July 21, 2020

Grad student, postdoc questions answered during town hall

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In a virtual town hall with existing and incoming graduate students and post-doctoral researchers on July 15, Provost Pam Benoit, Graduate School Dean Lori McMahon, Vice President for Research Christopher Brown and other senior leaders shared plans and updates on re-entry to campus and related concerns. Participants submitted nearly 200 questions and comments before and during the hour-long event, many of which the leaders answered during their remarks.

What follows is a summary of the topics covered, along with questions on those topics addressed by UAB leaders during the town hall.

This article summarizes the comments of UAB leaders and questions addressed during the town hall July 15. A follow-up article will provide answers to all questions that could not be answered live due to time constraints.

Scroll down to read the complete summary or use the links below to jump to specific topics

Campus entry requirements



Course delivery

If a student becomes sick

International students

Assumption-of-risk attestation


Student services and support

Student accommodations

Financial and payment questions

Postdoctoral students

Student mental health

Campus entry requirements

“The things that are most important for us are the health and safety of our students and also ensuring that you are making good academic progress in your studies,” said Provost Pam Benoit. Masks or other face coverings will be required for all students, faculty and staff, she explained. All students will take COVID-19 training before they enter or return to campus and be tested for COVID-19. A negative COVID-19 test is required before students will be able to enter campus. Every student (and all UAB faculty and staff) will be required to complete the online Healthcheck symptom assessment screening at least every three days. Randomized sentinel testing will be used weekly to monitor campus for potential COVID-19 hotspots.


The mandatory COVID-19 testing and voluntary sentinel testing are being provided free of charge to all students, says Michael Faircloth, M.D., medical director for Student Health at UAB. “SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 illness, is a new virus — but the public health principles that define how a community and individuals can most effectively respond to this challenge are not new,” he said.

These include:

  • ongoing symptom and exposure monitoring every three days using Healthcheck,
  • sentinel testing – this is “systematic random testing of a percentage of all on-campus students and staff on a weekly basis, which will allow us to define the background asymptomatic positivity rate and identify early trends and other data related to the virus,” Faircloth said. This will ensure that “we can properly act as appropriate,” he said. “We are fortunate to have many renowned COVID-19 experts in medicine and public health right here on the UAB campus and their expertise and guidance have been and continue to be critical to the decision-making process.”

Questions submitted online:

Given the number of students who would return, does UAB have the capacity for all the potential tests and getting the testing results back in time?

“We’re actively working with partners to have that capacity both for the testing and the processes for receiving those results in the necessary [timeframe],” Faircloth said. “By the time that it's necessary to do that we should have that capacity.”

If we have recently had a test for SARS-CoV-2, antibody and qPCR, and have come back negative for both, will we still need to get another test?

“The negative test needs to be within 14 days of entry to campus,” Faircloth said.

Will there be any restrictions placed on out-of-state students coming from COVID-19 high-risk states such as California or Florida?

“There are no travel restrictions in Alabama at this point in time,” Benoit said.

What if students who have face-to-face classes are not social distancing when physically off campus, especially those who are being trusted to interact with patients?

The university has launched a campaign, #UABUnited, to promote “all the practices that we have to engage in to keep ourselves safe and keep our communities safe,” said Rosie O’Beirne, interim associate vice president for Digital Strategy and Marketing. “We really need help with the messaging and it's part of the uab.edu/reentry site…. We’ve got a lot of fun social things that we're doing throughout the semester. We're going to have to make mask-wearing cool.”

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Will all program orientations be held online?

“Yes, all orientations are being held online,” McMahon said. “That's part of our process of keeping everyone safe.” Once the semester starts there may be small-group interactions with program directors, but these will be socially distanced with masks in place, she added. “Those kinds of activities are program-specific.”

The Graduate School, in partnership with the Graduate Student Government, is developing an orientation for all graduate students Aug. 18. This will include representatives from the offices that graduate students work with regularly, including Title IX, Campus Recreation and Off-Campus Student Services, said Jazmine Benjamin, president of the Graduate Student Government. “You'll get to learn from some of those different offices about what they can do for you as graduate students and how you can utilize them,” Benjamin said. Students also will hear from many of UAB’s graduate student organizations and learn about ways to get involved in person or virtually in campus activities, she said.

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Course delivery

There are four course modalities that will be used at UAB for the Fall 2020 semester, Dean Lori McMahon said.

  • Face-to-face courses: “If your class meets Monday, Wednesday and Friday, you will be in that class Monday, Wednesday and Friday and you'll be in a space where you can socially distance and wear your mask,” McMahon said.
  • Hybrid courses: These courses combine in-person, face-to-face instruction with remote learning. In hybrid courses, students will be split up into cohorts, with one cohort attending live during some of the class meetings and attending remotely during other class meetings.
  • Remote courses: “Those are classes that were meant to be face-to-face but the enrollment is too large for the space where the class is to be held,” McMahon said. “In that case we have decided to offer that course in the fully remote mode.”
  • Online courses: These are courses that have always been offered in an online format (designated with a Q code in the schedule) and will continue to be online in the fall semester.

Questions submitted online:

Some of my classes are two-and-a-half hours. Sitting in the classroom with others for that long, even with social distancing and masks, seems very risky. Is it worth holding these classes in person during the fall semester?

Health and safety is our No. 1 priority — in every decision that we make and in every action that we take,” McMahon said. “If you are in a class that meets for two-and-a-half hours consistently, then we will work through that with the instructor and get a plan in place where people are socially distanced… so that you're at the lowest risk. Now for your particular class I don’t know what the decision has been if it's face-to-face or hybrid or fully remote. You will learn that when the schedules are completed.”

How do I know if my course has been switched from in-person to online? When will this be posted?

“We're currently working with each one of the schools to designate whether or not their courses are face-to-face, hybrid, remote or online,” Benoit said. “We now have a number of those that have been turned in, but we have a few more to go and we're currently in the process of putting them into the schedule. When that is complete, we'll be sending out a notice to students so that you know that you can check and see how each course will be delivered for the fall.”

How will laboratory courses work for clinical laboratory students?

“Our faculty and our department chairs have been extremely creative in how they are developing their labs for the fall,” McMahon said. “When students will be taking their labs, they will be socially distanced. Some programs have added additional sections and you will see that reflected in your schedule. Some have adopted a hybrid format, where some sessions will be in-person and some will be simulations.”

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If a student becomes sick

What's the protocol if a student tests positive for COVID-19 during the semester? Will there be a way for students to continue their classes online given the long quarantine period?

If you test positive during the semester, the first thing to do is report this through Healthcheck and by contacting Student Health Services. “I encourage you to do both,” Faircloth said. “Once we know that you're positive, then someone from Student Health in real time will reach back out to you to talk about your unique situation and decide what sort of isolation [you will need to follow] and what we can do to help you achieve that.”

Students who are unable to attend classes in person — whether they are being quarantined themselves or are caring for someone in that situation — “would be able to join the course that they are registered in remotely,” said Pam Paustian, Ph.D., executive director of the Division of eLearning and Professional Services. “Our courses that are meeting face-to-face will have a live stream function so that you would be able to engage with the class and be able to participate in real-time with them.”

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International students

On July 14, the government rescinded previously stated policies regarding international students that would have, among other things, restricted international students in the United States from taking their classes fully online. “We're thrilled for our international students… and we are thrilled to have you here,” McMahon said. “There is no issue with your enrollment. You can be enrolled in online classes with no penalty. We were so concerned about all of you and so yesterday afternoon we could take a sigh of relief. And for those of you who cannot get to the U.S., we also are thrilled to have you enroll in the fall term [online] as well.”

“The bottom line is you are welcome here, you can enroll in in all of our classes and we're committed to helping you find ways to get here,” said Catherine Crowe, director of International Student and Scholar Services at UAB. There is a detailed FAQ page on the department’s website that is constantly updated in response to the latest news, Crowe said.

“We work very closely with Catherine and her team,” said David Hoffman, executive director of INTO UAB. “Whatever questions you have, we'll get your answers.”

Questions submitted online

I’m an international student admitted for fall 2020. I received a Blazer Fellowship for my Ph.D. program in materials engineering, but because all the embassies are still closed I have to defer my admission to spring 2021. I’m wondering if I could have my fellowship for spring 2021? Also, if I want to take online classes in fall 2020 should I pay any tuition, since I do not have a visa yet?

“Absolutely, we want you here as soon as you can get here,” McMahon said. “We will hold your Blazer Fellowship until you can get here for spring 2021. We will keep track of that and we will hold that for you.

“To answer your question about the fall, I will suggest that you reach out to your program director,” McMahon said. “Many of the programs will want students to take courses online if they can for the fall and we are working through the process to see if we can offer tuition scholarships. So stay tuned for that. I think that the best information that you can get is working directly with your program director to understand which classes you should take, or if it might be best for you to wait to start your curriculum in the spring 2021 semester.”

Can I defer my application to spring 2021 as the embassies and consulate offices in India are not open and I don't want to take online classes?

“Speaking generally for deferrals, we're being as flexible as possible with those,” said Jesse Keppley, director of Student and Academic Affairs for the Graduate School. Many students who are thinking of deferring to the spring 2021 semester have wondered what will happen if they need to defer again for whatever reason, Keppley said. “Typically, students are only permitted to defer once,” he said. “But this is something we have waived, given everything going on with COVID-19. We are here to support students in a way that that makes sense for your individual situation.” If it makes the most sense for a student to defer, “go ahead and do that and we'll work with you to get your application updated so that you are able to start whenever you're able to get here,” Keppley said.

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Assumption-of-risk attestation

Several student questions were concentrated on the assumption-of-risk attestation that students and postdocs engaged in laboratory or field research have been asked to sign.

Clinical students at UAB — including nursing, physical therapy, dentistry and optometry students — were required to sign an assumption-of-risk attestation before they resumed their on-site training in June and July, McMahon explained. “These students interact with patients and so we wanted to make sure that they were fully aware that they could be at increased risk of COVID exposure,” McMahon said. This also is true “for our students and our postdocs who are engaged in laboratory and field research,” she added. “There may be times when you want to learn how to use a microscope. There may be times when you need to collect samples with someone and you will temporarily not be six feet apart. So we wanted to make sure that students that are in those kinds of disciplines that could experience a temporary infringement of that six feet… to understand and attest to that possible risk,” McMahon said.

This will be a requirement for all students who are engaged in laboratory or field research, including postdocs, undergraduates and master’s degree-seeking students.

“In no way does an attestation force you to participate in something that you don't want to participate in,” McMahon said. “This is just to make you aware that that you could be at increased risk. Students always have a choice… if they are uncomfortable [signing the assumption-of-risk] then there are other options, such as a leave of absence or asking for accommodations.”

Several students noted that the language of the form is confusing. “We're working on a little bit of different language and so we will communicate that in the next coming days,” McMahon said.

Question submitted online:

Will we be forced to sign the assumption-of-risk form to continue our work at UAB? What is the penalty if we do not sign it?

“We are requiring that everyone who will be on our campus sign the assumption-of-risk attestation,” McMahon said.

The purpose of the assumption-of-risk attestation is “to make sure that students know that there may be times in the course of their education working in the laboratory that social distancing at six feet may be violated,” McMahon said. “So if you are working on a new project and you need some new training from either the faculty mentor or maybe a senior postdoc or student, there may be a periodic times where that six feet will be violated. And if that happens then that could increase your risk. But these are decisions that you as a student or a postdoc can make and so that's what the assumption-of-risk attestation is about.

“I am fully aware that some of the language in that document is a little bit hard to understand and so we're working with the Office of Counsel to revise that,” McMahon added. “Stay tuned for a revised document that [will be] easier to understand and be clearer.”

Ultimately, “these are personal decisions and you can think through those,” McMahon said.

“It is a choice and we certainly want students to make an informed judgment about signing that assumption-of-risk document,” said Katie Crenshaw, J.D., UAB’s Chief Risk and Compliance Officer. “It really is just an acknowledgement of the circumstances that they are working in and we want to make sure that everybody is aware and takes personal responsibility for the precautions that we have in place.”

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The following question was submitted online:

Can the Institutional Review Board provide information regarding considerations about conducting qualitative research virtually or online — for example, in the event UAB goes fully online prior to Thanksgiving and/or the state shuts down non-essential businesses? This would be helpful, especially if graduate students already have IRB approval for face-to-face interactions with participants.

“Any research involving human subjects requires an approval from IRB,” Brown said. “That's not really the question but I just want to state that. With regards to activities, anything that can be done remotely is encouraged. If you can do the surveys or do the interviews with human subjects remotely, that is encouraged.”

“I am a qualitative researcher and a lot of the work that I have done involved participant interviews,” Benoit added. “In fact, Zoom is a wonderful program for allowing you to record those interviews so that you can transcribe them later. I would say think creatively about ways in which you can accomplish your purposes that don't actually require face-to-face interaction with your potential participants.”

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Student services and support

Questions submitted online:

Are there student orientation leaders who can assist me in securing an apartment off campus?

The Off-Campus Student Services team can assist in finding housing, said John Jones, Ph.D., vice president for Student Affairs. On the Off-Campus Student Services site “you can search for apartments — in fact, you can even narrow your search if you want to put in the number of bedrooms or the price point and things of that sort,” Jones said. For more information or assistance, contact Assistant Director Dori Weldon, he added.

I am a busy professional working in health care and navigating processes for COVID-19. How does the Graduate School plan to support professionals who are working on the front lines but would like to further their education?

“We support all of our students and if you're one of those working professionals, we want to support you,” McMahon said. “We have mechanisms in place to allow students to take an incomplete if they need to if something happens during the semester [if] a student gets sick or a family member gets sick or if your workload increases because of your profession. We have ways to help you complete your work for the semester and we stand ready for that.

“My recommendation is if that happens during this semester and you need that extra support your first place to interact is with the instructor of record,” McMahon said. “The second place is the Graduate School and that's with Jesse Keppley [director of Student and Academic Services]. “We can manage that. Don’t be afraid and don't not continue your education because you're worried about those circumstances. We're ready to help.”

Will the restaurants and bookstore be open for students on campus this fall?

Dining locations will be open but there will be limited options, Jones said. “Either you order online or you pick up or there will be a grab-and-go setup for serving food.”

The UAB Bookstore plans to offer pick up of books at the curb and to limit the number of people within the bookstore, Benoit said. “They do plan to be open but they have designed different kinds of health and safety measures to ensure that students will be safe.”

Is there any plan for protection for individuals using UAB’s bus system?

“Yes, and in fact we've already implemented those for the summer” on the Blazer Express bus system, Benoit said. “We have reduced the number of people who can ride on each bus… and you are required to wear a mask on the bus in order to be able to ride.” This means that fewer people can ride the bus at any given time “so Transportation has looked very carefully at those routes that did not have much activity” and is planning to shift resources to the most active routes instead, Benoit said.

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Student accommodations

What if students are part of a vulnerable group or go home to someone who is in a vulnerable group?

“We understand that students have their own health risks and that students live with family members with health risks,” McMahon said. “There is a process for students to ask for accommodations in those cases… [reach] out to Disability Support Services and [work] with them to get those accommodations in place.”

“If you feel like you want to reach out to Student Health Services and… have a discussion with us or even a virtual visit with us to discuss that, we're happy to,” Faircloth said. “Each case is unique and we're happy to help in any way that we can.”

What accommodations is DSS providing for grad students with immune deficiencies and underlying conditions?

“Disability Support Services is standing ready to help students,” McMahon said. “They are ready to help with accommodations and these accommodations are specific. Each person will interact with DSS and the plan will be constructed so it's on a person-by-person basis. I encourage you to reach out to Disability Support Services as soon as you can to start having these conversations so you can plan your fall semester.”

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Financial and payment questions

Will UAB be offering discounts or tuition reimbursements for altered classes?

“There are no plans to alter the tuition structure,” Benoit said. “Tuition is set by the [University of Alabama] Board of Trustees for all of the different institutions. This may be surprising to you but it's actually cost us quite a bit more in order to deliver instruction in a variety of formats so that you can continue your education.”

How do we pay for school and register for the fall classes?

Registration procedures depend on the program, Keppley said. “Typically, students are going to register after they are admitted. You will create your BlazerID, which will allow you to log into BlazerNET and do all sorts of things — not just register, but also pay your bill and access other information.”

Some programs do require a registration advising code, Keppley said. “You would receive that from your program before you're able to register. In general, once you have your BlazerID and resolve any holds, you'll be able to register in BlazerNET.”

The university accepts payment via credit card, added Cyndi Ballinger, director of Administrative and Financial Affairs for the Graduate School. Tuition payments are handled through BlazerNET. “If you would like to know when the dates are and how that's broken down, you can look on a site called When to Pay,” which also includes information on late fees and other requirements, she said.

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Postdoctoral students

“Your health and safety is the overriding goal for us, as well as making sure that you are meeting those career goals,” said Lisa Schwiebert, Ph.D., associate dean for Postdoctoral Education in the Graduate School. “I’m excited to work with the UAB Postdoctoral Association as well as our newly formed Black Postdoctoral Association. I couldn’t be more excited to be working with both of those groups toward these ends.”

The Office of Postdoctoral Education usually holds many in-person events, which will return as soon as possible, Schwiebert noted. “In the meantime, be on the lookout for our virtual events as they come forward, particularly for the Postdoc Appreciation Week” events that will be held in September, she said.

“Our next postdoc orientation will be this fall, sometime in October,” Schwiebert said. “That will be virtual and online and similarly we will provide information about benefits as well as resources available to postdocs.”

The postdoc office, like the Graduate School, has “heard questions and concerns with regard to the attestation form,” Schwiebert noted. “I would like to help clarify any of those questions that that you may have.”

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Student mental health

“UAB has just launched an enterprisewide initiative called UAB CARES because we want to make sure that no matter who you are, that you know that we're here to support you and there are services available for you,” said Angela Stowe, Ph.D., director of Student Counseling Services and Wellness Promotion. The UAB CARES site “contains many specific resources to get you connected quickly if there are services that you need related to a crisis or a mental health concern,” Stowe said.

Her department has been working remotely through the limited business plan “and will continue to be offering distance counseling appointments through the fall,” Stowe said. “These are offered through Zoom video or phone. We continue to have our counseling hours available Monday through Friday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m.” Services are free to enrolled students, including graduate and professional students. Postdoctoral fellows are able to receive services through the Employee Assistance and Counseling Center.

“Services are confidential and that information is not put anywhere with a student record or anywhere that someone would be able to access outside of Student Counseling Services,” Stowe said.

First-time appointments can be booked online through the patient portal “and you can access that on our website,” Stowe said.

24/7 support

Around-the-clock support is available through several resources, Stowe said, including the National Crisis Text Line. At any time, “you can text UAB to 741-741,” Stowe said.

There also are two online platforms that students are able to access and use, Stowe said.

  • Tao “will help folks with things like stress and anxiety, as well as mindfulness modules,” she said.
  • Kognito “is a resource to help train you on how to help others,” Stowe said. “So if you're worried about someone or you want to know how to have a conversation to assist someone in getting support that they need, Kognito can help guide you through those skills.”

In addition to these resources, “we want to stay connected to you in other ways as well while we're all working remotely and looking at how we're going to transition back to campus,” Stowe said. The Mental Health Promotion Ambassadors “are students that are offering daily programs online and through their social media platforms and through Zoom,” Stowe said. “And we have a weekly podcast called Let's Talk About It that's hosted by Herbert Wilkerson, one of our counselors. Herbert has conversations with people all over campus and right now he is really focusing on coping and what it's like to take care of yourself during COVID-19 and the pandemic.”

Stowe ended with a final note on coping with the uncertainties of the present time. “Right now, it's really important to be vigilant about your self-care,” she said. “It's a stressful time to be a graduate student and a postdoctoral fellow. There's a lot of uncertainty and a lot that you're managing and working through.”

Some things you can do, Stowe said:

  • Set a routine and be sure to be mindful about breaks during the day. “Set boundaries when you can so that you can have some time to step away,” she said. “Just remember to do something outside of your research and your work. Think about ways that you can be creative… and learn to work different parts of your brain. Maybe you can serve or you can find ways to connect with people outside of your home environment or usual work environment.”
  • Practice self-compassion. “It's easy to be hard on yourself… and to think that you should be doing it differently or better than you are,” Stowe said. “You're doing the best that you can. Be gentle on yourself and just get up the next day and try to do it differently if you need to.”
  • Be mindful of sleep, nutrition and movement. “Take care of those basic needs… but again also be gentle on yourself if maybe you're not exercising to the level that you think you should or you're not eating the healthy meals that you think you should,” Stowe said.

“Just please know that you matter — that you are important and you are not alone and that everyone that is speaking tonight and everyone else that is here tonight, we really are here for you and we care about your total person,” Stowe said. “We know that there's a lot going on and we want to make sure we get through this together.”

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“It’s a privilege for us to have you here and we are working really hard to make sure your experience is fantastic, even during COVID-19,” McMahon said in her final comments. “We are ready to be flexible, we're ready to support you and we want to help you continue your education. That's our goal, is to help you get the education that you are seeking.”

“I think one of the things that you can conclude from the discussion we've just had is that there's an extraordinary amount of effort and planning going into providing a very safe campus for you to return to in the fall,” Benoit said. “We are incredibly excited to start the fall semester and to work very closely with you in the future.”