Editor’s Note: The information published in this story is accurate at the time of publication. Always refer to uab.edu/uabunited for UAB’s current guidelines and recommendations relating to COVID-19.
President Ray Watts and other UAB leaders shared updates and data around vaccines, testing options and the decision to hold an in-person spring semester during a virtual town hall for students and family members Jan. 20.
Students and family members submitted dozens of questions and comments before and during the hour-long event. Many were answered in the town hall. These are summarized below, along with responses from senior leaders to all questions that could not be answered live due to time constraints.
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“We’re excited to start the spring semester this week,” Watts said. “We’re so glad to have you back engaged in your educational activities, which we want to be nothing short of superlative. At the same time, obviously, our focus will also be on your safety and your good health, and we want to continue to do everything we can to keep our campus as one of the safest places, not just in our community, but in the country.”
Paulette Patterson Dilworth, Ph.D., vice president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, began the town hall by reflecting on a past year filled with “exhausting and unsettling moments in our nation’s history,” including “a viral pandemic, racial tensions, riots and violence.”
At UAB, “every day we will continue to live out our Shared Values and our nation’s core principles, such as civility, human decency, respect and equal rights,” Dilworth said.
“As an institution of higher learning, we should all commit ourselves to promote these values on campus and in our communities. We must be united and stand to condemn social injustices and seek peaceful common ground. That is the Blazer Way, and that is how we talk the talk and walk the walk.”
During the next few months, Patterson’s office will continue to work with other units across UAB “to build on the momentum of our longstanding efforts to work for sustainable transformation,” she said. Resources and program information is available on the DEI website, including information about the many events surrounding Community Month.
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Classes during the spring semester “will be much like they were in the fall, meaning that there will be some in-person classes, some hybrid, some remote and some online,” said Provost Pam Benoit, Ph.D.
Some students asked why UAB decided to return to in-person instruction for the spring semester, given the current rates of COVID-19 infections. “We follow the advice of our public health and our infectious diseases experts,” Benoit said. “We were able to do a fall semester together because of your cooperation and because of the safety measures that were put in place. We had advice not to come back after Thanksgiving break and given the increases after that point in time that was really good advice. We had advice about spring break. So many of the things that our experts have told us have really been important in forming our decisions about how to handle this semester.”
“We are confident because of the behaviors that you all have demonstrated in the past and the procedures we have put in and the lessons we have learned that this semester can be successful,” added Selwyn Vickers, M.D., senior vice president and dean of the School of Medicine.
With the anticipated surge in COVID cases in the next few weeks and associated strain on area hospital and health care providers will students taking hybrid or face-to-face courses be given an option to participate fully remotely for the first few weeks, like UA students have been given?
“The circumstances are pretty different at UA than they are at UAB,” Benoit said. “You probably saw the news coverage after they won the national championship, and there were thousands of students in the streets. Most of them were not masked, and I think that drove a lot of decision-making around pushing those courses toward a remote format for the first couple of weeks of the semester. We constantly monitor the situation, and we feel very confident right now that we can start in the format that we have set, to have in-person, hybrid, remote and online courses available to our students. If things change, we will certainly notify students and faculty of that change.”
If lab classes are online why are there lab fees?
“If you think about what goes into putting together a lab class, a lot of the actual pieces that contribute to the [cost] of lab classes are the individuals who prepare the labs and the individuals who figure out what labs to offer during the semester,” Benoit said. “The majority of lab [fees] are actually covering these personnel expenses, not materials.”
“If you look at the eLearning website you will see all kinds of online resources as well as workshops that are available to you to make sure you have everything you need to be successful this term,” Benoit said.
One of the questions submitted online was about ProctorU, Benoit said. “ProctorU is an online testing system. We actually have several options for assessment tools, and ProctorU is one of those that is used frequently. This semester, students will have the opportunity to do practice exams three times before their actual exam to make sure that their computers are set up properly and they won’t have technical difficulties.”
A workshop focused on ProctorU for students will be held 5:30 p.m. Feb. 10, Benoit said. “They will also be recording that, so if that time doesn’t work out... make sure you go back and take a look at that before you take an exam.”
“We will not be doing a spring break,” Benoit continued. “We had advice from our public health and infectious diseases experts. There’s a lot more chance of spreading when you go away from campus and come back. But we listened very carefully to our students — to Tyler [Huang, president of the Undergraduate Student Government Association] and to Jazmine [Benjamin, president of the Graduate Student Government] and others — about the importance of thinking about mental health. And so we were able to put wellness days into the schedule: those are March 16 and April 14. This is a chance to relax, to refresh, to rejuvenate, not only for students but quite frankly also for our faculty and staff. We’ve asked faculty not to make major assignments on those days.” (Learn more about wellness days on the UAB United site.)
“I know there is a great deal of interest about having an in-person commencement,” Benoit said. “And I will say that we continue to monitor the situation very carefully. We’re researching various options... and we will make the decision based upon what the prevalence [of COVID-19] looks like and making sure that you are safe. We would love to have an in-person commencement, but we need to make a decision that is based on public-health considerations.”
What is UAB doing to help students with financial strain?
“Fortunately we had an infusion in the fall semester of funds that came from the federal government and recently we received another infusion of funds that eligible students will have access to in Student Affairs,” Benoit said. “They also had a separate fund that was set up to help students who had financial need.”
In addition, “we provided other kinds of resources to students,” Benoit said. For example, “we still have laptops available for students who need to have a loaner laptop in order to be able to do their classes.”
With the former Education Building being demolished, will another safe study space be opened?
“The Education Building and Bartow Arena were extra spaces that we made available for the fall so that students would have enough space to study and be able to safely socially distance” between classes, said Lori McMahon, Ph.D., dean of the Graduate School.
“When we looked at the data, those spaces were not used in the fall” at significant levels, McMahon said. “There was ample space in Sterne Library and Lister Hill Library. Those are the spaces that are available to students in the spring, but of course we will monitor space needs and make adjustments if we see that there are spaces that are needed.”
When will we have a new Chinese cultural advisor? Before we have a new Chinese cultural advisor, who is doing his job? Multiple Chinese students had unfair treatment from law enforcement at the airport before they headed back home. It was political, so it’s unlikely to happen again. But if things like this happen again, what kind of assistance can the school provide?
We are currently accepting applications for a student experience coordinator and hope to be able to hire a Mandarin speaker. Please see our student experience team, Kylie Bailey and Hope Shen, to discuss your experience at the airport. We need to know when students have experiences of this kind so we can do outreach.
I am an INTO student, so my classes have already been registered (three courses). Due to COVID, can I take all my courses from home?
If you are a new student for spring 2021 and in Birmingham, you will need at least one on-ground class. If you are a continuing student, you have more flexibility. If you are still in your home country, you will be able to take remote/online classes.
What happens if I miss class?
If you test positive during the course of the semester, Disability Support Services is available to help you navigate your coursework and ensure you are given enough time to recover so you do not have to take a medical drop. Be sure to talk to your instructor as well. Work with your faculty to make appropriate arrangements; of course, just like with any other illness, faculty may ask for documentation.
Is there any guidance yet for summer classes?
We are continuing to closely monitor the course of the pandemic and evaluate mechanisms for continuing to keep campus safe. Given the fluid nature of the pandemic, we are not able to provide our plan for the summer yet, but we will share the information as soon as it is developed and confirmed.
I am new to UAB schooling and wanted to know: How do I find my class? I will be attending on-ground but I am not sure where I am going.
Please visit uab.edu/map to find your assigned buildings and get directions.
How was it decided that 100% remote classes were to be charged [the same rate] as in-person classes?
One of the misnomers about online instruction is that it is less expensive. In actuality, it is much more expensive and requires a much larger investment in technology and hardware. UAB needs to have continued funding to provide great learning opportunities, even in a pandemic.
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“One of the things that is so different this term is the testing protocols,” Benoit said. “They are much more significant than they were in the fall. And again, we used the evidence from the fall to make better decisions about how to do that testing.”
UAB Chief Risk and Compliance Officer Katie Crenshaw, J.D., who is chair of the campus Incident Command Committee, explained these testing options further. “Based on our data from the fall semester and recommendations... from our infectious diseases and public health experts, the UAB testing plan for the spring has been enhanced and expanded,” Crenshaw said. “Our modified testing plan is designed to address current COVID-19 community trends and to further reduce the risk of transmission on campus.”
There are four types of free COVID testing for students who are enrolled in face-to-face or hybrid courses or otherwise on campus this semester, Crenshaw explained:
1) Symptomatic testing — “Students who experience COVID symptoms should report those on UAB Healthcheck,” Crenshaw said. “You will be prompted to complete a more in-depth form for evaluation and follow-up by UAB Student Health Services. Nothing has changed there in terms of fall to spring.”
2) Close-contact testing — This is for “students who do not have symptoms related to COVID-19 but who are informed that they have had close contact with a COVID-positive individual,” Crenshaw said. These students should report the close-contact exposure on UAB Healthcheck. “After completing the more in-depth form for evaluation by Student Health Services, you will receive a follow-up email instructing you to quarantine for the required 10 days and inviting you to test,” Crenshaw said. “This type of close-contact testing is offered at the GuideSafe testing locations, and you must have an appointment to be tested. It’s important to keep in mind that this testing does not shorten the period of time that is mandated for quarantine by the Alabama Department of Public Health. But it does allow for further contact-tracing of known positive cases. Students can leave quarantine for the test and then must return to quarantine thereafter.”
3) Active sentinel testing — This “represents probably the biggest change from the fall,” Crenshaw said. “Active sentinel testing offers UAB students in face-to-face or hybrid courses — or again otherwise on campus — an opportunity to test every other week. Students living in the residence halls and registered for certain music and ROTC courses are required to participate. For others, we encourage you to take advantage of this testing resource. Not only does it support your health and the health of your family and friends, but it also helps further protect you and campus by quickly identifying and isolating asymptomatic positive cases.”
All students on campus this spring are required to register with Verily, UAB’s trusted testing partner, Crenshaw said. “This is true even if you are in a voluntary group and do not elect to participate. If you haven’t already, visit healthy.verily.com to create your account. After you register you will receive an email from Verily notifying you when you are eligible to test and containing the link to set up an appointment at one of the designated campus locations in the Blazer Hall Residence Life Center or Volker Hall.”
4) For-cause/hotspot testing — This will be used “where there may be multiple positive cases in a single location or learning environment,” Crenshaw said, “similar to how we did in the fall.”
Are all COVID-19 tests free for students?
“In terms of testing supported by the GuideSafe program, all of that COVID testing is free to students in relationship to those services provided by Student Health Services,” Crenshaw said.
“Currently, all COVID tests are free through Verily or through Student Health if you are symptomatic and need testing,” said Michael Faircloth, M.D., medical director of Student Health. “After you have filled out Healthcheck with those symptoms you should get a call from us.”
“A helpful additional resource is the GuideSafe call center [205-934-7233], which offers a wealth of information based on student and employee questions,” Crenshaw added.
If the location Blazer Hall says “Optional” next to it during the COVID test scheduling process in Verily, does that mean it is for the voluntary testing program?
UAB’s active sentinel testing program is supported by GuideSafe and Verily, UAB’s trusted testing partner. Students who are enrolled in either a face-to-face or hybrid course are eligible to participate; students who live in one of UAB’s residence halls or are enrolled in certain music courses are required to participate every other week. Active sentinel testing locations include both Blazer Hall Residence Life Center and Volker Hall, and testing times at those locations vary. After registering with Verily, eligible students will receive email communications from Team Healthy and will be able to schedule a testing appointment at a location and time most convenient for them. Either Blazer Hall or Volker Hall are options for anyone participating in active sentinel testing. For more information, visit the UAB United website or contact the UAB GuideSafe Hotline at 205-934-SAFE (7233).
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“There is certainly a tremendous amount of interest in the vaccines” available for COVID-19, Vickers said. They have “demonstrated a tremendous amount of effectiveness.” With the Pfizer vaccine, for example, “nearly 170 people out of 20,000” in clinical trials who received a placebo got COVID infections, and nearly 40% of those participants ended up going to the hospital, Vickers said. “In the case of those who got the vaccine, less than 20 actually got infections and none of them went to the hospital.”
It takes two weeks after receiving the first dose of the vaccine to “get adequate antibodies to be protected,” Vickers said. Everyone wants to know, “when are we getting it,” he said. “I wish we could give it to everybody tomorrow. We’re limited by production.... I would hope by the end of the first quarter... but April or May if not earlier, we would be talking about student vaccines,” Vickers said.
“You may have heard of places where students and faculty have gotten vaccinated, and that has been frustrating and disappointing when others have gone outside of the CDC recommendations and the Alabama Department of Public Health recommendations,” Vickers said. “And we are going to try to adhere to those rules as much as we can.”
Following Vickers’s comments, UAB epidemiologist Suzanne Judd, Ph.D., reviewed the data on COVID-19 diagnoses and hospitalizations in Alabama from the beginning of the pandemic, noting the surges that have occurred around holidays such as Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. (Watch Judd’s presentation here.)
Is the COVID-19 vaccine going to be mandatory?
“This vaccine was approved under an [FDA] Emergency Use Authorization and most of our legal and general counsel said that you cannot mandate a therapy that has not had full FDA approval, so it will not be mandated,” Vickers said.
Will access to the vaccine be given to international students?
“If they are a part of the student body, they will get access,” Vickers said.
“Yes, it won’t matter whether you are an international or domestic student,” Benoit added.
Will the COVID-19 vaccine be available through Student Health?
“We are working with campus partners and leadership, planning for vaccination probably in mid- to late spring depending on the availability from the Alabama Department of Public Health and permission from Jefferson County,” Faircloth said. “The specifics of when, where, how and the sequencing are part of that planning, and so there is more to come, hopefully soon. Student Health will be involved, but we need a space that is large enough that we can do it safely. So it will likely not be inside Student Health but will be somewhere on the UAB campus.”
Will students who are employed (part time or full time) by the university be included under Phase 1b of the vaccination plan?
The Alabama Department of Public Health has approved and is allowing students and employees in clinical settings to receive vaccines. Students in approved programs will receive vaccine invitations by email. Employees who have not received a vaccine or invitation but work in a clinical setting may register for vaccination online. If you are not currently eligible, please look to official UAB emails – including eReporter and Greenmail and uab.edu/uabunited – for important updates as employees and students become eligible and doses are available.
I understand the vaccines are mRNA vaccines. Can someone get mRNA vaccine if he or she was already given inactivated vaccines?
The CDC-recommended spacing for both the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA COVID-19 vaccines in conjunction with other vaccines is to:
- Wait at least 14 days after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine to receive any other vaccine.
- Wait at least 14 days before receiving COVID-19 vaccine if you receive any other vaccine first.
- Vaccines may be given within a shorter time period where the benefits of vaccination outweigh the potential unknown risks of vaccine co-administration. For example, a tetanus vaccine after a wound.
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“The institution has an immunization policy in requirement with the goal of providing a safe and healthy environment for all students, faculty, staff and visitors,” Faircloth said. “These recommendations are informed by and align with the evidence-based recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American College Health Association and the Alabama and Jefferson County health departments. These immunizations have always been an important part of campus health and safety and even in this time of the COVID pandemic remain so.”
Students with a registration status of hybrid are required to comply with UAB’s immunization policy, Faircloth said. Students with a registration status of remote who are athletes, residential students or part an otherwise required student group, or live in the local area, also are required to comply, he said. “If you are remote and not in a required student group and not local, you’re exempt. And those in online-only Q-code classes are also exempt. The specific requirements are based on your status as non-clinical, clinical or international.” Students can review the requirements on the Student Health Services website here.
Documentation of the required immunizations and in some cases documentation of titers or blood work is required, Faircloth added. “Student Health does provide all the required vaccines and TB testing if needed on a fee-for-service basis, and this is charged to your insurance. Please either visit the patient portal or call 205-934-3580 to schedule an appointment. You may also choose to receive these at your local health department or a private physician office. If you have any questions or you need assistance, please either contact the medical clearance department at 205-975-7751 or via the patient portal.”
I’m still getting notifications for an immunization hold even though my two classes are remote. Do I still have to get immunizations?
Remote status does not automatically exempt you from the immunization requirement. There are two remote cohorts, defined as follows:
Required to comply
- Students with remote status who are in a required student group (Residential, Band, Choir, ROTC, athlete) and/or reside within one of the following counties (Jefferson, Shelby, St. Clair, Walker).
- Students with remote status who are not in a required student group and/or do not reside in one of the above counties.
I am in the process of getting my immunization shots and not sure if I will have them completed by Jan. 19. How will that affect my status?
If you are receiving an immunization that requires additional doses and you are up-to-date and awaiting the recommended time period until the next dose — for example the two-shot varicella (chicken pox) vaccine, with four weeks between doses — you are compliant with that vaccine until the due date for that next dose. If you do not receive the next dose at the earliest recommended time, then you will become non-compliant.
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Alice Kim, vice president of Student Services for the Undergraduate Student Government Association, discussed the soft launch Jan. 19 of a mobile app for iOS and Android devices focused on student mental health and wellness. “It provides some ideas for daily wellness habits and checks in through some tailored notifications,” Kim said. Other features include a daily checklist of self-help activities, guided meditation techniques and links to all available campus resources for student mental health. “One of my favorite features about the app is the Get Involved tab, which has live updates and syncs with Engage,” Kim said. “It has all the wellness-related events on campus, such as resilience seminars, recovery meetings, guided meditation and group exercise classes. Just because we’re in a hybrid format doesn’t mean that these events aren’t happening in a safe and socially distanced way.” After its initial beta-testing period, the app will be available in the iOS and Android app stores.
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“Although in-person programs have been suspended the first four weeks of the semester, we are still planning for and supporting in-person events” later in the semester, said John Jones, Ph.D., vice president for Student Affairs. “In fact, we have over 40 in-person events scheduled to take place after Feb. 14, providing that experts give us the green light.... We will continue to provide programming that observes the safety practices and protocols, and we will continue to use data from student surveys, focus groups, town hall discussions and other meetings to inform our programmatic offerings.”
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Students had several questions about dining services in the spring semester, including pricing of meal plans. “We have talked with our administration and leadership and decided, similar to the fall, that we will be offering a credit [on required meal-plan payments] to those students who are completely remote based on their registered courses — and those credits will begin being reflected on their accounts beginning early next week,” said Marc Booker, executive director of Student Housing and Dining. “It will take some time to verify that through the registrar and the registration process.”
Will the study rooms in Blazer Hall be reopened? Students need a place to study sometimes late at night.
“At this time, based on the advice of our experts on campus and in the city and county, we anticipate keeping those closed until such time that it is safe for us to reopen,” Booker said.
Does Dragon Cash work the same as Blazer Bucks?
“It does, to a degree,” Booker said. “Blazer Bucks can be used at select vendors off campus. Dragon Cash can only be used on campus. So if you’ve got Blazer Bucks, you’ve got several options in the community where you can use them to pay for things.”
Can dining dollars be used to pay in the Commons?
Yes. Dining Dollars can be used in any dining location: Camp Hall C-store, Starbucks, The Den, Commons, Einstein Brothers’ Bagels, Panera and Mein Bowl.
When will other campus dining locations be opened?
We are evaluating the feasibility of opening other locations. We anticipate some changes to our food locations during the course of the semester. The timing and specific locations are still being determined.
Can students now visit friends who live in a different residence hall than their own?
Not at this time. In accordance with local and campus guidelines, it is still safer for us to promote and enforce social distancing between residence halls. If anything changes during the course of the semester that would change that fact, we will consider amending our policy at that time.
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