A group from The University of New Mexico leadership held a virtual town hall meeting today to share plans and address concerns as Lobo students, staff, and faculty look at returning to campus after an unprecedented absence of more than a year due to the COVID pandemic.

Staff Council president Scott Sanchez guided the conversation with UNM President Garnett Stokes, Provost James Holloway, Executive Vice President for Health Sciences Doug Ziedonis, Senior Vice President of Finance and Administration Teresa Costantinidis, and Vice President for Human Resources Dorothy Anderson. The group also took questions and comments from the audience via the chat.

All agreed with Stokes that the past year has been a “tremendous challenge” and praised the resilience, creativity, compassion, and commitment to the UNM mission shown by UNM employees.

Primary concerns addressed included vaccines, employee and student return to campus, and remote, on-campus, and hybrid work arrangements.

For the present, the university will not mandate vaccines, Stokes said. For now, the school will follow science-based recommendations and health orders from the state. The health advisory team is continually reviewing information and ultimately has been successful following science-driven policy, she said.

Stokes praised UNM employees for being creative and dedicated while working remotely during the pandemic and expects that remote work options will stay in place.

The past year and a half has been a stressful one for employees of the UNM health system, Ziedonis observed. He advised them to think about their own wellness and urged them to consider taking time off to “recharge their batteries” now that things are opening back up.

On the other hand, he cautioned, after more than a year of wearing masks, people will now be exposed to colds, flu, and other transmittable illness that they haven’t encountered and should stay home if they aren’t feeling well.

Ziedonis said 92 percent of UNM health system employees are vaccinated and encouraged those who weren’t to consider it. He pointed to the 10 to 100 Challenge, a 10-day multi-platform blitz in May for increasing the percentage of employees vaccinated.

Some employees have made personal choices not to get the COVID vaccination, Ziedonis acknowledged. He urged them to do so and in the meantime to wear masks and take other measures to keep themselves and those around them safe.

Sanchez noted that some employees are nervous about being around unvaccinated employees. Ziedonis pointed out that vaccinated people are at a low risk of getting sick.

“Everyone will be challenged with what the new normal will look like,” Ziedonis said.

Holloway observed that humans are social beings who need to be together and that students have expressed the need to learn in person. To accommodate that, 80 percent of classes will be in person.

Holloway also gave an update on enrollment. About half the students are registered for the fall, typical at this time of year. Overall headcount is down about 1.4 percent from this time last year, but first-year enrollment looks strong. New student orientation numbers are about what they were in 2017. Grad student enrollment is up above 20 percent but undergrad enrollment is down, numbers that are partially driven by COVID, he said.

He is looking forward to employees returning to campus but added that the university is ready to pivot if health trends don’t move in the right direction.

“We do want everyone to be vaccinated; the more people who are vaccinated the better,” Holloway said, but other steps are effective, such as wearing masks and using the Vulcan hand salute instead of shaking hands, he joked, demonstrating the iconic greeting from the TV classic Star Trek.

Outside of the UNM health system, vaccination numbers are good and improving, with about 43 percent of undergrads and 50 percent of grad students vaccinated. 

Costantinidis gave a brief overview of the finance administration’s duties and concerns, such as safety, infrastructure, buildings and grounds, and police. She noted that measures are being taken in research, living, and social spaces to make them as safe as possible for UNM employees and students, including changing HVAC filters and adjusting controls to flush buildings three times a day to keep air clean and safe.

As of May 16, travel restrictions on UNM staff were lifted in accordance with CDC guidelines.

Anderson addressed remote work arrangements, saying that the last year has demonstrated that employees have successfully been working remotely. Not every employee will be situated to work remotely as campus opens again, she said, but supervisors should work for a solution that is satisfactory for all. Guidelines are currently for in-state employees and those who want to work from out of state should confer with their supervisors.

It’s OK for employees to ask whether coworkers are vaccinated but no one is required to disclose that information, she said, adding that everyone should be respectful of vaccination choices. Supervisors can ask but should keep the information confidential.

Last year, employees were bombarded with scary messages about the risks of going out and being in the same room with people, Anderson remarked. People were taking care of their families and pets at home and are now faced with returning to campus. The well-being and mental health of employees is a priority, she said.

The biggest challenge as the Lobo community returns is fear of the community, Stokes said, noting that “Facing uncertainties is the greatest challenge.” The university will monitor risks and continue to provide information to help people feel safe.

“Understanding what science has to tell us will be critical,” she added.

For more information and updates on the return to campus, go to the Bringing Back the Pack website.