Before words like coronavirus and pandemic became daily parts of American life, a group of faculty and staff members at Arkansas Tech University began working proactively and collaboratively to prepare for the possibility of significant disruptions to the institution’s way of life.
The ATU COVID-19 task force was formed in early March 2020 after guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began suggesting a widespread and significant public health crisis relative to the coronavirus outbreak in the United States.
Brandye Bisek, director of health services at ATU, and Heath Whorton, emergency manager for ATU, are co-chairs of the task force.
“Credit to Brandye for being the first one to formally mention to leadership that we needed to start working on this,” said Whorton. “The timing was helpful for us to start having conversations well before Arkansas reported a case. I think Brandye and I both had people in our professions making it very clear that this was going to have an impact nationwide, and we knew it would be something that required difficult decisions to be made by ATU.”
In the weeks since its creation, the ATU COVID-19 task force has conducted meetings — first in-person and, more recently, by distance technology — to review the pandemic’s effect on Arkansas Tech and make suggestions to university leadership about possible next steps in response to the developing situation. Special called meetings have augmented regularly scheduled weekly meetings as circumstances have warranted.
“Our decision to develop a task force early allowed us to make necessary recommendations out of a place of preparedness versus a place of rushed reaction,” said Bisek. “We were able to take the time to carefully determine key members of the task force in order to make the best recommendations to ensure the safety and well-being of our students, faculty and staff. We were able to review CDC, Arkansas Department of Health and World Health Organization guidelines and recommendations thoroughly as well as seek opinions and recommendations from other universities.
“Our most important recommendations have been advising that students move to virtual learning, asking employees other than critical employees to work remotely and in recommending that students who were able to move out of residence halls return home,” continued Bisek. “By doing these things, I believe we have lowered the risk of transmission of COVID-19 to our students, faculty and staff. I cannot express how grateful I am for the time and effort the task force has contributed. Their concern for the well-being of our university has been indescribable.”
Task force membership includes representation from the ATU faculty, ATU Department of Public Safety, ATU Division of Student Affairs, Ross Pendergraft Library and Technology Center, ATU-Ozark Campus, ATU Department of Residence Life, ATU Office of Facilities Management, ATU Division of Finance and Administration, ATU Department of International Student Services, ATU Health and Wellness Center, ATU Office of Information Systems, ATU Office of University Relations and ATU study abroad program.
“Emergency response always requires collaboration,” said Whorton. “The emergency management field calls it the whole-community approach. Every single department and every single individual has had to do their part to respond to this epidemic. The task force’s role in that has been to ensure we are discussing response relevant to all areas and making recommendations to the executive council.
“I am proud to be a part of the ATU community,” continued Whorton. “It would have been easy, especially early on, to object to some of the task force recommendations, but there has been an understanding and acceptance that we had to put our heads down and make these difficult transitions to ensure the safety of every person at ATU.”
Whorton emphasized that the work of combating COVID-19 is far from complete.
“Responding to a pandemic places so much responsibility on every single person,” said Whorton. “We have to respond to this now and in the future with a collective understanding that we all have a civic responsibility to do the right thing and mitigate risk as best we can. In the weeks and months to come, this will remain important.”
ATU is continuing to monitor all aspects of the pandemic and take measures necessary for a successful completion of the spring 2020 semester through virtual instruction.
“So many members of our university community have stepped forward with solutions and actions that have allowed us to continue the fulfillment of our mission of student access and student success during these challenging times,” said Dr. Robin E. Bowen, ATU president. “The efforts by our COVID-19 task force have been essential in maintaining a consistent flow of reliable information. As a result, we have been able to work together through a myriad of challenges in search of solutions that best serve our students, faculty, staff and university. This work will continue for some time to come, and I am grateful that we will continue to benefit from the expertise of the task force in these uncertain times.”