Update on REL’s Fall Planning

Sample image from self-reporting healthcheck app.

In early June we posted an update so that everyone knew that REL’s plan for a safe and productive Fall semester was the main thing now occupying our attention. With the UA System’s recent release of it’s plan for Fall, complete with a variety of recommendations for each of UA’s three campuses, we feel that the time is right to update everyone again on what the Fall in REL may look like.

The main challenge, of course, is that none of us have a crystal ball, and so we’re all unsure what exactly the COVID-19 virus will be doing in a couple months. Given that we’re not epidemiological modelers, all we have to go on is what the experts are saying and what the current numbers are telling as well.

With regard to the current numbers: at present, Alabama’s total number of tests per day has slowly but steadily risen since late May/early June’s number of approx. 5,000 per day, with nearly 5,700 tests now being done daily. Daily new cases have risen at a higher rate, however, with the past several days each setting a new record number, resulting in June 13’s daily number of new infections in Alabama at 1,014 — with a total of 1,292 cases in Tuscaloosa county being reported (which was up 4% from the day before).

Graph showing daily COVID-19 testing and infection rates for Alabama
Source: https://covid19.healthdata.org/united-states-of-america/alabama

Apart from what the virus is now doing and is predicted to do in the coming months, another context in which REL operates is the already-mentioned UA System plan, which, among other things, calls for the standard 6 feet of social distance be implemented in all classrooms (thereby significantly reducing a classroom’s capacity).

Graphic from the UA System Fall Plan outlining 6 foot social distancing rules for campus classrooms

Masks will be required in these group settings (see above and below, taken from the UA System plan) and UA’s self-reporting/testing/contact tracing process will be in place for the start of Fall classes, involving an app (pictured at top).

Graphic from UA System Fall Plan calling for face coverings

There will also be quarantine facilities established on campus for students who may have been exposed to the virus and there is a possibility that in-person classes may end by the Thanksgiving break — that last item is still to be decided.

The link at the top of this post will take you to the actual plan, posted as a PDF — it’s worth reading, also for its recommendations on cafeterias and residences.

Taking all of this into account, REL wants all of its returning and incoming students to understand that the main skill needed for success on any university campus this Fall, for both students and the faculty/staff, will be a willingness to be nimble and to adapt to possibly changing or even unexpected circumstances.

So, with all of this in mind, REL is aiming to offer as much in-person instruction as is possible this Fall, but doing safely for everyone involved (that is, at a distance and with masks); the required change to classroom seating capacities (for example, it will take our seminar room from seating 15 to 4) means that faculty are working this summer to adapt all of their Fall courses to the new guidelines. To make best use of limited classroom space means that, in some scenarios, students might take turns attending the lecture or seminar in-person, doing so in a socially distanced fashion, while their classmates viewi the lecture remotely, whether live or recorded. (This would be one example of what we call a hybrid course — there are other models of hybrid as well.) In some cases a mid-sized or small class might move to a larger room, if one is available, to help facilitate all students attending class in-person — with some large classes proactively moving to remote instruction to free up a big classroom for these smaller classes. Because of the challenges of maintaining a safe distance, remote teaching technologies — from lectures viewed and tests taken via Blackboard to real-time Zoom seminars — may end up being important ingredients across the country, to assist with adapting to whatever the Fall throws at us. And, finally, the REL main office and our lounge/library, along with our faculty offices’ longstanding open-door policy, may not be quite the same as in the past, to minimize on the risks of small interior rooms — with masks being expected in these spaces; email and phone may prove the safest and quickest way to get answers to your questions.

An important ingredient of this plan is the System’s directive that all Fall courses have a remote option for any student who, for whatever reason, is unable to attend in-person, thereby enabling students to continue to progress through their courses nonetheless — such as a student going into quarantine for 14 days, perhaps, or maybe because they are still unsure of participating in groups come Fall. This remote option strikes us as a key part of the plan; our hope, therefore, is that no one feels the need to sit-out the semester, since they know that they can complete and excel in their courses regardless of their location. So having access to the technology that will allow you to participate remotely, if required by the situation (such as a tablet, laptop, or smartphone) is highly recommended. If you’re unable to acquire any of these items or have limited or poor internet access, then we’ll work with you to find an alternative way for you to stay current in the course — just let your professor know at the very start of the semester.

But most important for us to convey to students and their families is that REL faculty will be creative in making themselves available to all of their students and, no matter the challenges that our situation might present to us, will ensure that they all have live, substantial, and beneficial interactions with their students, week in and week out. For while COVID-19 has made all too apparent that we do not control these circumstances, we do control how we respond to them; and, being nimble and adaptable ourselves, we’re confident that our students will continue to progress through their degrees in a timely manner — while even learning a few things along the way.