University of Central Arkansas President Dr. Houston Davis credits an early start on planning for COVID-19 as well as a rapid response in testing turnaround for controlling the coronavirus on his college campus in Conway.
Davis, who was installed as UCA President in 2017, said this challenge is unlike anything he’s ever dealt with in his decades in higher education.
“We’re roughly three weeks into residential operation at this point, and the top two things that we expect of students are to wear their face coverings and keep distance,” Davis said. “We have 3 million square feet of facilities on the UCA campus, and every square foot of those facilities have been reset with social distancing in mind. That’s from classrooms all the way through a mechanical room.
"If two human beings are going to occupy space, we’ve had to rethink how human beings interact in that space. But the number one thing is that we want students to wear face coverings anytime they’re in an enclosed environment. Right now, we feel very good about how that’s playing out inside of all of those courses, and inside of the classroom.”
UCA just reported its fall enrollment stands at 10,335 students, down 4.9% from a year ago when the headcount for enrollment was 10,869. About 7% of its students are taking online-only classes this semester, he said in an interview with Talk Business & Politics.
Last spring, the school set aside Carmichael Hall, a dormitory on campus that has 134 rooms. It was kept offline exclusively for students who did not have a place to quarantine this fall.
UCA’s infection numbers are impressively low. As of the end of last week, Davis reported that 10 students are in quarantine and nine students in isolation spaces as a precaution. Since the coronavirus pandemic began, there have only been 41 positive cases on campus, he said.
It’s quite a contrast to the scene in Fayetteville, where university officials reported 639 currently active cases by week’s end. On Friday, University of Arkansas officials suspended on-campus events and limited off-campus events to 10 or fewer people.
“Timely testing is the key to this as I talk with my counterparts around the country. I mean, presidents and chancellors all around the country have just lived in fear of, do you get to the point where you can’t get test results back in a timely manner? Because it doesn’t matter if you’re testing, if it’s eight or nine days,” Davis said. “We’re very lucky. Right now, the testing operations that we do through Conway Regional Health System are getting test results back in 1.26 days. We feel very good about that.”
Davis describes a number of metrics that he and his Faulkner County peers are watching daily to monitor for an outbreak of COVID-19. In addition to testing turnaround time, he said that positivity rates, community infections and hospitalizations are also important.
When he sees outbreaks at other schools around the country, such as in North Carolina and the Midwest, where universities have had to already shut back down and returned to online-only classes, Davis said there are several factors he believes are the difference between those places and UCA.
“If you dig into some of the reports that we’ve heard out of the Carolinas, when you really get into it, you learn that their testing capacity and the timeliness of that testing – they were sitting at a week, plus. When you’re at seven-plus days on getting test results back, you just can’t get a hold of it. You can’t stay in front of it,” he said.
“I think that when I’ve heard about those stories and out of state institutions, I don’t think that they planned for enough quarantine beds, they didn’t plan for enough isolation beds, their testing got way out of their range of being able to manage it and keep things in front. And that’s not their fault, I mean, that’s just capacity of labs and capacity of health systems. And then I think that they also just had geography, working against them,” he said.
In his interview with Talk Business & Politics, Davis also discussed an economic study that shows UCA contributes more than $1 billion to the Arkansas economy, the state’s higher education funding formula, and how he found his way into leading a university.
You can watch the full interview with Davis below: