The campus community is working hard to give Red Raiders a full and vibrant collegiate experience while also adhering to health and safety guidelines.
Halfway through the spring 2020 semester, as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified in the U.S., Texas Tech University made the same difficult decision as countless other universities and closed the campus to protect the Red Raider community. With the closure came the transition to online instruction and working from home. It also resulted in the cancellation of all in-person events for the rest of spring and most of the summer.
Now, as the university phases in its reopening plan in advance of a fall semester that will be unlike any before, there is one question both new and returning students may have: how will their campus-life experience at Texas Tech this year compare to the pre-pandemic experience?
"Life as we know it is going to be very different," said Matthew Gregory, associate vice provost and dean of students. "Probably one of the most obvious things is that a lot of people are not going to be out and about as much. Campus will not look as populated as it usually does. I think there might be students coming to campus only when they need to for classes or the library or the rec center, all while maintaining social distancing."
Still, faculty, staff and others in the campus community are working hard to give Red Raiders a full and vibrant collegiate experience. Sororities and fraternities, student organizations, community volunteer and outreach opportunities and campus events will all continue to be a part of the Texas Tech student experience.
The difference is that, now, these experiences will happen with measures designed to ensure the safety of all involved. Planning will include ways to maintain social distancing, follow guidelines when it comes to personal hygiene, decide which events are virtual and which are in-person, and how to use personal protective equipment (PPE) like face coverings, which Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec announced on June 24 are now mandatory for all students, faculty and staff while on campus. An executive order signed by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on July 2 also established a statewide, face-covering requirement.
Getting involved on campus
Two ways new students first become acquainted with life at Texas Tech are Red Raider Orientation (RRO) and Red Raider Camp (RRC). At both, incoming first-year and transfer students meet current students, get information about resources and services available on campus and learn about university history and traditions. RRO also includes a session with an adviser to learn about and register for courses.
This summer, both look a bit different. RRC (optional for students) has been scaled down to one day, with smaller groups of students in each session, while RRO (mandatory for all students) is now virtual. New students participating in RRO first complete informational virtual orientation modules, followed by an advising session via email, telephone or video chat.
The final step invites students to participate in Raider Welcome Aug. 16-29. The week of free events is open to all students, with more than 150 events in six tracks: academic success, wellness and recreation, social connections, culture and diversity, community involvement and Texas Tech traditions. The hope is that all events can continue as scheduled, and there will be additional safety measures to protect participants and attendees, including following social distancing guidelines and wearing masks.
"We are committed to having student engagement, to having students on campus and to having fun," said Kimberly Thornton, senior director for the Center for Campus Life. "But we ask that they do it safely, and we're going to model that behavior as well."
Research shows that involvement on campus leads to higher rates of academic success, student satisfaction and persistence toward graduation. One way to get involved is by joining a fraternity or sorority. Thornton said one of the biggest changes students will see this fall is a different approach to formal recruitment for these student organizations.
Dates for most recruitment and introductory events have been finalized and will be updated as needed on the Fraternity & Sorority Life (FSL) website and webpages for the Interfraternity Council, National Pan-Hellenic Council, Multicultural Greek Council and the College Panhellenic Council. The Center for Campus Life is working closely with each of the four councils to come up with individualized plans that address their needs while also considering safety measures for the more than 5,500 students who participate in fraternity and sorority student organizations at Texas Tech.
"We have to put our students first, so you're going to see a hybrid of virtual events and smaller, in-person events for Panhellenic Council recruitment," Thornton said. "We're going from a very formalized to a very informal recruitment process, where it's going to last longer, for Interfraternity Council recruitment."
Gregory said it will be important to remember that any plans made now will need to adapt as changes occur because of COVID-19 at the local, state and national levels.
"The reality is, it is going to be dependent on what guidelines or requirements the Lubbock County Health Department, the state of Texas or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have in place at the time," Gregory said. "There may be different requirements for the size of groups, the use of PPE and social distancing."
Since the beginning of June, the FSL office has hosted live Zoom sessions each Wednesday to answer questions and provide information about fraternity and sorority life at Texas Tech. But those are just some of the more than 550 student organizations at Texas Tech.
The Center for Campus Life also has hosted weekly virtual information fairs via Zoom to introduce new students to some of these organizations. Those interested can join the sessions and learn more about the Student Government Association and organizations focused on various topics, from academics, service and philanthropy to hobbies, recreation and intramural sports, and almost anything in between.
"We're working with our student organizations to give tips on how to host safe meetings, including chapter, organizational and executive meetings," Thornton said. "We're discussing social distancing, being safe, how to determine whether we do a virtual session or if we should meet face-to-face, and, if we meet face-to-face, how we do that safely. We're working through all of those different conversations."
The Center for Campus Life also will move forward on a partnership with the Volunteer Center of Lubbock, giving students a centralized location to find ways to give back to the local community, something to which the university continues to be deeply committed.
"We are still encouraging our students to get out in the community and do the things they can, but safely," Thornton said. "We're really excited about this initiative and still plan to roll it out in August, encouraging our students to get involved in the community, whatever that looks like right now and moving forward."
Gregory said students using the Volunteer Center's established database will be able to access a network of service sites within the city and county.
"The Volunteer Center has regular communication and touchpoints, with all the various service locations and sites," Gregory said. "They'll know which site needs what at any given time. I foresee opportunities, maybe not for a whole student organization to go at one time, but instead, an opportunity for students to go in a much smaller group and be able to continue to serve the community and help with some of those service sites. It'll be imperative for our students to explore what opportunities for service are available and what service locations are looking for help to be able to try and find a match for themselves and what their interests are."
Getting connected on campus
Student organizations are just one way a student can get connected on campus. Living in a residence hall and working on campus also can provide opportunities to make connections and succeed on campus.
For students living in the residence halls, the Residence Halls Association (RHA) provides programming and activities that, many times, allow students to come together in the public spaces of their hall. Gregory said the difference this year will be that RHA events will be designed for smaller groups that will meet in communal spaces that also look different than in the past due to social distancing. But smaller groups are not necessarily a bad thing.
"What I like about approaching things with a focus on smaller groups is it allows community building to occur on a much more personal level," Gregory said. "The more people you add, the more difficult it can be to really get to know other students. I think students will have a bit of a different experience, but I think it will be a meaningful one."
Gregory said students employed on campus also will see a shift in their work environments. Cathy Duran, vice provost for Student Affairs, has created a task force that includes Gregory and others who are developing a plan to use within their office and, possibly, across the university. The team is researching PPE options, reviewing CDC and American College Health Association guidelines and benchmarking with other institutions to see what return-to-work plans look like amongst Big 12 partners.
"We'll be distancing, not only personally, but also by spacing out office furniture and workstations," Gregory said. "These plans may include closing a particular workstation because it's too close and there's no way to separate it, relocating equipment to where there's more room or using conference room space more often for meetings to allow people to spread out. We may have to reserve rooms in the Student Union Building that are not used for classes to be able to safely spread out and still have a meeting."
In offices like Gregory's, much of the work done involves a significant amount of engagement with students and others on campus requesting information or services, some of whom are in a crisis. Gregory said while options for virtual meetings will be used when possible, sometimes the best option is still an in-person meeting.
"We do a lot of work with student concerns, and there's a variety of different reasons why a student might reach out to us," Gregory said. "It could be home, food or financial insecurity. Maybe they had a loss in the family, or they're homesick. We prefer to have in-person meetings with those students to be able to truly attend to them and their needs and connect them with resources here at Texas Tech.
"We want to also make sure we are promoting safety for our student workers, staff and any other visitors to the office. So, we may try to encourage a virtual meeting first. If the student is in more of an active-crisis situation, we would accommodate an in-person meeting request, knowing that we might have to utilize a conference room or some other type of arrangement to be able to facilitate it."
Staying healthy, together
Some of the concerns people returning to campus may have are related to compliance and enforcement when it comes to the new safety and health guidelines. Gregory said he likens the health and safety policies to others on campus, like the smoke- and tobacco-free campus policy.
With the latter, the university operating policy states "persons having reason to complain about violations of this policy should first seek resolution of the problem by asking the smoker(s) to comply voluntarily." If a resolution cannot be made in this way, then a formal complaint can be made.
"We rely upon each of us as community members to inform guests and other visitors to campus that we are a tobacco-free, smoke-free campus, and they're not to be smoking in public areas," Gregory said. "This is very much like that, in that we would expect our community to have conversations with each other, in an appropriate, responsible fashion, respecting each other and addressing the concerns, whether it's mask usage or personal distancing.
"Our first preference will be that each of us as community members, whether it's a faculty member addressing a student in class or staff members addressing each other, or students and peers addressing each other, try to have a conversation with each other about the requests to comply with the safety guidelines. Along with that, we'll all need to understand that we're not being mean to each other if we talk to each other about compliance and are asking for compliance in a respectful way, polite way."
Gregory said some people may not react favorably to these conversations. Others may insist strongly that they do not want to comply with the current recommendations from the university, Texas Tech University System or from leaders at the local, state or federal level, or participate in behavior or actions that have been addressed multiple times and continue to be problematic. Upon receipt of an email or a report to either the Office of Student Conduct or the Office of the Dean of Students, Gregory said a conversation will be initiated with that individual to discuss the incident(s).
"There's going to be some added expectations on all of us as community members, not just our students, but our staff and faculty, as well, to avoid COVID-19 cases increasing as we return to campus this fall," Gregory said. "Our Code of Student Conduct is still in place, and the expectations, our values as an institution, all those things have not changed. They are still very much in play and things that we expect Red Raiders to adhere to in terms of behavior."
As students, faculty and staff return to campus, Gregory said it's important to remember this emphasis on personal responsibility and the way one person's behavior and choices can affect many others.
"Whether it is an instructor, classmates or people you pass in a hallway, and realizing that with this particular virus, we could be asymptomatic carriers and could transmit to others unintentionally, we have to be hyper-vigilant about practicing good hygiene, wearing masks, washing our hands regularly, all those things," Gregory said. "There will still be life on campus in the fall – it's not going to look like a ghost town. There will still be people around, there will still be activity, there will still be opportunities to come together. But, we're going to have to approach things from a perspective of personal safety, wellness and health.
"As a community, we can do this if all of our community members come together in agreement. If we want to preserve campus life and have as close to the normal collegiate experience as possible, we're going to have to take care of each other by following the safety and health guidelines that are in place."
For more information, visit the Texas Tech Commitment website.