1.29.21: A New Semester

A message to faculty and instructional staff from Provost Nathan Urban.

Dear Colleagues,

I hope that all of you have had a chance to spend some time over the first weeks of the new year catching up on projects, tending to family matters, and engaging in some self-care. You all deserve that time and more for the work that you did in the fall.

Personally, inspired by a Christmas present from my son (Sibley’s Birds East), over the last few weeks I set up two bird feeders in our backyard and a camera to take a picture every few minutes. Now I am in the process of trying to figure out which species of birds visit these feeders. I suppose it’s become my pandemic hobby.

As we near the start of the spring semester, I am excited to have students back, and I believe that with the rollout of effective vaccines we are finally able to begin to see how the pandemic will end.

We are proceeding with plans to start classes next week, with all but a few classes being online in the first week. Students have been tested for COVID-19 before arrival and all students (on- and off-campus, including fully remote students) will be tested again next week and the week of February 8. Our increased testing this semester is likely to average about 3,000+ tests/week over the spring, making the testing and contact tracing a full-time operation. This would not be possible without a significant number of staff and faculty volunteering their time. I would encourage all faculty to consider volunteering to help with test administration or contact tracing. Details of how to get involved are available here.

Even though I believe that the worst of the pandemic is or will soon be past, we are not there yet. We will continue to closely monitor case counts and other data, and we will adjust campus status appropriately. There is a new web page that gives the current campus status and an updated COVID dashboard with information about cases. I urge you to review COVID protocols regarding mask wearing and building access for the spring.

While the case counts remain very high across the county and country, multiple studies as well as our own data continue to indicate that with the precautions we have in place, classrooms and similar environments are not typically sites of transmission.

I appreciate all of your efforts to teach and advance your research in these difficult times. Student satisfaction in the fall was quite good, and fewer students have elected to be “fully remote” in the spring. I take this to be a direct result of the creativity and work of faculty and staff to create a rewarding campus experience despite the severe constraints and limitations required by COVID.

We have been working to create new ways of supporting faculty through this time. In collaboration with the Faculty Senate, we have been looking at how to understand excellence in research, teaching and service during COVID-related disruptions. Such discussions are key to the promotion and tenure process, and I encourage you to fill out this survey to provide your views on this issue. We also have created a program of grants to provide support for faculty with increased caregiving roles during the pandemic.

As you begin to teach this spring, I urge you to consider the experience of our students in the last year. They have been displaced—in geography and/or in their social networks. Many have spent more time at home with their parents than they ever thought they would. Some are experiencing financial and health stresses. Some students will be distracted and anxious, while others may be more focused than ever because their academic work has less competition for their attention. But all of our students are looking to be connected to each other, to their faculty and to the university. In response to these concerns, we have implemented a wellness week this spring. I have requested that all instructors adjust their course schedules during the week of March 22 to minimize tests and high-stakes assignments. If you are concerned about a student’s mental health, please consult with University Counseling and Psychological Services to see how they can help support the student’s needs.

I ask all of you to reach out to your students—online, in person, by video, with a note—to build those connections that are more easily developed during a typical semester. The early semester student survey that we conducted in the fall (and which we will repeat this spring) suggested that among the things that students miss most in the remote environment is feedback from faculty. As I described last fall, all faculty should plan at least one hour per week of synchronous interaction with students in their classes. Students have told us that they appreciate having regular access to faculty members via Zoom. Please continue to offer this type of availability and support, which I think is critical for students’ learning and well being.

While vaccines and testing and better masks afford us protection from the virus, connecting with and helping each other provide the best protection against the stress and anxiety and depression that are very real side effects of the pandemic. In this same vein, I encourage all of you to come to my “office hours,” even if it's just to introduce yourself or to tell me about your work. My next Faculty Open Door session is scheduled for Thursday, February 4 at 9:00 a.m. We will announce additional spring Open Door sessions soon.

The success of this semester depends on all of us being there for each other. I invite you to take inspiration, as I did, from the words of Amanda Gorman at the Biden/Harris Inauguration:

For there is always light
If only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.