novel coronavirus
Cover Story

Unprecedented

novel coronavirus

Unprecedented

How UTSA stepped up—with experts, research, community outreach, and more—to help combat the global pandemic

SHARE THIS

STORY HIGHLIGHTS

  • UTSA turned the collaborative power of doctors, scientists, and bioengineers against the pandemic threat.
  • New programs and efforts have supported regional businesses and students through difficult times.
  • Thought leaders kept the Roadrunner community informed and shed light on vulnerable populations.

By Shea Conner, VALERIE BUSTAMANTE, MICHAEL ELKINS EDWARDS |
09/01/2020 |
FALL/WINTER 2020 ISSUE

It takes a decent pause of wonderment to grasp just how fully the coronavirus pandemic turned life at UTSA upside down. Never before had nearly every employee and student been asked to go home for months—and be actively engaged from afar. Never before had every class been swiftly transformed for the digital environment or had a commencement ceremony been indefinitely postponed. The dramatic shift to what would become the “new normal” was jarring, and it required countless days, weeks, and months of strategy, reevaluation, and patience to adapt to the issues that came with it.

Yet as the UTSA community adjusted, many undeterred people immediately felt a calling to tackle the greater challenges of the pandemic. University faculty and staff worked tirelessly to curtail the great blows to health, equity, and the economy dealt by COVID-19 on local, statewide, national, and even global levels. Community-minded individuals—including staff, students, and alumni—provided neighbors in need with goods and assistance, restoring some sense of stability and normalcy.

This is a glimpse of how a group of people—called Roadrunner Nation—faced off against unprecedented times to keep the momentum moving toward a bold future. As UTSA’s Bernard Arulanandam summed it up: “Many, many people have spent countless hours and sacrificed a lot of time for the greater good of our institution and our community. And I think it’s a real human story to tell.”

 

COMBATTING THE VIRUS

“We want to turn the full collaborative power of our doctors, scientists, and bioengineers against this pandemic threat,” President Taylor Eighmy says. From vaccine development to drug treatments to the transmission of the virus, university researchers wasted no time doing so.

Within days of stay-at-home orders in the city, the San Antonio Partnership for Precision Therapeutics issued a call for proposals to combat COVID-19. A vaccine proposed by a consortium of scientists—from UTSA, UT Health San Antonio, the Southwest Research Institute, and the Texas Biomedical Research Institute—led by UTSA microbiologist Karl Klose was given a $200,000 research award in April from a pool of 17 proposals. The Vaccine Development Center of San Antonio contributed 25% of the total project cost.

Klose, professor and director of the South Texas Center for Emerging Infectious Diseases, aimed to develop a novel COVID-19 vaccine based on decades of work on another biothreat called tularemia. Also known as “rabbit fever,” tularemia is an infectious disease caused by inhaling microbes of the bacterium Francisella tularensis into the lungs. Because both are respiratory illnesses, Klose knows his work on a prototype tularemia vaccine platform can be directly applied to COVID-19.

“We want to turn the full collaborative power of our doctors, scientists, and bioengineers against this pandemic threat.”

Klose has been studying tularemia since 2001, when 9/11 and subsequent anthrax attacks heightened the desire to address biothreats and develop therapeutics and preventive measures. His lab discovered how to inactivate the organism’s ability to cause disease, and this led to the identification of a live vaccine candidate. Klose’s team is adapting its prototype vaccine to protect against “spike proteins” found in both Francisella tularensis and the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, that bind to cells in the human respiratory system.

“Because it’s a living organism, we can engineer our tularemia vaccine to produce ‘pieces’ of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which will allow the host to recognize it and make antibodies against it,” Klose explains.

Klose’s vaccine prototype has already been developed to a stage where his team is now working with scientists at the Southwest Research Institute on formulations for eventual human use. Vaccine development is an exhaustive process, which can be maddening for the billions hoping for an end to the pandemic. However, Klose is optimistic his group has a leg up because of its prolific tularemia research and the collaboration’s funding. “We’re on the road,” Klose humbly says. “That’s all I can say.”

In the same month that Klose began pivoting his vaccine research, hydroxychloroquine had emerged as a promising but unproven drug treatment for the novel coronavirus. Doug Frantz knew that was something to build upon, so he started screening small molecule libraries to identify similar compounds that could potentially be developed into a therapeutic coronavirus treatment.

Frantz is the Max and Minnie Tomerlin Voelcker Distinguished Professor in Chemistry and cofounder of UTSA’s Center for Innovative Drug Discovery. For the past decade his research group has collaborated with scientists across Texas on multiple therapeutic approaches toward cancer, chronic pain, and infectious disease. Thousands of novel small molecular compounds were designed and synthesized by undergraduate and graduate students in Frantz’s lab as a culmination of those efforts. “When the news came out about the potential of hydroxychloroquine as a possible treatment for COVID-19,” he says, “I immediately recognized that we had a library of about 250 related compounds that were just sitting in a refrigerator in my lab that could be tested immediately.”

Frantz sent samples of those compounds to collaborators at The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston for testing. Cells infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus were then pretreated with the compounds designed at UTSA. The compounds identified by Frantz are part of a class known as quinolines, just like the immunosuppressive drugs hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine, but are comprised of different atoms and bonds that could be safer and provide additional benefits for those infected with a strain of the coronavirus. Drug therapeutic research such as this will go a long way toward both developing short-term treatments and creating drugs that will relieve symptoms for those suffering from future strains of the coronavirus.

“What UTSA has been great about doing is bringing together people like me and others who have experience in drug development to modify that compound and make it even better in the lab,” Frantz says. The classic process of drug development, from initial research to animal testing to clinical trials to FDA approval, typically has a timeline of five to eight years. The ultimate hope is to develop a treatment that will reduce the severity of sickness for those infected “not if but when,” Frantz says, the next strain of coronavirus emerges.

Data from collaborators at UTMB Health already indicate that UTSA’s compounds perform better than hydroxychloroquine. Frantz’s team plans to publish a paper and pursue funding from the National Institutes of Health and other sources based on those initial findings. For now, however, this research is helping the scientific community in its efforts to grasp how the coronavirus attacks cells and reacts to certain molecules. “The cool thing is that even if our compounds never turn into a drug, they’ll definitely be used as tools to probe the coronavirus on a molecular level and understand what it’s doing,” Frantz says. “They’re like little crescent wrenches we can use to study the living daylights out of this virus.”

Meanwhile, mechanical engineering professor Kiran Bhaganagar has studied the living daylights out of how the virus spreads in the air. In fact, she says her landmark September study, published in Environmental Research, is the first to measure the spread of coronavirus in outdoor conditions.

To develop her findings, Bhaganagar used data available from New York City, the nation’s first large-scale hot spot. Bhaganagar obtained detailed meteorological fields to create highly accurate models that showed the likely spread of the virus under various weather patterns in New York City from March through April. Using computer modeling, she created a real-time, high-fidelity simulation of a virus-filled cough as it was released into the atmosphere from an infected person. As the person coughs or sneezes, respiratory droplets that contain infectious particles are released into the air. The simulations found that combinations of certain weather conditions favor the spread of the virus.

Here’s the good news: Bhaganagar discovered windy conditions did little to spread the coronavirus droplets and actually caused the aerosol droplets to disperse faster.

Here’s the bad news: Testing showed that warm or moderately cold air temperatures with low wind speed and weak turbulence increased the amount of time the virus can be airborne before dispersing it in the air—up to 30 minutes in many cases. Bhaganagar discovered coronavirus aerosol particles can spread from 1 to 2 kilometers—a little over a mile—in low wind conditions.

Bhaganagar has concluded that it’s very likely that outdoor conditions contributed to the wildfire-like spread of the coronavirus in the N.Y.C. metro area during the spring. “This work is further evidence that outdoor air cannot dilute the virus particles,” she says, “and there is strong evidence the spatial spread across states is linked to airborne transmission.” Her study suggests that six feet may not be adequate social distance to protect from the virus—even outdoors. Furthermore, she says, the use of masks and other means of protection should be considered in outdoor areas.

 

TRACKING LOCAL IMPACT

Shortly after the arrival of the coronavirus, the City of San Antonio and Bexar County enlisted four groups to create daily models predicting the spread of the virus, including one led by Juan Gutiérrez, chair of the Department of Mathematics at UTSA, and another by Dhireesha Kudithipudi, who is director of UTSA’s Matrix AI Consortium for Human Well-Being and the Robert F. McDermott Endowed Chair and professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Gutiérrez and his team forecast the citywide spread of the virus by creating mathematical models predicting the possible outcomes under current conditions. Meanwhile, Kudithipudi’s group studied the infectious disease spread based on mobility data and nonclinical interventions.

“The greatest challenge in the early phase of the project was access to reliable data and deciphering through misinformation.”

These duties are taken very seriously by both professors. “It has been a job of tremendous responsibility and constant work,” says Gutiérrez, who had previously participated in research and epidemiology related to malaria. “Every single forecast has to be carefully considered because it might influence the perception of the disease in the community and among our civic leaders.”

It was initially a struggle to come up with accurate forecasts, simply because at the time so little was known about the virus and testing in the community was low. Gutiérrez compares those dog days to taking off in a fighter jet without really knowing what the target was. “The greatest challenge in the early phase of the project was access to reliable data, such as case counts, and deciphering through misinformation,” Kudithipudi says.

The teams worked around the clock, though, to overcome those challenges. The mathematical research of Gutiérrez’s group accurately foretold several tales in Bexar County, showing how the early response helped prevent an explosion of cases in April and May, how asymptomatic carriers were a silent threat all along, and how initial reopening plans thrust San Antonio’s medical community into dire circumstances in the summer. “Under total lockdown we predicted accurately in March—without much data—the number we would have in May,” Gutiérrez explains. “With more data, we predicted by mid June—when we had 6,000 cases—the 12,000-plus cases observed on June 30.”

“If you look at the number of media sources Gutiérrez has spoken to, his modeling has attracted a lot of attention,” adds Bernard Arulanandam, vice president for research, economic development, and knowledge enterprise. “Initially, his models worked with a lot of what-if scenarios and assumptions. Then as the case counts got higher, the assumptions and reality started to align. The data has informed the model, so the confidence of his models have gone up.”

Kudithipudi’s team tracked mobility levels, which reduced by 60% below the baseline in April under stay-at-home directives, increased by 30% as restrictions were gradually lifted in early summer, and then decreased 13% in July as a statewide mask mandate was put in place. “We believe mobility data offers a unique and powerful opportunity to build a valuable model,” Kudithipudi says, noting its association with contact rate and public health population characteristics.

Both professors continue to provide models and valuable counsel to city and county leaders. “The power of forecasting is that it informs public officials that we need to change course before a tragedy unfolds,” Gutiérrez says.

As city and county leaders have looked to UTSA’s professors, education leaders throughout the region have leaned on the university’s Urban Education Institute for valuable insight. Researchers from the institute began surveying almost 2,000 people, including 545 educators, 1,100 parents, and 260 older high school students in May to collect data about their experiences with distance learning, including how living circumstances impact learning, what populations have been most affected, and how virtual lesson plans can be improved.

“There are very high levels of anxiety right now, and it’s understandable,” says Mike Villarreal, director of the institute. “Schools are hearing from teachers that they fear for their health if they have to go back inside classrooms with students, and they’re hearing from many parents who want their kids back in class full-time. We have vulnerable students who have experienced trauma amid food insecurity, grief, and loss. There are no easy answers and there is so much at stake, but that doesn’t mean we have to throw up our hands helplessly.”

The first brief released by the institute focused on the teachers’ experiences, finding that students were largely unengaged in any true learning, and that although teachers were adapting and figuring out how to build on their distance learning skills, more training is needed.

A second brief released in August, which was widely covered by local media as well as MSN and USA Today, provided key findings about learning in the time of COVID-19. The institute found that 64% of students and parents reported that students learned less during emergency distance learning. However, the brief also identified what worked for students: live lessons that allowed for interaction with teachers and peers; creative, project-based assignments that gave students autonomy and choice; one-on-one time with teachers; and the use of assignment calendars and video lesson tutorials.

“These findings show that the principles of learning and teaching that engaged students when they were in the classroom also apply to online learning,” Villarreal says. “It doesn’t matter if it’s in the classroom or on a screen. We know that students are most likely to engage when they feel connected to the teacher, to one another and to learning activities that challenge them.”

A third study by the institute, released in October, found that food-insecure students in San Antonio struggled with distance learning and academic engagement more than their peers with better access to food. “It is well understood that we all have basic needs that must be met if we are to pursue and realize our fullest potential,” Villarreal says. “It is urgent that we as a community find effective ways to care for and respond to families in crisis so children won’t lag behind their peers in cognitive, emotional, and physical development.”

At UTSA, 20 students who have enrolled in a new virtual course are engaged in hands-on learning while also contributing to the public health response to the pandemic. Students in a program for public health majors taught by associate professor Erica Sosa are not only completing coursework pertaining to contact tracing but actually conducting contact tracing alongside Metro Health professionals.

The students are connecting with people who had close contact with any university employees or students who tested positive for COVID-19 to notify them of their potential exposure and provide testing information. Sosa says Metro Health has helped in the development of the course. The health agency has shared resources for the class to use for contact tracing, and the agency routinely shares updates and data throughout the process. The course has provided valuable experiential learning, while simultaneously giving the students the knowledge and confidence to contribute to the containment of coronavirus in a meaningful way.

 

AIDING THE PUBLIC HEALTH

Back when Bexar County’s coronavirus case count was still in the hundreds, UTSA speedily coordinated projects to support health care workers and patients through COVID-19 spikes and beyond. Over the final two weeks of March UTSA employees donated protective equipment to UT Health San Antonio. Researchers from different areas, including biomedical engineering, chemistry, anthropology, and occupational health and lab safety, gathered equipment after UT Health realized the critical need for personal protective equipment to guard health care providers against coronavirus exposure.

“UTSA is committed to tackling the grand challenges facing our community, and this virus is a formidable threat,” says Arulanandam. “UT Health is a key research partner of ours, and this includes collaborative work on a novel COVID-19 vaccine. They are also on the front lines taking care of patients in our city.” UTSA supplied UT Health San Antonio with 363 pairs of safety glasses, 1,850 surgical masks, 2,510 hair nets, 1,580 shoe covers, 1,700 surgical sleeves, 259 gowns, 2,250 cotton-tipped applicators, 1,600 alcohol prep pads, 225 face shields, 250 disposable lab coats, 14,176 gloves, 4.5 gallons of ethyl alcohol, three gallons of isopropyl alcohol, and four gallons of bleach.

“There are very high levels of anxiety right now, and it’s understandable.”

As supplies were being delivered, UTSA seniors Jaime Messinger, Andrew Noe, Sam Carey, and Tyler Mitchell along with Mark Robinson, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, were plugging away on ESCAL, a software designed for faster postpandemic care. The students built the program in fewer than six weeks between March and early May. ESCAL relies on surgery information, such as date of surgery, urgency, authorization to perform surgery, patient readiness, cancellations, or other criteria. The collected data is then organized into a spreadsheet for the current and upcoming procedures.

“The idea was pitched to us by Dr. Amita Shah, a plastic surgeon at UT Health Science Center at San Antonio,” Robinson says. “The COVID crisis required them to put all previously scheduled surgeries on hold so that they could focus on treating COVID patients. But their software setup at the time was not allowing them to easily reschedule the postponed surgeries.” The plan is to make use of this program throughout UT Health’s entire surgery department, which typically has 250 to 300 surgeries scheduled per day.

As an increasing number of coronavirus patients were being intubated and placed on ventilators, UTSA mechanical engineering researchers accelerated their development of a breathing tube that reduces tissue damage from long-term ventilation. Professors David Restrepo and R. Lyle Hood and military science student David Berard are hard at work on a 3D-printed device to mitigate the effects of prolonged ventilation, which can lead to tracheal stenosis, tissue scarring, dislocation, and stricture of the arytenoid cartilages. Such injuries are more likely to occur when an oversized endotracheal tube or overpressurized cuff is used or left in position for longer than a week, but their one-size-fits-all device eliminates the need for breathing tubes in multiple sizes.

Insertion of this device will ideally be quicker and easier as well, reducing exposure risk of any airborne illness to first responders. Before the pandemic the group was collaborating with UT Health San Antonio and the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research to create the device for soldiers in the field who required intubation in emergency situations. However, the COVID-19 crisis has brought the need for such a device to the forefront. “We are looking to deploy our technology in animal models this year and human clinical trials for the Food and Drug Administration next year,” Hood says.

Health care workers on the front lines weren’t the only ones greatly affected by the pandemic, which also created obstacles for therapy and support programs. With the help of a grant from the COVID-19 Response Fund, educational psychology professor Leslie Neely spearheaded a project to accelerate telehealth training for therapists. The project trains existing applied behavior analysts at the Autism Treatment Center to use videoconferencing software to conduct therapy sessions for children with autism. Those therapists will graduate to training other behavior professionals, including UTSA clinical students, in the same skills.

“Telehealth has already proved to be effective for so many families. While I have been working to research the telehealth [applied behavior analysis] over the past five years, the pandemic has accelerated this work,” Neely says. “I am hopeful we can train our therapists and students to immediately reestablish these essential services for our community.” She adds that the long-term goal of this project is to establish telehealth as an effective alternative to in-person services, even after the coronavirus pandemic has passed.

 

LIFTING THE ECONOMY OF SOUTH TEXAS

On Monday, March 16, the same day that the CDC reported over 4,000 coronavirus cases in the United States, a feeling of dread swept over the downtown office of UTSA’s Small Business Development Center. The staff noticed a dramatic number of cancellations from their clients, and the ones that were staying in touch were mostly sharing bad news. “Cutting back” and “shutting down” were among the phrases most often being used by small business owners.

The SBDC has been providing assistance to the business community in Bexar and surrounding counties since 1987, but no one had ever experienced a sea change quite like this. Director Richard Sifuentes describes that week as one of the most difficult in his 15 years on the SBDC staff. “The initial inquiries were people asking for any help at all. They’re telling us, ‘I’m going under. What can I do?’” Sifuentes recalls. “On some of those phone calls, we had business owners shedding tears.”

The tumultuous weeks didn’t let up. Between late March and the end of May the SBDC team spent more than 1,200 hours dedicated specifically to COVID-19–related relief funding requests—ranging from quick responses to 15-minute walk-throughs to two-hour meetings—as the pandemic pounded small businesses throughout South and West Texas. By April the SBDC was fielding six times as many calls as usual, adding 20 more advisers to keep up. “The whole team was working long hours,” Sifuentes says. “Those were 12-hour days, at least.”

Much of the early guidance that the region’s small businesses were seeking involved applying for assistance through Economic Injury Disaster, Payment Protection Program, and Express Bridge loans. Those calls to the SBDC gave way to loan status check-ins, and those gave way to questions about safely reopening. By June the SBDC was seeing far more inquiries from people who wanted to start businesses and many others looking to pivot their business models. With the SBDC’s help, some businesses even managed to thrive—by shifting from solely brick-and-mortar sales to an online presence or by getting help to apply for and receive EID and PPP loans and other temporary financial assistance. “All of a sudden, these businesses are working smarter, and they’ve ended up creating efficiencies that led to them being more sustainable,” Sifuentes explains.

With so many small businesses across Texas desperately seeking assistance, UTSA’s Institute for Economic Development launched the Small Business Development Center COVID-19 Business Recovery Accelerator—or COBRA—to address the demand. Funded by a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Small Business Administration, COBRA is a no-cost, confidential lifeline that shows small-business owners and employees how to access relief, recovery, rebooting, and resilience resources.

Over the ensuing months the accelerator guided businesses as they applied for funding opportunities through the Small Business Administration and other sources. In some cases COBRA assessed the applications of businesses that had been denied emergency funding and assisted them as they reapplied. Advisers have also been on hand to provide expertise in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act and COVID-19 employer resources through the Texas Workforce Commission. “We feel this program is making a difference for business owners by providing the experts to help them work through the relief as well as the recovery process,” says Terri Williams, director of the SBDC Center for Government Contracting.

COBRA continues to be the only recovery accelerator of its kind in Texas with a mission of stabilizing and rebuilding the small-business economy, earning high praise from city leaders such as Mayor Ron Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff. UTSA has partnered with the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation, San Antonio District SBA Office, minority business organizations, and chambers of commerce to provide support to affected businesses. “COBRA is the kind of solution employers asked for, and UTSA answered the call,” says Jenna Saucedo-Herrera, CEO of the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation.

Of course, lifting the South Texas economy isn’t only about lending assistance to small businesses. It’s also about rejuvenating a devastated workforce. In the wake of record unemployment and a tide of furloughs in San Antonio during the spring, UTSA quickly responded with a targeted initiative to help those impacted get back on their feet.  By the end of the summer the university’s Career in Focus initiative had served more than 2,000 job-insecure San Antonians through free and deeply discounted career advancement programs leading to skills-based digital badges or professional certificates. The initiative included two primary programs: a series of Job Jumpstart courses and microcredentials known as Career Builder Badges.

“Our world changed so quickly. Jobs were being lost, and it was difficult to find items in stores that we often took for granted.”

More than 1,200 San Antonians enrolled in Job Jumpstart courses. Offered through UTSA Extended Education, the slate of free and discounted short-term courses provided skills-building opportunities for in-demand jobs in health care, information technology, customer support, sales, and more. Many laid-off or furloughed individuals took advantage of the courses as a way to bridge the gap between their experiential skills and formal education, earning credentials that proved valuable as they hunted for new employment.

Career Builder Badges are web-based microcredentials that can be shared on digital résumés and personal profiles. Each badge highlights competence-based skills earned by completing a set of requirements in areas such as leadership, mentoring and conflict management. Altogether, the program attracted 800 online learners and issued 184 badges. “The mentorship badge was by far the one I gained the most from,” says participant Lorelei Gomez. “I’ve been in the military for 22 years and have been both a mentor or mentee, but I have never seen such a simple yet useful mentorship lesson like the one provided by UTSA.”

 

SHINING A LIGHT ON VULNERABLE POPULATIONS

In the waning seconds of a video published by the Associated Press about Latinos in Chicago’s Little Village overwhelmingly testing positive for the coronavirus, UTSA demography professor Rogelio Sáenz drives home a point that he’d been researching—and emphasizing—for months. “It shows those deep structural inequities that exist,” he says, “and the way they’re exposed when you have disasters and pandemics such as this.”

As the country faced a soaring number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and job losses across the board, Sáenz dove into population data to find that both factors were impacting Latinos and other minorities at higher rates during the pandemic. Sáenz’s demographic research raised awareness of these racial disparities not only in Texas media but across the nation. His perspective was sought by national outlets like The Washington Post and PBS NewsHour.

Sáenz points out that Latinos and other minorities continue to be infected at higher rates because they are more prevalently in essential roles that put them at an increased risk, including jobs at meatpacking plants, factories, and warehouses as well as roles in the service industry. By late July he found that Latinos were disproportionately overrepresented among people infected by the virus in 45 of the 46 states where data is available. He even identified 12 states—mostly in the Midwest and Southeast—where Latinos have proportionally at least three times as many COVID-19 cases as the rest of the population.

Veterans are another vulnerable population of great concern in San Antonio during this pandemic. Health care professionals had worried for months that social isolation in the time of COVID-19 might worsen symptoms and increase the risk of suicide for the 11% to 20% of veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Sandra Morissette, a clinical psychologist, professor and interim chair of the Department of Psychology at UTSA, has been funded by the Veterans Administration to study the impact of changing social networks during the pandemic on mental health and suicide in veterans.

Since her research was funded, Morissette and her team have taken a deeper dive into understanding the impact of social networks on suicide, which will help inform how suicide prevention is approached in the future. This study will be an important addition to her research platform, which aims to help veterans who are struggling with recovery and reintegration into civilian life. For more than a decade she has worked with a group of national collaborators to conduct trials to better understand how veterans function after deployment and war zone experiences.

There is also important research in progress at the university regarding the pandemic’s impact on domestic violence. The United Nations estimates there has been a 20% increase in domestic violence worldwide since the pandemic started. Sáenz and doctoral demography student Lily Casura found that San Antonio already had higher domestic violence rates than most cities when putting together their 2019 Status of Women report for the City of San Antonio.

CARES Act funding has made it possible for university researchers to engage in a comprehensive community survey on domestic violence. While it will partly focus on COVID-19’s implications on domestic violence, the survey will also give researchers a better grasp of its scope in San Antonio, who reaches out for assistance, the quality of said assistance, and gaps in service that may exist.

 

KEEPING THE COMMUNITY FED, FIT, & FURNISHED

The Roadrunner Pantry in the Student Union on Main Campus made a big pivot after the university closed campus. Typically a self-service shopping model, the pantry transitioned into a grab-and-go service to meet contactless measures and social distancing, becoming a highly utilized resource as local grocery stores struggled to keep their shelves stocked with essential goods. Over the course of the pandemic the pantry served an increasing number of students, faculty, and staff who were facing food insecurity. Each person was allowed to take up to seven bags per weekly visit. On average, 10 to 30 individuals visited the pantry per day. The pantry had served 1,500 Roadrunners and distributed 33,840 pounds of food by mid June.

“This had been a critical time for our community and the Student Union has been able to play an essential role in feeding our Roadrunners in their time of need,” says Nikki Lee, senior associate director. “Our world changed so quickly. Jobs were being lost, and it was difficult to find items in stores that we often took for granted. It was apparent that we were serving those that had never been to our pantry before. That is why I’m so proud of what we do and why we do it.”

The pantry even stocked fresh produce, nonperishable items, toilet paper, hygiene products, baby formula, and dog food. Monetary donations made through Launch UTSA helped sustain operations, and Follett Higher Education Group, which operates the UTSA bookstore, donated almost 3,600 pounds of food with the help of alumnus Mario Carvajal ’99. The university’s dining services donated an additional 2,500 pounds of food. “We never stopped feeding and serving during this crisis,” says Lee, “and it shows the true spirit of what it means to be a Roadrunner.”

In the same week that the Roadrunner Pantry was ramping up its efforts, Kimberly Goodwin ’12 was making her first food deliveries. Goodwin founded Neighbors Helping Neighbors with fellow social worker Darrell Parsons and the San Antonio LGBTQ community to assist people with food insecurity in Bexar County.

“I’m a social worker, so it’s in my nature to think immediately when things are going wrong or there’s a difficult situation in our community,” says Goodwin, who is also an adjunct professor of social work at UTSA. “My first thought is, ‘Who is going to be the most vulnerable and most impacted by this?’ When shelter-at-home started, it became, ‘But what about the people who don’t have homes?’” The organization raises money to purchase once-a-week deliveries from local restaurants in partnership with different agencies to serve housing programs and shelters for youths, individuals in recovery, and women.

As many in the city were struggling with food insecurity, just as many were facing an uncomfortable insecurity that was so 2020—one involving toilet paper. Going to a grocery store or pharmacy had become a harrowing endeavor in March and April as long lines and barren shelves became pervasive images of the pandemic. Seeking solutions, inspired researchers with the Matrix AI Consortium for Human Well-being launched a website to help people identify where they could find the supplies they needed.

The COVID-19 Resources & Recovery Site provided a platform for Texans to share the location of hard-to-find consumer goods—such as toilet paper, meat, hand sanitizer, and personal protective equipment—by populating a recovery map with real-time data. “When I initially brought the team together, we were discussing ways to provide information on resource availability to the community dynamically,” says Kudithipudi, director of the consortium, adding that the website was an ingenious way to use data visualization tools to empower the community.

“Now more than ever it was and is important for us to continue to invest in the wellness of our students, staff, and faculty.”

The website is the collective effort of Kudithipudi, biomedical engineering professor Amina Qutub, geological sciences department chair Hongjie Xie, doctoral student Tej Pandit, and graduate student Younghyun Koo—all of whom share expertise in crowdsourcing. The site has continued to provide useful information for months after its creation, such as the location of testing sites, mandatory business closures, travel advisories, and a map that tracks the statewide spread of COVID-19.

Web efforts were also crucial to UTSA’s Campus Rec, which never gave up on its mission to keep the Roadrunner community active. Roadrunners in their living rooms and bedrooms were back to feeling the burn only a few short weeks after the campus shutdown as rec staff began streaming remote fitness classes. “With everyone stuck at home, it is easy to binge on TV, social media, and our favorite foods,” says Alessandra Sanchez, group program coordinator. “Just because we could no longer meet with patrons physically, our mission didn’t change. Now more than ever it was and is important for us to continue to invest in the wellness of our students, staff, and faculty so that when we are allowed to come back onto campus, we are stronger than ever.”

Campus Rec took to Instagram and TikTok with videos created by different instructors performing various exercises such as Pilates, circuit workouts, cardio kickboxing, barre workouts, and yoga. The online videos attracted all sorts of individuals who normally didn’t engage with in-person classes, Sanchez says. “We have countless stories from students who have reached out about how the classes changed their perspectives on group fitness or fitness in general,” she explains. “They truly appreciate the workouts during the pandemic and our efforts to connect with them in the virtual environment.”

 

SUPPORTING OUR STUDENTS IN NEED

In an effort to relieve any stress and insecurity that students were facing due to coronavirus-related changes to their daily lives, UTSA fast-tracked the distribution of emergency aid from the CARES Act. “At UTSA, we recognize that many of our students and their families are struggling. We are committed to their success and to helping them through this crisis so they can achieve their goals,” says Kimberly Andrews Espy, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.

Through two allocations of funding, UTSA received a total of $31.7 million in CARES funding. Per guidance from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund authorized by the CARES Act, half of UTSA’s CARES funding was distributed directly to students who met the federal guidelines for emergency aid to help with their expenses, including course-related costs, housing, food, technology, health care, and child care.

In addition to CARES Act funding, the university awarded $3 million in technology grants to more than 6,000 students enrolled in the summer term. These funds were used to help cover computer, internet-related, and other associated costs. Lynn Barnes, senior vice provost for strategic enrollment, says grants are also being distributed to students taking online classes this fall to ensure their technology needs are met. The university further allocated up to $1 million in research scholarships for graduate students, many of whom had their research activities negatively impacted in the spring due to changes in campus operations.

Shortly after the campus shutdown in the spring, UTSA launched several emergency funds to support Roadrunners’ most prevalent needs. The Student Emergency Fund—managed in part by the Roadrunner Student Alumni Association—offers grants to students who find themselves in difficult situations as a result of natural disasters, medical bills or other unforeseen circumstances, including job losses due to the pandemic. The Student Tech Fund assists students who needed internet access or a personal computer to successfully transition to 100% online instruction. The Veteran and Military Affairs Emergency Fund provides emergency funding for military-affiliated students. Finally, the Fostering Educational Success Fund supports the well-being of students with a history of foster care, most of whom do not have a traditional family lifeline to help during the ongoing pandemic.

Donations to these funds, as well as Roadrunner Pantry, have made a tremendous impact. Financial services leader Frost gave $50,000 to these causes and a university giving campaign raised $80,000. The donations have provided a variety of assistance, such as food, computers, prescriptions, copayments for mental health care, and even the repair of one student’s hearing aid. “We have seen many alumni and other members of the community step up to support our students with gifts to these funds. We are overwhelmingly grateful for the support,” says Karl Miller-Lugo, vice president for development and alumni relations.

 

PROVIDING VITAL INFORMATION

As the UTSA community transitioned to remote learning and society became gripped by various uncertainties, constant communication and a steady flow of information and expertise became increasingly vital.

Having already begun communicating with students, faculty, and staff via email in late January about the university’s monitoring of the spread of the coronavirus in the United States, the administration was intensively looking ahead to the virus’s potential effect on course delivery and campus operations. That’s why UTSA launched the Coronavirus Updates website on March 2 to keep the community informed and subsequently created an e-newsletter to deliver regular updates directly to students and employees.

Over the next few months virtual panel discussions and town halls increasingly became the best way to stay informed and engage in an active dialogue with UTSA’s leadership. They kept the community up to date on reopening plans, prepared recent graduates for job hunting in a COVID-19 world, displayed the local creativity inspired by UTSA’s Mexican Cookbook Collection, and celebrated the Juneteenth holiday.

Among the most notable interactive dialogues were those in the university’s Community Conversations series, in which leading faculty experts shared their insights and research on COVID-19. The first panel discussion laid out the pandemic’s impact on the San Antonio economy, including the big financial hits that were looming for public education, bars, restaurants, and the tourism industry. Over subsequent weeks Community Conversations addressed UTSA’s scientific and mathematical efforts to beat COVID-19, the pandemic’s impact on learning, financial stability at K–12 and higher learning institutions, and the various ways the art community was adapting without live audiences.

This was followed up by the launch of the Roadrunner Return website, which coincided with the release of UTSA’s Public Health Task Force report that set guiding principles and safety policies and protocols for UTSA and kicked planning for the new academic year into high gear. Local coronavirus conditions were worsening at the time, so the plan for a limited return to campus was designed with flexibility and safety at the forefront. “The discussions were pretty heavy,” admits Arulanandam, who sits on task force. “It’s one thing to go forward up the hill, but you may have to retreat—and we had to figure out a plan for doing that.”

“I am truly amazed by how far we’ve come since March and our ability to rapidly adapt the ways we learn, live, teach, work, and research—with truly remarkable results.”

In a series of emails leading up to the fall semester President Eighmy, Provost Espy, and Chief Financial Officer Veronica Salazar Mendez outlined what the fall semester would look like for students, faculty, and staff. Courses would be available primarily online in four formats: fully online asynchronous with course content available at students’ convenience; fully online hybrid, which will incorporate some live class meetings via video conferencing; fully online synchronous, in which classes occur in real time during the scheduled course period; and face-to-face, with limited classroom capacity and generally reserved for courses requiring in-person components, such as laboratories.

The university also announced that mandatory compliance training would be required of all students and employees. “This training is a crucial element of our shared responsibility as a community to keep one another safe,” Eighmy says. “Every one of us must do our part to minimize the spread of the virus.” Basic health guidelines codified in a campaign called Do Your Part, feature the Roadrunner Pact and its five principles, which ask all Roadrunners to commit to wearing their mask properly, keeping their distance from others and avoiding crowds, washing their hands regularly with soap, monitoring themselves for symptoms of COVID-19, and staying home if they are feeling sick.

 

FORGING THE PATH FORWARD

President Eighmy sent an email to all Roadrunners in the first weeks of the new fall semester that began to paint a picture of university life reaching for a sense of normalcy, despite the ongoing pandemic necessitating that most students and employees continue to learn and work from home. “I am truly amazed by how far we’ve come since March and our ability to rapidly adapt the ways we learn, live, teach, work, and research—with truly remarkable results,” he wrote.

He’s not the only one who’s amazed. Arulanandam speaks with both pride and awe when he says that the greatest public health crisis of our lifetimes hasn’t put a dent in the university’s research trajectory. “Our research expenditure in 2020 is going to be the highest it’s ever been in 50 years, we graduated the highest number of Ph.D. students in our history this summer, and we’re going to meet the threshold for the National Research University Fund—all through this pandemic,” he says. “Our faculty haven’t taken their feet off the gas.”

Eighmy has outlined the progress and bold steps that lie ahead for UTSA, including new initiatives and returning focus to plans that had been put on hold while everyone found their footing at the end of the spring semester and over the summer. “I know it hasn’t always been easy,” he says, “but I continue to have great faith that we—as a community and a university—will come out stronger and better on the other side. In the meantime, we march forward to guide UTSA through our ‘new normal’ and into a new era for higher education. From our innovative course delivery approaches to our momentum around retaining and graduating more students to our thriving research enterprise, we are modeling the university of the future.”.