UH Katy begins classes this week with safety precautions in place

By R. Hans Miller | News Editor
Posted 8/23/20

The University of Houston’s Katy campus opens Monday for the fall semester. In preparation, staff and faculty have been preparing throughout the summer to establish safety protocols and …

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UH Katy begins classes this week with safety precautions in place

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The University of Houston’s Katy campus opens Monday for the fall semester. In preparation, staff and faculty have been preparing throughout the summer to establish safety protocols and facilitate increased distance-based learning throughout the summer, said UH Associate Vice President for the university’s Sugar Land and Katy campuses Jay Neal.

“This is our community. These are our neighbors. We do take that very seriously. We take their education very seriously, but their health also. The decisions we make aren’t in a vacuum,” Neal said.

Those decisions include three options for the types of classes students can choose from, additional safety precautions to keep the campus population socially distanced and providing personal protective equipment – or PPE – to students, staff and faculty, he said.

Students’ three options for courses include hybrid classes which mix in-person instruction and online instruction, streamed real-time instruction and regular online classes where students work separately, Neal said. Classes have been limited in size in many instances while more sections were added in order to keep classroom populations low so that desks can be properly spaced apart. There are generally six feet between students and eight feet between the classes and instructors, Neal said.

“There’s an eight-foot barrier between the instructor and the students because most likely the instructor will not be wearing the mask to lecture because it’s really hard to hear,” Neal said.

Neal said the adjusted class formats would not have an impact on fees, explaining that the hybrid system where half the class is on campus one day and the other half the next and the online-real-time models actually take more preparation and care to manage.

“You know, I was a professor for 15 years. The online components can be more time consuming and take more effort than face to face lectures,” Neal said. “No. I think a lot of faculty have put a lot of time and effort to make sure students see value in the content that they’re getting, you know. We don’t want to be a diminished version of the value that the U of H is offering. … That hasn’t changed at all.”

Neal commended faculty and staff for their effort to learn the online tools such as Zoom and other online software which will allow them to provide seamless virtual and in-person instruction.

Hand sanitizer and masks will be available for students as well, Neal said. Masks will be required whenever students, faculty or visitors are in buildings and whenever they are in a situation on campus grounds that does not allow for social distancing to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus which causes COVID-19.

“We have recently changed out custodial services,” Neal said. “So they’re doing deep cleaning to be ready for students to come in. We’ve upgraded all of our chemicals, our disinfectants to hospital grade. We’ve changed all of our air filters (and) we’ve put up plexiglass for public-facing desks.”

Each classroom has cleaning stations with hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes and designated seating areas to ensure social distancing.

Neal said the planning to institute these changes for UH Katy students was taken with advice from several key stakeholders and internal task forces to ensure the safety of everyone on campus. As other institutions of higher education have opened in the last few weeks, Neal said UH has looked at the stumbles and cases arising at those institutions. He said he feels the university has done what it can to protect its students and will make adjustments to fill any gaps in protocols that students, staff or faculty may notice as the campus gets rolling with the business of education.

Neal said making the university’s partnership with Houston Community College for its engineering and nursing students easier to manage was also a change for the year. Rather than having to go between two different accounts and IDs the two institutions of higher learning have set up matching student accounts so UH students can take core classes at HCC and save thousands of dollars over time on their degree plans.

In its second year, the UH Katy campus does have an increased enrollment number from the spring semester, but Neal said that number is still changing as students enroll in more classes over the next few days. He does anticipate an increase in overall enrollment though, he said.

Many of those new students are enrolling in online extracurricular activities such as the Katy campus’ e-sports club, Neal said. Activities include online stand-up comedy shows and a variety of entertainment options to get as close to the on-campus culture as possible given the pandemic, he added.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for all the students who are at home and not really on campus as much as usual,” he said.

Neal expressed his appreciation for all of the stakeholders involved in helping develop the plans to safely reopen the campus including Dr. Michael Spann, dean of the UH College of Medicine and Professor Kathryn Tart, dean of the UH College of Nursing – as well as representatives from throughout UH, the Texas Education Agency and other state and county-level authorities that provided input.

Neal also said he wanted to hear feedback from students if they happen to see anything that may be a gap in the university’s safety protocols so that those issues could be addressed promptly. Students should reach out to their professors about any observed gaps or any struggles with classes brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, he said.

“I think we just need to communicate to the students what their options are and to work closely with us, you know,” Neal said. “It’s going to be on a case by case basis, but we want to take good care of them.”

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