SMU Adjusts Fall Operations Assessment Tool

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. 


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. 

SMU Moves To High Operational Level

Dear SMU Community,

Every week, our Emergency Operations Center group and the president’s leadership team review a number of data points regarding the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the SMU campus, then update the University’s operational level. This week, we are increasing the overall operational level from “moderate” to “high” to reflect the number of cases on campus and other related factors.

What does this mean? One of the many factors we consider in determining our operational level is the availability of spaces to isolate our on-campus students who test positive. Students have a choice as to where they will isolate, whether that is on campus or at some other location, and they will continue to have that choice. To ensure we can accommodate those students who choose to isolate on campus, we are working this week to increase the numbers of isolation beds available. Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and our consultant epidemiologist is that it is preferable for students to isolate on campus (as long as it is feasible) in lieu of travelling home to prevent the spread of the virus to other areas. We are also opening up the Dr. Bob Smith Health Center for limited hours during the weekends to ensure students have access to testing on campus.

We should all remain vigilant about wearing face coverings, social distancing and hand-washing. We expected to see an increase in cases, as we have seen with many other universities that started fall classes before we did, and we are responding within expectations to these circumstances. Even with the current number of cases, we have a manageable situation and will continue in-person operations.

You can find a full explanation of our operation levels here (Appendix 2). We expect the following areas to continue to operate at the “moderate” level, as there is no data to support spread through these settings:
• Classrooms, lecture halls and academic buildings
• Religious group services
• Shared office spaces
• Labs and research (Human Subjects Research is already operating at “high” level)
• Library spaces
• Residence halls and common areas
• Student organizations and events (events remain at “Orange event level”)
• Dining halls
• Athletic events and activities
• Dedman Center for Lifetime Sports
• Health Center
• Meadows Museum

Thank you for all you do to keep this campus healthy.

Message to Campus on Rising COVID-19 Cases

September 4, 2020

Dear SMU Student,

With two weeks of the fall semester successfully behind us, I would want to recognize our SMU students, faculty and staff for your efforts to adapt to learning, living and working on campus during this pandemic.

As we anticipated, we are seeing a rise in COVID-19 cases as well as an increase in quarantines. The summer preparations are working: We are aggressively isolating positive cases and quarantining those who came into close contact with infected individuals. This week, we had a localized outbreak at the Sigma Chi Fraternity House. In cooperation with Dallas County Health and Human Services, SMU requested that all students residing in the house quarantine for 14 days. We also asked the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority to quarantine one floor of their house out of an abundance of caution. We greatly appreciate the positive cooperation from the fraternity and sorority members and their organizations.

We are also using more of our isolation units to house on-campus students who test positive. While the numbers are growing, we still have capacity and contingency plans, if needed. We also continue to provide resources including meals and case management for those in isolation and quarantine so they can keep up with their studies. Even with the jump in student cases, we currently have only a few known cases in faculty or staff. You can see the latest numbers on our updated COVID-19 dashboard.

We are hearing reports of students choosing to test off campus at night or during the weekend. You can find a list of nearby urgent care centers and other after-hours support if the Dr. Bob Smith Student Health Center is closed. If you are feeling anxious, remember that we have counselors available 24/7 by calling 214-768-2277. We ask that you continue to support the overall wellness of your fellow students and faculty and staff by reporting positive cases or if you came into contact with an infected individual. We are grateful for your efforts to abide by the Pledge to Protect and wear face coverings or masks, wash your hands frequently and maintain a distance of at least 6 feet when you are gathered together. Science tells us that these steps stem the spread of the virus. We have taken disciplinary action against some individuals and groups who are in violation of the pledge, and remain committed to enforcing it through the Student Code of Conduct.

Even though we will be attending class – in person and virtually – on Labor Day, please stay focused this holiday weekend and continue to follow our health and safety protocols both on and off campus. Your cooperation is critical to keeping our campus open for a full semester of activities.

R. Gerald Turner

What should I do if I feel symptomatic or test positive and the Health Center is closed?

For COVID-19 emergencies such as trouble breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, bluish lips, or face, call 911.

Students who need a test or consultation when the Dr. Bob Smith Health Center is closed can receive treatment through one of the local urgent care center listed here. The closest such facility to SMU is the Sanai Urgent Care Center (3414 Milton Ave., Dallas, TX 75205 // 469-522-3995).

If you test positive at an urgent care facility, or have come into close contact with a known positive case when the Health Center is closed, first fill out the CCC Form. A case manager will provide more guidance.

In the event a case manager does not reach out to you immediately upon filling out the form, follow CDC guidelines and isolate.

Employee Payroll Tax Update

Southern Methodist University will not implement the payroll tax deferment program announced by Presidential Memorandum on August 8, 2020.

The executive action is optional, allowing employers to postpone the collection of payroll taxes, specifically an employee’s portion of Social Security taxes, for affected employees. The action applies to wages paid to affected employees beginning on September 1, 2020 and ending on December 31, 2020.  Affected employees are defined as employees generally making less than $4,000 per biweekly pay period.  Currently the order also indicates that the affected employees will be responsible for withholding and paying back these taxes before May 1, 2021, or be subject to interest and penalties.

SMU will continue to collect payroll taxes on behalf of all employees to reduce possible confusion, undue hardships, or other difficulties during the filing of taxes for 2020 by employees next year.

When more information becomes available that clarifies many of the administrative questions pertaining to the payroll tax deferment, SMU may reconsider implementation.