Since we began welcoming our students back in mid-August, we have learned a great deal about how to manage the campus through the pandemic. Some of our early expectations have changed based on experience; therefore, it is time to use the latest information to make adjustments in the metrics we use to provide the most effective and safest road map for SMU leadership to guide the University.
In anticipating COVID-19 cases, primarily among students, we developed and have followed the Fall Operations Plan, put in place before the semester began, to both care for our SMU community and limit the spread of the virus. This detailed plan was designed to be a living document that would be updated over time as the virus and our response to it evolve. As we put these plans into place, our students, faculty and staff have remained remarkably resilient through testing, contact tracing, isolation and quarantine. It is also important to note that the number of faculty and staff cases has remained low, which is good news.
Many of you are familiar with our Fall Operations Assessment Tool (Appendix 1 of the Fall Operations Plan) which helps measure the virus’s impact on our population. The weighted measurements of seven criteria add up to an overall score that feeds into in the operational level assessment at the bottom of the chart. All that information then guides leadership in decisions about campus operations – decisions that pertain to each of the University’s domains as well as the entire institution.
In response to what we are experiencing after four weeks of classes, both the assessment tool and the operations plan need to be adjusted. These modifications will more comprehensively and accurately reflect the key factors used to evaluate and determine campus operations.
WHAT IS CHANGING
Calculating the infection rate:
The daily update of the SMU COVID case list and dashboard on the Mustang Strong website contains all positive reports from students actively engaged on campus whether they test at the health center or an off-campus test site. However, our assessment tool was developed earlier when it was anticipated that students would choose to be tested only on campus. Since we now know students are being tested off campus as well, the first change we are making is to calculate the infection rate based on students who are engaged in on-campus activities. The infection rate is calculated by dividing the number of active student positive cases, as is reflected in on our Mustang Strong dashboard, by the number of students actively engaged on campus. Point values for this measure have also been adjusted. Previously if the county positivity rate and the campus positivity rate (based on health center data only) were less than 5%, a value of “1” was assigned to the measure. In the revised tool, if the county positivity rate is less than 5% and the campus infection rate is less than 3%, there are no points assigned to this measure. The risk to the campus and surrounding community is low at these rates.
Determining the number of infections:
Additionally, we will also update the number of infections among students using data reflecting the entire number of student positive cases, not just those detected through the health center. Previously, if there were no infections, a value of “1” was assigned to the measure. In the revised tool, if there are no infections, no points are assigned to the measure since there is no risk to the campus or community.
These two revisions will provide more inclusive measurements and more holistically reflect the campus environment. We currently do not have a measure in the assessment tool for employee cases as those numbers are low, but if that changes, we will evaluate adding this data as well.
Measuring the isolation capacity:
When the Fall Operations Plan was first drafted, SMU had identified 127 housing units on campus that could be used for isolation of infected students. At that time, the University anticipated it might be necessary to ask students to recover at home when our isolation capacity reached higher occupancy levels. However, two factors have reshaped our approach:
- Health experts now advise that sending college students home to recover from COVID-19 could increase the spread of infection. SMU on-campus students are allowed to make personal decisions about where they wish to isolate, and while many are currently choosing off-campus locations, SMU will provide isolation spaces to students who chose to isolate on campus.
- The University has secured additional apartment-style spaces near campus, raising our total isolation capacity to 147 units. Additional units can be secured if necessary.
The isolation capacity in the assessment tool will now use a gradual scoring methodology based on occupancy to determine the score. It will be capped at 6 points instead of 12, since we now have the ability to add more isolation beds to our inventory, if necessary, to house all students who need a space.
Adjustments in scoring:
The numerical values for each assessment criteria, such as the ones mentioned above, are totaled to determine an overall “score.” Adjustments in the assessment tool and their values also necessitate modifications to the operational levels at the bottom of the chart. The four operational level categories will still range from “low” to “very high,” and the total score will still guide (not direct) the President’s Executive Council in determining which level best reflects the current campus situation and individual activities within and across each of the domains. There are no automatic triggers built into this approach, and, regardless of point value, the “very high” level that would likely result in total virtual learning and reduced staffing on campus could be activated at any time by a state or county order, or by the University president.
It is important to remember that the Fall Operations Plan is intended to function as a flexible, responsive guide for dealing with COVID-19. These adjustments will provide campus leadership with updated evaluations from which to make informed decisions and manage the University. We will continue to monitor the overall environment and specific campus conditions, and modify the plan as necessary to best support our SMU community throughout the pandemic.