Following the announcement of the requirement to wear facial masks or coverings on the Texas Tech campus in the fall, Tech President Lawrence Schovanec provided more insight into the reasoning and process behind making this decision.
When the planning for reopening began, requiring facial masks and coverings was something Schovanec said they had considered as a possibility, and due to the recent spike in cases and a greater concern about protecting others, he felt it was the necessary step to take.
"This is about protecting each other. Students, the faculty and staff on this campus that are family members…but also the members of this community when we interact. We felt that it was a necessary thing to do to be as proactive as possible to help control the spread of COVID-19," he said.
Although the cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, Schovanec said he does not think Tech has gotten to the point where they need to consider moving classes back to online-only instruction or shutting down the campus to where no students are allowed on campus at all.
Schovanec said he would like to avoid getting to that level and crossing that threshold to stay on track with reopening plans and continue with the modalities already planned for the mix of online and face-to-face instruction.
In terms of enforcing the mask requirement, Schovanec said there are many different scenarios they have envisioned but are still finalizing some details on how the policy will be put in place and what will happen if one does not have a mask or some sort of facial covering.
"For instance, if a student shows up for class, may have forgotten to bring a mask, we'll provide one. If they don't want to wear a mask, we'll try to educate them about the benefit of all, protection of all for doing that," he said. "And I think, in some sense, we have to depend on peer pressure, so every responsibility to one another. But if things accelerate to a point that we can't deal with this through education, it may be referred to Student Conduct. But we don't want to be issuing sanctions. We want to do this in a way that primarily emphasizes education and protection of others."
The same principles of requiring face masks apply to staff and visitors, Schovanec said. If an issue arises with a staff member or visitor refusing to wear a mask, it would be taken to the Human Resources department.
As most of the recent COVID-19 cases in Lubbock county have been in the 20-29-year-old age range, Schovanec said it is a concern they have as that age group make up most of the campus's population. However, he emphasized that the goal is to not have another shut down of campus.
"You know, when you shut down, you diminish the student experience. It has a very negative impact on this community. And so, we want to avoid that and do everything we can to never end up in that situation," he said. "We want to make sure that the students, as best as we can in this situation, can have the collegiate experience they want, and the community as well. That means being able to go to public lectures and performances, it means being able to go to football games, go to basketball. We want to do everything we can do, we can to protect the opportunity to do those things."
If someone on campus tests positive for COVID-19, Schoavnec said procedures are being worked out where faculty, staff and students may call a hotline where one could call to get advice as to what they need to do.
The person concerned about their plan of action will be asked a series of questions, such as if they were wearing a mask when they came in contact with somebody who tested positive, the amount of time they were in their presence and other simple details, Schovanec said. This process would help determine who would have to go into isolation.
"In terms of being able to accommodate students who test positive right now, we have reserved three to four percent of our rooms to accommodate students for self-isolation report," he said. "We have also entered into agreements with housing in the town where we can place students, and we've also are working with hotels if we need additional rooms where we'll have to put students."
If a student does test positive for COVID-19, the cancelation of their class would be dependent upon many factors, including what the contact tracing reveals and if they have spread it to their peers, Schovanec said. They are still in the process of working out specific protocols for a situation such as this.
"Again, I would emphasize, we have about two months to finalize these issues and we're doing that in consultation with The (Tech) System, we have the advantage of the medical advice we get from Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center in El Paso, as well as the HSC across the street," he said.
For parents and students who may have concerns or disagreements about wearing facial masks or coverings, Schovanec said he would encourage them to consider the fact that this is about protecting each other to stop the spread of COVID-19.
"I respect the right to disagree, but again, this is about trying to protect one another. They may not be at high risk, the people that come in contact could be and you know, a teacher or staff member or a student may go home to their family and be around somebody who is in a compromised situation is a high risk," he said. "So, a student may be asymptomatic, yet they could be having an effect on the health of others…and we feel that at this point in time, this is a prudent thing to do to try to address the risk that is particularly associated with positive cases among the college-aged population."