As we communicated yesterday, Governor Abbott has given municipalities the authority to issue “shelter-in-place of residence” orders within their jurisdictions. Numerous Texas counties have now announced their own shelter-in-place residence orders, which impact our headquarters in Bryan-College Station, as well as several of our Research and Extension Centers across the state. We understand there may be some confusion regarding what members of the AgriLife community can do in their work capacity (and when they should and should not come to our facilities to work). This email seeks to further clarify these issues, and address additional directives based on guidance from The Texas A&M University System.
In accordance with the guidance previously issued by the System, we will continue to follow operational changes implemented over the last few weeks. Only essential personnel should come to the workplace with most—if not all—employees working remotely. Department Heads, Research and Extension Center leadership and Center/Institute/Core Facility directors should designate essential staff needed to maintain critical business operations and continuity during this time. Please remember to follow CDC guidance on social distancing, maintaining a six-foot distance from others.
The Texas A&M System has stated that research can continue under the local shelter in place order as an essential business function with appropriate precautions including additional cleaning and social distancing. AgriLife Research also views research as an essential operation with the expectation that research functions will continue and labs will remain open. It is possible that students, staff and faculty who are supported by research grants and contracts may not be eligible for compensation if research labs are closed. It is advised that when leaving your home to travel to the workplace to conduct research, that you carry your TAMUS ID with you. It is also expected that lab and field experiments use the minimum number of people to maintain the research enterprise and at every step, practice social distancing.
Mission critical travel, both domestic and in-state, should continue to be reported through the Office of Ethics & Compliance with final approval by the Agency CEO or designee. Please note, this only relates to travel that is reimbursable by AgriLife or the college, not county Extension agents.
Voluntary Reporting of Positive Cases
Employees with confirmed cases of COVID-19 in AgriLife may confidentially report their diagnosis to Debi Fincher, Director of Ethics and Compliance, who will coordinate with AgriLife leadership to determine an appropriate response. In such cases, actions will likely include quarantine of the workspace associated with the infected employee and a period of self-quarantine by the employee for at least 14 days. For those who came into contact with that person, self-isolation and/or self-monitoring (at least 14 days) will occur.
Questions and information that can be requested from employees
Supervisors may ask, but not require, information about apparent signs or symptoms of illness that may be associated with COVID-19. Employees should not be asked if they have, or suspect having, a specific illness or diagnosis. However, employees may be asked about:
- Their possible direct exposure to COVID-19;
- Their having been advised to go into self-quarantine by a healthcare professional; and
- Their recent travel or plans to travel, both domestic and international.
All information about employee illness should be maintained in the confidential medical record section of the personnel file. Jennifer Hobbs, Chief Human Resources Officer, can advise supervisors on an appropriate way to have this conversation if necessary.
You may have noticed an increase in custodial staff in your buildings. This is not a coincidence. The Texas A&M System has purposefully asked SSC to re-prioritize their work and focus on tasks that will prevent the spread of the virus. For example, instead of cleaning large classrooms that are not being used, they’ve been asked to focus on cleaning restrooms, disinfecting hard surfaces, etc. Departments can assist by locking classrooms that should not be in use so that custodial staff really can focus on high use areas.
Remote Work Resources
AgriLife IT still has laptops in stock to facilitate remote office work. You may place your order via the AgriLife Techbuy site (https://techbuy.agrilife.org). Orders are usually fulfilled and delivered within a few days and can be shipped to home addresses.
Online Teaching and Exam Options
- Some of our students have shared they are having bandwidth or connectivity issues for some of your synchronous courses or when trying to access videos, resources or assignments. Please consider additional flexibility for those students and continue to encourage them to contact you if they are having issues. You may even think about future activities, exercises, assignments or tests and how to deliver quality learning outcomes that don’t rely on connectivity or high bandwidth.
- Sadly, we have received reports of people outside TAMU joining synchronous Zoom courses and harassing students. We recommend requiring people to authenticate before joining Zoom meetings. You can set this option for all meetings you host in the “Settings” section of your Zoom profile.
- Many of you have asked about an exam proctoring solution, such as Examity. Unfortunately, these companies are being impacted as well and have stated they will not be providing proctoring services through the end of March and likely through the end of the semester. That being the case, the Provost’s office recommends considering alternative exam options provided on keepteaching.tamu.edu. If an alternative is not feasible, then at a minimum faculty should consider open book exams with longer time limits or offered over a longer period of time.
- On Saturday, students were sent an email from the President and Provost discussing new grade, Q drop, and withdrawal options and deadlines. Unfortunately, it is has come to our attention that our academic advisors and many faculty did not receive this email. Please encourage students considering a switch from a letter grade to satisfactory/unsatisfactory to consult with their advisors about possible implications on future plans. This change to S/U grading can impact professional school requirements, accreditation and financial aid requirements. We have summed it up and provided the necessary links in the FAQs section of the COALS COVID-19 resources for Faculty webpage. The Office of the Registrar is going to be posting a full list of FAQs and we will link to it once they are posted.
We know that these are challenging times and appreciate your patience and cooperation as we work through these issues. The most important step you can take right now is to stay informed and familiarize yourself with guidance issued by your local jurisdiction.
We will continue monitoring the development of the situation and will keep you informed through email communications and on our Coronavirus resource webpage for employees. You can also contact the AgriLife Office of Ethics and Compliance with questions at 979-845-4789 or 979-845-7879.
In closing, here is a short video about prevention tips that you can share with family, friends and colleagues. Please take care of yourselves and be well.
Patrick J. Stover, Ph.D.
Vice Chancellor and Dean for Agriculture and Life Sciences, Texas A&M AgriLife
Director, Texas A&M AgriLife Research