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Inside the planning process for UT Austin’s fall semester

I’m one of the leaders planning the fall semester amid COVID-19. Here’s why transparency—and embracing bad outcomes—is critical.

Inside the planning process for UT Austin’s fall semester
[Photo: Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons]

A recent report by The New York Times listed the University of Texas, where I teach, as the home of the most coronavirus cases in a sample of universities in the United States.

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I’m one of the leaders planning for the fall semester amid COVID-19, and this news did not come as a surprise. The University of Texas actually makes the number of cases on the campus publicly available on a dashboard on our website for the 2020-21 academic year. (Few other schools are that transparent, and many did not respond to the newspaper’s request for data.)

You might think that the news that we have had a number of positive cases on campus would lead our team to rethink the entire process for fall planning. But as it turns out, the reason we are being transparent about COVID-19 cases is precisely because that is central to the way we have engaged in planning from the start.

From the beginning, we knew that the situation is dynamic. Indeed, we often pointed out that the only thing we knew for certain was that none of the predictions we had seen about the course of the pandemic had aged well. And so we could not assume when we formed our planning teams in April that we would know for sure how many people in Austin, in Texas, and around the country would be sick when classes are scheduled to start in August.

In order to plan effectively, then, we had to do three things:

First, it was important to generate safety procedures for those activities that would be held on campus. In consultation with experts at our medical school, including physicians, epidemiologists, and modelers, as well as experts in other key areas such as ventilation systems, we put together guidelines (presented on our website) including reduced density in classrooms and lab spaces, and the requirement that people wear masks. We developed an app for symptom screening. We ramped up our own capacity to run COVID-19 tests on campus to perform proactive community testing.

Second, we laid out a contingency planning process so that as the status of the pandemic changes, we can institute more restrictions if necessary or reduce restrictions of conditions improve. Already, this contingency planning process led us to offer fewer courses in person than we had hoped to in the spring, when there were few cases of COVID-19 in the state of Texas. One important reason for the dashboard I mentioned earlier is that this information feeds into the decision-making process for shifting from one level to another in our contingency plan.

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Third, we have a committee that evaluates all of the illnesses on campus. The University of Texas is allowed by our local public health authority to serve as a contract tracer. Our contact tracing team reaches out to individuals who get sick to allow them to volunteer to identify their close contacts. An anonymous summary of this information is passed to our committee. In addition, our occupational health group assesses any outbreaks of disease on campus. Anonymized versions of that information are also passed to the committee.

The point is to embrace our most significant concern—that members of our community have contracted the coronavirus. By analyzing the information we get, we can explore whether the safety precautions we have developed are working. We can determine whether people are getting sick on campus or through their contacts in the community. We can explore whether we need to make changes in processes, whether we need to enforce existing procedures more rigorously, or whether we need to create additional education for members of our community.

It is by highlighting every case of illness we find that we can do the best job of adapting our work quickly to keep our community as safe as possible.”

This hard work to keep people safe creates a paradox. Because we are not sugar-coating the state of the pandemic in our community, and because we are trying to be as transparent as possible, we open ourselves up to looking bad in reports like that in The New York Times, relative to those schools who are not going public with the COVID-19 cases on their campuses. But it is by highlighting every case of illness we find that we can do the best job of adapting our work quickly to keep our community as safe as possible. And if we have to look bad to a few people in order to make that happen, it’s worth it.

More generally, every organization has to be willing to confront its biggest concerns head-on. Very few problems in organizations get better spontaneously. When organizations ignore problems, they run the risk of creating more significant problems down the line. The fear of a little bad publicity in the short term should not outweigh the benefits of openly addressing problems quickly to prevent larger catastrophes.

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