Baylor took strong measures to check COVID-19 on campus this fall. Here’s a review of them and an assessment of the results.
As early as January 2020, Baylor had experts developing responses to COVID. This effort continued unabated through August, at which time the first Surgeon General of the Space Force and new professor at Baylor, Ret. Col. Walter M. “Sparky” Matthews, offered his services and experiences. According to Dr. Matthews, who spoke with The Standard about the university’s efforts, Baylor had two objectives in combating COVID: “To maintain in-person instruction to the maximum extent possible,” and “to ensure that Baylor students had as close to the normal university student experience as we could possibly get.”
Following CDC guidelines, Baylor used masks, social distancing, and frequent disinfection of surfaces to combat the virus; Dr. Matthews called these “mitigation efforts.” In-person social gatherings of more than ten people were banned for the majority of the semester. And some in-person events such as Welcome Week, Family Weekend, and Homecoming were shifted online.
Enforcement of the policies was not laissez-faire. According to an August 19th message from the Dean of Students, “Baylor students who fail to comply with Baylor Policies and/or local and state resolutions and executive orders, and thus place the health and well-being of others at risk, may face significant consequences that include suspension or expulsion from the University.” Professors, too, could face comparable disciplinary action.
Testing for COVID began even before the semester did, with a negative result required for students to arrive on campus. As the semester began, according to Dr. Matthews, Baylor administrators were following a plan of testing five to six percent of the faculty and student population per week. After Dr. Deborah Birx’s visit to campus on September 21st, that number rose on her recommendation to around ten percent.
On November 18th, Baylor’s President Livingstone, along with Provost Brickhouse and Chief Business Officer Dalton held a panel discussion (Fall in Review, Anticipating 2021) in which she attributed Baylor’s success in part to a massive amount of testing. President Livingstone compared Baylor’s testing policy, which resulted in the administration of 50,000 tests, to those of Texas A&M and the University of Texas, institutions with dramatically larger student populations.
Baylor used specific isolation housing, detailed instructions for self-quarantine, and encompassing care for quarantined and isolated students to keep them and others healthy and safe.
Quarantine and isolation, however, were not identical, as Dr. Matthews stressed. “Language matters,” he said. Isolation was for individuals who were positive or visibly sick. Quarantine was for exposed students who had a greater risk of presenting symptoms, and thus spreading the virus, than the rest of campus.
In addition to all the measures already mentioned, Baylor built sixteen tents around campus for safe gatherings. Dr. Matthews said some provided an alternative to cramped dining halls, and some were simply to expand the livable indoor space on campus.
Most importantly, Baylor kept its doors open by shifting a quarter of classes online and arranging for other classes to follow a hybrid model. This distinguishes Baylor from colleges and universities that went completely online or sent students home after a short time on campus.
In order to communicate clear data with transparency, Baylor’s COVID dashboard was released on the first day of classes. It shows the total number of active cases, cumulative reported cases, daily positivity rates of testing, and more. Baylor student Madeleine Jarecki told The Standard, “I felt a lot safer after they put that [dashboard] in.” Beyond keeping everyone informed, the dashboard diminished fear from uncertainty.
Baylor reached its highest number of active cases (475) on September 3rd, as students returned to campus from various off-campus settings. It quickly dropped from that spike. Since then, the highest number of active cases has been 207.
Dr. Matthews said, “The spike line is almost certainly lower than the actual number of cases we’ve had,” due to the high likelihood of college students experiencing no symptoms. Far more important, however, was the trend of days, weeks, and months that showed consistent containment of COVID, even around the small spikes after Homecoming and Halloween. The upward slope as the semester ended, said Dr. Matthews, was “the local iteration of the nationwide wave” with which we are still dealing. He stated that he and others looked most closely at both the incidence line—“How many positives did we have today?”—and the trend over time.
Compliance with Baylor’s policies varied among student groups and programs, but, on the whole, was high. In fact, Dr. Matthews saw “a surprising level of voluntary compliance.” Jarecki, who was living on-campus, said she noticed “how compliant students were.” Of course, wearing masks sparked complaints from many throughout the semester. But as, as Baylor student Christopher Meyers points out, “That wasn’t as much of a Baylor thing as it was a whole-world thing.”
During the discussion, President Livingstone remarked regarding testing, “We’ve had an unbelievably high response,” and she contrasted this with other universities that “really struggled getting their students to come in and get tested.” Some testing was voluntary, some was mandatory. Baylor also did random testing and established a “surge testing” program for students living off-campus. Meyers, who lives off campus, said that the random testing protocol “worked like a charm,” claiming that he was in and out “in five minutes.”
The Student Perspective
One might expect students to have been most frustrated with online classes, but this was not necessarily the case. Certain students thrived under the more autonomous conditions, while professors and staff showed remarkable flexibility. Especially for students motivated to get their work done and busy with extracurricular activities, online schoolwork was a boon. Still, online classes are no long-term substitute for Baylor’s famous classroom instruction, and many students wished for more face-to-face interaction.
Another student response to the changes surrounding COVID came by way of a Change.org petition for fall 2020 grades to have a Pass/Fail option. The petition garnered over 3,500 signatures. A bill with the same message as the petition passed the Student Senate, but was ultimately rejected by the administration. Instead, the Provost recommended that struggling students work through the Academic Appeals process or consider taking one or more Incompletes.
According to Provost Brickhouse, for professors the challenge was, “more than anything else,” having to deal with “the situation of having both students in the classroom and students remote.” In the spring, Baylor will lower the ratio of hybrid classes to about fifteen percent, while bolstering the numbers of face-to-face and, to a lesser degree, fully online classes.
The cancellation of events and restrictions on social gatherings also frustrated some students. According to Jarecki, “it was definitely something to be put up with rather than something to be enjoyed.” And “it did start to wear on everyone.” The mental health of students appeared as a concern on the Change.org petition. The university, for its part, made significant efforts to protect students’ mental health by moving counseling online, hosting lectures on mental health, and recommending Spiritual Life staff as support for students.
In the end, the many policies put in place at Baylor significantly reduced the spread of COVID and made the whole semester possible.
As the on-campus semester wound down, Provost Brickhouse warned, “On campus is probably the safest place to be in McLennan County right now.” On the surface, it would seem that the county did “worse” than Baylor in responding to COVID, given the positive cases and positivity rates. But Dr. Matthews emphasized the relative incomparability of Baylor’s and McLennan County’s COVID numbers. The communities deal with very different populations. Baylor could have had the same percentage of cases, but most young people—perhaps seven out of eight, according to Dr. Matthews—never presented symptoms and thus went unnoticed.
The reason the data show Baylor’s high containment of COVID, compared with any civil population, is in large part, says Dr. Matthews, because “We have a greater degree of control.” Unlike the average citizen walking in a store without a mask who faces no immediate repercussions, Baylor students had speedy and determined consequences when flouting university policy on masks, testing, quarantine, and social distancing.
Dr. Matthews said that Baylor was “fantastically successful at limiting the spread of COVID and minimizing the impact of COVID.” Baylor students should be comforted, he reminded, because “not only are we doing everything we could possibly do . . . but we are doing it better than most.”
Dr. Matthews also encouraged students to look into the experiences of students in 1918, living through both a pandemic and a world war. “They thought that things would never get better, never change,” he said, “but they did.”
Looking forward to the Spring 2021 semester, the President affirmed, and Dr. Matthews corroborated, that Baylor’s protocols will be very similar to those of Fall 2020. Masks and social distancing will remain, while testing promises to be even more finely tuned to the needs of the Baylor community.
Natalie is a junior from Overland Park, Kansas studying history, Latin, and English. She loves etymology, singing, potatoes, dumpster diving for furniture, and National Treasure, and aspires to be a history teacher or folk song collector.