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Faculty Senate Frequently Asked Questions

The following is a summary of the most recent (July 31) Q&A session with Provost Cyril Clarke and the Faculty Senate. Topics discussed included academic planning and instruction, COVID-19 testing, tracing and case management, caregiving, communications, career progress and advancement, and classroom health and safety.

Academic Planning/Instruction

Per the COVID-19 Operational Plan approved by SCHEV, the university’s operational status will be considered when the situation-awareness information, surveillance and monitoring data, and subject-matter experts indicate this operational shift will appropriately address existing public health concerns. Public health concerns will be the impetus for university leadership to review and act on the available information/data provided (See Appendix A5. Escalation Process).

Specific health safety thresholds that will cause consideration of reduced operations include the following:

  • 50 percent or less available isolation capacity.
  • 20 percent or less available quarantine capacity. Consideration will be given for continued modified operations if infection rate is decreasing or stable when thresholds are met.
  • Reduction in workforce sufficient to cause operational disruptions for one or more departments, offices, or units. Reduction in workforce refers to efficacy, and not physical location. Remote work does not constitute a concern, unless and until it adversely affects the ability to accomplish the university’s mission.
  • Infection rate trends are increasing.
  • Hospital metrics and public health partners report concerns regarding bed availability, ICU availability, and/or ventilator availability.

The university must balance its commitment to preserve students’ progress to degree while also supporting faculty members’ discretion with regard to course modalities. Faculty members may change course modality in consultation with the department head. A change in modality may be the appropriate response to a faculty member’s concerns. In some cases, the department may explore changing teaching assignments to maintain face-to-face components of a course. If courses/course sections change modality, we would ask departments do so as soon as possible to give students more time to adjust their schedules, if needed. If modality is changed, the department is responsible for notifying all enrolled students and providing advising support to adjust students’ schedules, if requested.

Testing, Tracing, and Case Management

Students are encouraged to be tested before traveling to Blacksburg, so that students and their families have an opportunity to evaluate their plans and make adjustments if a positive result is returned. Students should submit their test results to Schiffert as part of their health records.

Testing is not required for students living off campus, but off-campus students who are at-risk – those who believe or know they have been exposed to the virus, traveled to Blacksburg from a hot spot, or have symptoms or other indications of exposure – should contact Schiffert Health Center to determine whether they should be tested.

Per the university’s Testing, Tracing, and Case Management Plan, testing of symptomatic individuals is the highest priority, followed by testing of individuals identified as close contacts of individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19. Initial testing of students and ongoing surveillance will be in addition to testing any symptomatic individuals in the population. Selection criteria for the initial testing applies to residential students with housing contracts. Selection criteria for ongoing surveillance applies to the whole returning population, including residential students, off-campus students living locally, and employees.

Virginia Tech’s online dashboard will report (each Monday) the number of positive test results and total tests from the Schiffert Health Center, based on the previous week’s information. The dashboard will also display the number of students who are in isolation on campus as a result of a positive test. The dashboard lists only numbers, not individual identifying information, and it is HIPAA-compliant.

In addition to the Virginia Tech dashboard that displays numbers from Schiffert Health Center testing, we are closely monitoring the Virginia Department of Health dashboard for the commonwealth and individual health districts to provide info to our campus community. Metrics evaluated include the positivity rate, the total number of cases, and the number of tests performed. Available hospital capacity (number of beds, ICU space, and number of ventilators) is also monitored. Decisions regarding in-person instruction and activities are based on public health data and the adherence of Virginia Tech students, faculty, and staff to campus health and safety protocols.

Virginia Department of Health has very specific guidelines for who is considered a close contact. This includes persons within 6 feet of someone with a confirmed positive for COVID-19 for at least 15 minutes, or having exposure to the person’s respiratory secretions (for example, being coughed or sneezed on; sharing a drinking glass or utensils; kissing) while they were contagious. This can include being closer than 6 feet while wearing a face covering. Briefly walking by someone with COVID-19 in a store is not considered close contact. VDH does not always recommend testing, so depending on the circumstances may direct the individual to self-quarantine.

Testing availability for “high contact” positions will be dependent on testing capacity. Prioritization will align with the Department of Labor and Industry Emergency Standards designation of exposure risk categories.

Virginia Tech has taken a risk-based approach that optimizes available testing resources. The university is fortunate that sample analysis is conducted at the Fralin Lab. This provides a resource and analytical capacity (although finite) that other institutions do not have. We have prioritized the testing of students living in residential housing upon return to campus (providing an understanding of population which will be living in a congregate environment) and testing of symptomatic students and students needing testing as identified through contact tracing.

The VDH and primary care providers will be the primary route of testing for symptomatic employees. As capacity permits, there will be additional testing available for students returning to the area from hot spots. A Testing program, again dependent on capacity, will be available to provide testing of “high contact” employees and students. Determination will be based on the Department of Labor and Industry Emergency Standards designation of exposure risk categories. It should be noted that the CDC and the Virginia Department of Health have taken a position that only symptomatic individuals and some identified through contact tracing should be tested.

If symptomatic, a faculty or staff member’s primary care provider would be first option. Second option would be New River Valley Heath District (thee is an algorithm on their site to help evaluate symptoms). Testing availability for faculty and staff will be a function of risk based on DOLI regulations, and consideration of other unique position related factors. Again, availability will be a function of capacity and needs. There is currently no capability to provide "at will testing.”

Classroom/Facility Health and Safety

A team of researchers are conducting ongoing investigations to determine the efficacy of using wastewater monitoring as a tool to determine prevalence of virus. Sample are being collected and analyzed to evaluate the sample collection process, preparation and analysis.

Yes. Outdoor air supply rates (ventilation) in academic and administrative spaces managed by the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities are being increased in spaces with such capability. Corresponding adjustments to heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) equipment began in March 2020 in order to provide as much outdoor air as possible while still maintaining acceptable indoor air quality. This process remains ongoing since HVAC air handlers and associated equipment must be reviewed individually given unique system capacities and limitations. Regardless, the goal is to optimize the amount of outdoor air provided while mitigating such risks to the greatest extent possible. These efforts are continually evaluated and revisited as adjustments are required based on many factors (weather conditions, number of occupants in a space, customer complaints, emerging industry guidance, etc.)

Yes. Every box filter (filters that serve air handling units) in academic and administrative spaces managed by the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities is a MERV 13 or higher 'upgraded' filter efficiency.  This has been validated by the university’s filter supplier. Note, however, that individual classrooms receive air in a variety of manners based on the mechanical design of individual systems/buildings. Recognizing the critical importance of filter changes, the university continues with its ongoing program of regular filter changes at their current filtration levels.

Campus-wide deployment of portable air cleaners with HEPA filters is not planned at this time; however, in consultation with Environmental Health and Safety, central provision of such devices may occur on a case-by-case basis as localized conditions warrant. To help maximize the health and safety of the on-campus university community and reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Division of Campus Planning, Infrastructure, and Facilities, and Housing and Residence Life, in close partnership with Environmental Health & Safety (EHS), continue to actively monitor emerging industry guidance on these topics as well as observe, maintain, and optimize existing HVAC infrastructure in place across the Blacksburg campus in an intentional, systematic manner.

Space occupants are welcome to operate their own individual portable air cleaners if they so choose – as long as they are operated safely and in compliance with applicable codes. It is important to note that such actions are understood to supplement the effectiveness of physical distancing and the wearing of face coverings, but in no means are they intended to replace these individual actions. University guidance on physical distancing and face coverings should be followed at all times.

While it is anticipated that most faculty and staff already have their own face coverings, Virginia Tech has secured an inventory of both cloth face coverings and surgical masks. These will be made available thru procurement. In addition, DSA will provide two cloth face coverings to residential students upon arrival. Face shields will be provided to all faculty and instructors who are teaching either in hybrid or face-to-face course modalities and distributed by mail services to departments.

Caregiving Support

The Child Care Working Group continues to discuss options for all faculty with caregiving responsibilities. The Division of Human Resources, the Office of Business Affairs, the Office of the Senior Vice President and Chief Business Officer, and the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, with engagement of members of Faculty Senate, department heads, deans, are all collaborating on policies and partnerships that address concerns of caregivers affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. It is difficult to estimate the funding needed for additional GTAs, replacement faculty, and funded modified duties, but the budget model puts majority of funds into colleges. The Working Group support flexible assignments during the coming semester and can consider requesting additional funding. We hope faculty can prioritize teaching responsibilities for the coming semester.

Career Advancement

The Promotion and Tenure During COVID-19 Working Group, formed by the Commission on Faculty Affairs, is developing documentation specifically addressing differential impact. The draft document of adaptations in the promotion and tenure process due to COVID-19 has been shared with deans and Faculty Senate Cabinet with forwarding to Department Heads Council Executive Committee and the Faculty Senate for further input. Subsequent iterations will be shared with the university community. Question about P&T process for the coming year should be directed to Jack Finney.

Communications

We have created a section on the Provost’s homepage that provides easy-to-find links to documents and resources specific to faculty and their academic space and operations, classroom/lab health and safety, and instructional interests. These resources align with university plans and guidelines posted on the VT Ready website, but address the questions and concerns most being expressed by faculty. Feedback from faculty and the Faculty Senate will help us to further inform and prioritize the resources we post on the webpage.

The Provost’s Office is also providing a focused weekly communications update to share timely information related to topics of interest, revised resource documents and websites, and upcoming opportunities to engage and provide feedback on academic, research, and instructional matters. See an archive of past weekly communications updates.