During a virtual town hall meeting this week, Augusta University President Brooks A. Keel, PhD, answered some of the most pressing questions on the minds of students, faculty and staff regarding future COVID-19 restrictions and campus operations in the fall.
“What is life going to look like? Are we coming back to normal? Is there really a normal life ahead?” Keel asked. “I think if we’re not there yet, we’re getting pretty close to what the new normal is going to be.
“Things are beginning to normalize and stabilize,” Keel added. “We are able to now get back to what we all want, and that’s a normal campus life and campus activity for our students, faculty and staff.”
Keel explained that he is strongly encouraged by the significant drop in COVID-19 patients at Augusta University Medical Center and the high number of COVID vaccinations that have been provided by Augusta University Health over the past several months.
In fact, Keel said there were only two positive COVID-19 patients at AU Medical Center as of June 1.
“We couldn’t be more excited about that. This tells us that the number of cases is, in fact, declining rapidly,” Keel said, adding that the number of students, faculty and staff testing positive COVID-19 has also drastically decreased. “This past week, we only had one faculty and staff member that tested positive for COVID-19 and one student that’s been reported, so these numbers continue to be very, very low.”
Also, since December, AU Health has provided almost 71,000 vaccinations to the entire Augusta area.
“We are proud of the fact that we are leading the state and have led the state in terms of being able to provide vaccinations, not only for our university and health system community, but for the community of Augusta, at large,” Keel said, as he thanked the AU health care providers for their vaccination efforts. “So, the good news is COVID-19 cases are declining. They’re continuing to decline. They continue to stay at low levels, and we’re really, really excited about what that means for us moving forward.”
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that fully vaccinated individuals can resume activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, except where required by federal, state, local, or territorial laws, rules and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.
In accordance with that update, the University System of Georgia issued new guidance for campuses, including Augusta University, stating fully vaccinated individuals can resume classes and other activities without wearing a mask or physically distancing, Keel explained.
“With regard to face coverings, you’ll see me use the words, fully vaccinated individuals. What I mean by this are individuals who are at least two weeks beyond their second dose of either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine or two weeks beyond the single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” Keel said. “If you’re beyond that two-week period, you’re considered fully vaccinated.
“Fully vaccinated individuals on campus can resume normal campus classes and other activities without wearing a mask.”
However, unvaccinated individuals are strongly encouraged to get a vaccine, continue wearing a face covering while inside campus facilities and continue socially distancing from others when possible.
“Now, adherence to this protective guidance is based off personal responsibility,” Keel said. “What do I mean by that? It’s the honor system. For those individuals who are not vaccinated, we strongly recommend you continue to wear a mask and you continue to socially distance, but those individuals who are fully vaccinated, there’s no longer a requirement.”
Some of the summer courses will continue more “hybrid-type classes” because they were set up prior to the change in social distancing guidelines, Keel said.
“Even though most individuals have been vaccinated and we don’t require social distancing, you’re going to see some classrooms that are still fitted to be 6 feet apart,” Keel said. “We’re going to continue throughout the summer to transition for a full class activity in the fall, but we’ll have to be a little flexible during the summer.”
Face coverings are still required in clinical facilities unless otherwise specified, Keel said.
“We are one university but two separate entities within that university. One is the health system and one is a university proper,” Keel said. “Our health system may have different criteria with regards to wearing masks and facilities that are associated with the health system, and they may have different criteria with regard to gatherings, events and social distancing.”
Therefore, Keel asked people to be “mindful” as they enter AU Medical Center or any of the health or clinical spaces, that the criteria for mask wearing and social distancing might be different than the general university campus.
In addition, Keel said teleworking and alternative work arrangements should end for employees by June 30.
“We’re going back to what was a pre-COVID environment,” he said. “Employees with current COVID-19 related telework assignments should begin transitioning back if you haven’t already done so to your pre-COVID-19 work arrangements and all such telework arrangements should end no later than June 30 of this year, so approximately about 30 days from today.”
While telework requests and designations are based on management discretion, those designations must go through the required and established approval process, Keel said.
The working arrangements during COVID-19 have opened people’s minds about different approaches to teleworking; however, proper procedures must be followed and not getting vaccinated is not grounds to seek an alternative work arrangement, Keel said.
“There may be some departments or units that can function quite well by having the employee stay at home to work, but that is the exception, not the rule,” he added. “I want to be very clear about that. If a department or a unit or an employee or a group has determined that they can more efficiently function that way, we welcome management bringing those recommendations forward, but there is a process that has to be followed.”
Keel also said, as of right now, the university will not require students, faculty and staff to get the COVID-19 vaccination.
“We have a very efficient process here at AU Health System and in the community to provide vaccinations to any and all individuals who want to be vaccinated. However, institutions are not responsible for assessing current COVID-19 vaccination rates, and we’re not responsible for tracking vaccinations,” Keel said. “We’re not going to be doing widespread surveys to determine how many students are vaccinated or how many staff are vaccinated or who is vaccinated and who is not vaccinated.”
But, once again, Keel reiterated that unvaccinated individuals are strongly encouraged to get the vaccine or to continue to wear a face covering and to continue to social distance from others where possible.
“Adherence to these guidelines are based on personal responsibility,” Keel said. “Again, it’s the honor system, and we’re not going to be having vaccination police going around trying to determine who is in fact vaccinated and who isn’t.”
But Keel said he’s excited about the future and is looking forward to the fall semester when those vaccinated can breathe easier.
“In Fall 2021, we are back to pre-COVID-19 normal, and I can’t wait to have a campus life like we’re all accustomed to,” Keel said, adding he is excited to see students enjoying campus activities and full dormitories once again. “That’s the target. That’s the goal. That’s what we’re shooting for and we’re well on the way to get there.”