First week of semester review

August 28, 2020

Baylor Students, Faculty, Staff and Parents:

As I wrap up the week here in my office in Pat Neff Hall – while watching back-packed students walk across our beautiful campus – several of you have reached out and asked: “How did the first week of the fall semester go?”

Well, it wasn’t perfect, but considering all of the challenges of starting the fall semester in the midst of a pandemic, I feel confident in declaring the first week a success. And I must extend my sincerest appreciation to all of you – our faculty, staff and students – for your patience, understanding, flexibility and grace in this time of a “new normal.”

I want to briefly address several areas that our President’s Council discussed this morning as we reviewed the past week and looked toward Monday:

  • Face coverings and social distancing: All told, the Baylor Family did a tremendous job adhering to these important – and required – preventive measures. I had to remind several people this week that our students come from all 50 states and cities with differing COVID-19 guidelines and requirements, so this week was an educational period. We absolutely must continue to be vigilant about following these preventive actions – inside and outside – both on- and off-campus.
  • Pre-semester testing: Our mail-in testing program through Everlywell, which was supplemented through on-campus testing, is essentially complete, with a positivity rate of less than 1%. That means we were able to keep around 130 positive COVID-19 cases away from campus for the beginning of the semester, while also obtaining good baseline data for our ongoing mitigation efforts. So far in August, we’ve conducted more than 20,000 tests, compared to 44,000 for all of McLennan County since the spring.
  • Surveillance testing: Next week we will begin random, weekly testing of 250 on-campus students, 480 off-campus students, 175 faculty and staff working on-campus and 300 contract staff. We’ve received an overwhelming response from students who were selected for these tests and signed up for appointments – thank you! This extensive program is extremely important for our ongoing monitoring of the presence of COVID-19 within our campus community and will allow us to deploy strategic preventive and mitigation efforts where most needed.
  • Dashboard: We have made publicly available several key metrics regarding the prevalence of COVID-19 on our campus, and like many of you, I study the dashboard daily. While over the past few days we have seen increases in overall cases and positivity rates, these are to be expected as students become acclimated and our campus becomes fully operational. Keep in mind: This week we only tested symptomatic students, so naturally our positivity rate would be higher. Once we start random surveillance testing next week, this data point will have more significance. Also, context is extremely important – the 253 active cases reported on the dashboard today represent 1.1% of students, faculty and staff, with nearly all cases occurring off-campus.
  • Off-campus activities: The overwhelming majority of our COVID-19 cases have been traced back to off-campus interactions and students who live off-campus. As we communicated earlier this week, we support the city’s regulations limiting social gatherings to less than 10 people and will take appropriate disciplinary action when those regulations are not followed. With that said, we are starting to see COVID-19 positives among small groups of four to six students who are gathering in off-campus residences to have dinner together, for example. We cannot stress enough the importance of face coverings and social distancing, even in such small social gatherings.
  • Contact tracing: Determining and quarantining close contacts of positive COVID-19 individuals is absolutely critical to our ongoing mitigation efforts. We have expanded our contact tracing team to have one individual for every 400 students, which well exceeds the CDC recommendation of one tracer for every 1,300 students. Speed is the key to effective contact tracing, so if you are contacted, we would appreciate your cooperation and quick response. The Lariat, Baylor’s student newspaper, published a great article today featuring Dr. Sharon Stern, Baylor Health Services medical director, in which she discusses contact tracing, isolation vs. quarantine, and close contacts. A reminder that a close contact is being within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes, either with or without a facemask.
  • Church attendance: While we strongly encourage you to attend church services and activities, we ask that you adhere to “Baylor rules” – wearing facemasks and practicing social distancing – while worshipping. This is not only for your protection, but also for the local community. Earlier today I sent a letter to Waco-area pastors requesting their assistance and outlining research that indicates the risks of congregational singing without facemasks. Also, be mindful that if you carpool with multiple friends, you should wear a facemask while in the car together.
  • Trigger points: There is not a single COVID-19 data point or factor that would alter our plans for continuing the fall semester in an on-campus environment. Our team of medical, public health, emergency management and environmental health and safety experts is taking a holistic approach in daily evaluating our public dashboard and additional data, to include the consideration of factors such as COVID-19 cases, isolation capacity, healthcare availability and K-12 school statuses across the entire Waco area. To reiterate, we are pleased with the start of the fall semester and look forward to continuing with on-campus instruction and activities in the weeks ahead.

Our continued success this fall depends on all of us doing five really simple things, whether on- or off-campus:

  1. Wearing facemasks;
  2. Practicing social distancing;
  3. Washing and sanitizing hands;
  4. Monitoring daily symptoms; and
  5. Staying at home if you feel ill.

“The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes. . . . They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward.” Psalm 19:8-11

Again, thank you all for your collective efforts this week. You have brought much joy to me as your President, to our Waco community and to the Baylor Family worldwide.

Praying for you daily,

Linda A. Livingstone, Ph.D.