combination of remote and in person instruction, there will be some multi-modal elements that we have to go for, and class schedules will be revised. We cetainly want to end just prior to Thanksgiving break and finish the last bit of the semester remotely.

A very critical part is the Green and Golden pledge, all this planning is one thing but it’s on every one of us to take responsibility for ourselves and our neighbors. We’re developing it in collaboration with the Student Government Association, graduate students and community input. It will be critical. On the employee side, we will be maximizing the number of employees who can continue to work remotely. We will rotate employees for remote and in-person work to reduce the number of employees on campus. Certainly, we will be ensuring there is adequate personal protective equipment and sanitation supplies. Care strategies, treatment strategies, there’s many many aspects to this, which is why it takes a village, and there’s a good number of people lending their expertise to this.

Q: Remote learning is here to stay in some capacity, are there preparations that need to be made for this fall? Did this spring semester help prepare for a longer stretch of remote learning?

President Garimella: I don’t think any of us would pretend that we did true online instruction in the spring, we turned on a dime and did what needed to be done as far as remote learning. I greatly credit the faculty and staff that supported them and did the best job they could. A lot of them had signed up for these very successful camps that are Continuing and Distance Education group put together, they’re continuing to be offered this summer and faculty are taking those. I think there will be a good number of faculty who will go through the kind of training needed. There’s great value for students to be on campus, and so there will be on campus classes where we can, if the classes are very large, we may need to go remote for that. There will be some hybrid mode of instruction, maybe some lectures could be delivered online, but the in-person interaction with professors, teaching assistance and such, could go on. It’s an evolving story, but I think we’re preparing as best as we can.

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