Having been “pretty close to normal” for a while this spring, University of Texas Permian Basin President Sandra Woodley said it looks like the institution will be fully open this fall.
Woodley said the university and community is coming out of COVID sooner than the state or even the nation.
“… We’re excited about getting students back on campus. Our 16 athletic sports will have lots of events and student organizations will be back with all the things associated with that, so we do not intend to have masks required unless something changes on the campus in the fall or social distancing,” Woodley said.
She expects everything, such as the dining halls and dorms, to be at normal capacity.
“That’s what we’re planning for now. The numbers are very low in our community and almost non-existent, thankfully, at the university so we’re ready for a normal fall,” Woodley said.
The university will keep some things from the pandemic that worked well such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams meetings as a way to connect with large numbers of faculty and students.
“We had regular town hall meetings with those groups often enough to keep them posted, and many more people participated in those than would come to an event on campus,” Woodley said. “They could check in at their computer and if they were working from home or whatever they could check in … So we’ll keep that for sure.”
“I do think it’s true that innovation around technology in the classroom is something that was accelerated in this process. We’ve talked before about some of our flip phone faculty who really weren’t into high technology in their classrooms. I think many of them have discovered the benefits of hybrid teaching in a way that you know you can connect with your class. We were already good at online education. We had a very strong, quality contingent in higher education and that’s only gotten better through this process. I think with new technologies and a greater level of participation among more faculty in those technology opportunities … there’s a lot that we will keep, I think, and in the process as we go forward,” she added.
Despite COVID, enrollment increased at UTPB.
“… And our indicators for fall look really good; even better than last fall. … Now we’ll have to wait to see how that shakes out,” Woodley said.
It’s hard to know the exact reason why enrollment continues to be healthy. It may be that people locally are ready to come back in person.
But Woodley said she attributes it mostly to the hard work of the university’s enrollment management team, Student Services and the groups that have been working on “very sophisticated enrollment management strategies and plans.”
“That work has been escalating over particularly the past three years and it’s really starting to pay off. We are humbled by the success that we’ve had and we really hope that it continues because a lot of people are working really hard here in the Permian Basin. You never know with the cycles of the oil and gas industry whether or not people will stop out and take high-paying jobs and not go to college that semester and as we see the price of oil increase the activity in the Permian Basin, getting closer and closer to what it was before COVID, then you know we do risk some students deciding not to come in, to go work instead.”
Woodley added that the work the university has done has put UTPB on the path to achieve its goals of doubling the numbers over the next 10 years.
She added that UTPB has gotten better at serving and retaining students and helping them persist to get a degree.
“We see some promising increases in transfers from our community college partners both Midland College and Odessa College, but also … colleges outside those two cities in the Permian Basin. There’s a lot of really healthy indicators for this university that show us that our plan is achievable, and that we’re on track to do it,” Woodley said.
Asked if students were going to need more remediation when they got to college because of COVID, Woodley said Ector County ISD Superintendent Scott Muri told her his high schoolers did better during COVID than students who were in middle and elementary school.
“They adapted a little bit better, so it may be more than a year or two before the wave may hit where we need extra support for those students who maybe missed out on concepts during the COVID year,” Woodley said.
She added that Muri, ECISD and others are “working overtime to try to shore up those remediation issues before they graduate.”
Woodley added that summer learning is going on right now.
“I’m really confident that they’ll do whatever they can to help, but there will probably be some extra support needed for students who enter our classrooms over the coming years and we’ll be ready for them,” she said.
UTPB also has introduced degree maps as a way to formalize a four-year pathway.
“… One of the things that’s great about that work is it also includes breaking out the advising in meta majors, and so many students don’t start out with the answer. They’re exploring different disciplines and many students change their major. So what we want to do is make sure that similar majors like the sciences, or … areas or engineering for example are grouped in a way that students are probably not likely to veer completely out of a … a category of majors. We want to make sure that we can help them seamlessly transition through these degree planning initiatives so that they don’t lose much and that they know very quickly what all of their other options are and make it a really quick, seamless transition …,” Woodley said.
UTPB also is working to provide technology solutions for its advisors and for others so that information is quickly available to them when they’re talking to students, rather than having to look over paper files and understand the map.
“… A lot of our students are first-generation students and they don’t have parents who have navigated these waters before and you don’t know what you don’t know, so it’s really important that we have those support systems available,” Woodley said.
On the COVID vaccine, Woodley said UTPB will not require them, but they do encourage getting the shot(s).
“… ORMC helped us set up clinics to get students, faculty and staff, vaccinated before the end of the spring and many of them did. They will do another push when people come back in the fall, but we wouldn’t mandate the vaccine,” Woodley said.
She added that UTPB policies encourage people who have not been vaccinated to continue to protect themselves by wearing masks and social distancing. If you go into someone’s office and they request that you wear a mask, the visitor is encouraged to do so.
“We want to make sure that people are considerate of others and continuing to protect the campus from COVID. But we’re really encouraged about where we are at this point and we think fall’s going be great,” Woodley said.
As far as she knows, it’s also full speed ahead on athletics. Woodley said she is on the board of the Lone Star Conference and NCAA Division II.
“… I get extra opportunities to weigh in on those policies and to hear what’s going on and I think they’re expected to have an update, probably, maybe in July sometime, about what the procedures and the policies are for athletics; what kind of testing may or may not be required; any conversations about masking or social distancing.”
“We’ll learn a little bit more about that, but we expect it to be a lot more normal even in our athletic events, even for the athletes themselves in the fall but we’re still waiting on guidance on that,” she added.