'You are looking live ... at Introductory Accounting here at Kyle Field'

Athletic facilities could be converted into non-traditional classrooms for socially distanced classes this fall

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Schools across the country are preparing for a college football season with limited fans in attendance on Saturdays, if any fans at all, but some schools could actually see an increase in attendance at football stadiums and other athletic complexes Monday through Friday. That’s because athletic facilities could be a solution to providing in-person education that follows recommended CDC guidelines, such as maintaining social distancing of at least six feet.

In early June, Texas A&M Vice President for Enrollment & Academic Services Joe Pettibon II reached out to Texas A&M Athletic Director Ross Bjork about the potential use of the university’s athletic facilities as non-traditional classroom spaces for the 2020-21 school year.

Pettibon wrote to Bjork, in part, the following email, which was obtained by Out of Bounds:

As you know, social distancing will make it very challenging for all of the face to face classes this Fall to be held in traditional classrooms. Attached you will find spaces that have been identified on campus that are not normally used for academic classes. We believe some of these spaces currently under your control could be made available to hold A&M classes in them Monday-Friday from 8:00 am-8:00 pm. In addition, you may have other portions of your facilities that could be outfitted as classroom space depending on how you need to use them. Also, I should note that any consistent time patterns are helpful even if it is not possible to use throughout a day (ex: MWF 8am-12pm or Tues/Thurs 10:00am-3:00pm).

“I know this is an unusual request,” Pettibon wrote, “but we are dealing with unusual times.” He identified Texas A&M’s Kyle Field, Bright Football Complex and E.B. Cushing Stadium – the school’s $39.8 million track and field stadium that opened in April 2019 – as potential sites for non-traditional classrooms. The five potential classrooms identified – two at Kyle Field, two at E.B. Cushing Stadium and one inside the Bright Football Complex – have capacities of 200, 150, 172, 77 and 184, respectively.

Bjork then enlisted the help of Senior Associate Athletics Director of Facilities, Events and Construction Kevin Hurley to maximize the university’s educational pursuits within the school’s seven-to-nine figure athletic facilities.

“Seems like they are missing quite a few spaces in Kyle field that could be used,” Bjork wrote to Hurley in an email. “Can you update this list with our other spaces they could use. We could possibly get some money to support the operations.”

In addition to the three athletic facilities previously identified by Pettibon, Hurley suggested potential classroom spaces in Reed Arena, which is home to the Aggies’ basketball and volleyball teams, where students could potentially meet in the arena’s lower bowl or in second-floor meeting rooms, as well as the Diamond Club in Olsen Field at Blue Bell Park (baseball), Davis Diamond Club (softball), Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium, Ford Hall of Champions and the All-American Clubs – North and South.

As you’ll see below, almost every Texas A&M athletic facility of note is being evaluated for potential use as a classroom space, depending on the availability of facilities and the number of potential seats in a socially distanced classroom setup:

If you’re a Texas A&M student, depending on your class schedule and some of the factors outlined above regarding socially distanced seating and time restrictions, you could potentially sit courtside at Reed Arena for a class this fall or in the press box at the All-American Club - South at Kyle Field, which would provide multi-million dollar athletic facilities with a new purpose in the face of health guidelines that could make some traditional, shoulder-to-shoulder classrooms potentially unfit for the 2020-21 school year.

In 2020, a football complex might be equally, or better, suited to host a lecture as the Fine Arts building.

Here’s one potential non-traditional classroom setup at Texas A&M, obtained by Out of Bounds, located in Kyle Field’s All-American Club, where up to 72 students could be spaced out with six feet between them and their nearest classmates – to their left, right, front and back. Multiple projection screens are in the All-American Club, showing its value as a potential classroom.

Here’s another potential classroom setup on the second floor of Reed Arena in a room that would have roughly 33-percent seating capacity, but it could still seat more than 100 students in a theater-style seating arrangement:

That same second-floor space could also be divided into four different rooms with potential capacities of 42, 24, 16 and 15 people, as shown below:

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After Out of Bounds contacted a Texas A&M athletics communications director to request an interview with Bjork or Hurley regarding the university’s potential use of athletic facilities as non-traditional classrooms, a Texas A&M Associate VP for the Division of Marketing and Communications responded, “Not really a whole lot to discuss right now. I can confirm that Reed Arena and the Hall of Champions likely will be used for large classes to allow for social distancing … I know the Athletic Department and A&M administration have worked closely to identify which facilities would be appropriate to serve as classrooms.”

In the 2020-21 school year, you’re not going to see, say, science labs erected at the 50-yard line of The Big House but think about all of the other spaces available inside athletic facilities – banquet halls, press boxes, meeting rooms, film rooms, etc. Picture the spaces where college football coaches give their introductory press conferences and where they meet with the media after games, where events are organized for high-profile boosters and where year-end banquets are held after a successful season.

Rooms and buildings that have previously been used to woo deep-pocket donors or high school recruits with stars next to their names could now be home to Introductory Accounting on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

After learning that Texas A&M is considering using athletic facilities for non-traditional classrooms, Out of Bounds contacted the media relations department at every Power Five school last weekend to see if their respective schools are considering using athletic facilities as non-traditional classrooms this fall.

More than half of the schools in the Power Five responded.

Here are the results:

Considering: 6
Not considering: 24
Non-committal: 4

What schools are considering/exploring/evaluating/have been offered/[insert PR buzz word here] the use of athletic facilities for non-traditional classrooms?

Colorado, Minnesota, Missouri, North Carolina, Penn State and Texas A&M.

A few schools, such as Cal and Oklahoma, noted in their responses that they previously considered using athletic facilities as potential classrooms, but not any more. It’s also worth noting that many of the responses that fall under the “not considering” category were to the effect of “I haven’t heard of any discussions like that” or “I’m not aware of any plans,” versus an outright “No.”

A few representatives from schools that fall under the “not considering” or “non-committal” categories did acknowledge that the idea is interesting, so if you’ll let me editorialize for a second, it wouldn’t surprise me if more schools join this list, especially if athletic seasons are delayed or suspended, while in-person education continues.

Here are some responses of note, listed alphabetically:

  • Cal: “We considered using athletic facilities, but now that our class sizes will be small, we will use traditional classrooms.”

  • Colorado: “The university has utilized Athletics venues and meeting rooms for exams and classes for several years. Our campus fall planning teams are working closely with Athletics to explore the possibility of expanding such uses this fall to help accommodate the need for socially distanced classroom space. Specific plans remain to be determined.”

  • Minnesota: “The University is in the process of reassigning the classroom space for fall courses. All spaces will be considered, including athletic facilities. When determining which spaces can be used as classrooms, considerations must be made for students and faculty with disabilities, technology needs, and room configurations for pedagogical purposes. As classes are reassigned, existing classroom spaces will be considered first with other options examined as needed.”

  • Missouri: “At this time we have not been approached about this by campus but we have offered up our facilities to them should they be needed. Our old basketball arena, the Hearnes Center, actually hosted large lecture type classes in each of the building’s four corners, as the building was specifically designed for that purpose.”

  • North Carolina: “We are working with the provost’s office to determine any ‘athletics’ space that may be compatible and available for classroom instruction, but nothing has been confirmed at this point. But we are glad to help where we can.”

  • Northwestern: “Interesting topic. Unfortunately, nothing to report one way or the other from Northwestern as of yet.”

  • Oklahoma: “The option was explored but determined impractical.”

  • Penn State: “Penn State is evaluating every possible space on our campuses for instructional uses as we continue to define our academic needs with social distancing as one guiding principle. Intercollegiate Athletics, along with many other units at the University, has been an incredible partner in this effort. For now, we are still in the evaluation mode.”

  • Texas: “The University of Texas has not been exploring any use of athletics facilities for classrooms. We have other alternative venues we’ve looked at as contingencies and have not felt a need to consider athletic facilities.”

  • Utah: “I’m not aware that we’re having these discussions at the University of Utah, but it certainly is an interesting idea.”

What are some of the challenges involved in converting athletic facilities into non-traditional and likely temporary classrooms? What made Oklahoma determine that those kinds of classroom setups would be impractical?

University of Oklahoma Vice Provost for Instruction and Student Success Mark Morvant offered the following insight to Out of Bounds via email:

Most of the athletic spaces were not set up for instruction. The conversion to a suitable instructional space within the timeframe available was impractical. Although the spaces were often quite large, the lack of decent quality microphone systems and projection was a limiting factor. In those spaces with high quality microphone and projection systems, the systems were so advanced that they would require a full-time, trained personnel to run the systems.

The other issue was that very few of the possible spaces could be used exclusively for instructor for the full semester. In most cases, there was a great deal of furniture that would need to be moved in to the space. This furniture would have to be removed to allow team activities. Although some team activities that would not start until later in the semester, the movement of the classes out of the space made their use for classes impractical.

The last issue was safety and security. The few spaces that might work both for classes and teams were in locations that are usually restricted to the general student population for the safety and security purposes. Provided wide access to these spaces and ensuring the same level security was impractical without substantial structural changes that could not be implemented in the timeframe allowed.

All of those concerns are understandable. In a time in which many university employees are being furloughed or taking pay cuts – heck, Stanford just announced it’s discontinuing 11 varsity sports programs – hiring new audiovisual employees to run non-traditional, and ultimately temporary, classrooms probably isn’t a financially prudent decision.

Having recently moved myself, and having also helped the rest of my family with their own moves this summer, the thought of moving furniture before and after every class sounds terrible, especially if you’re asking students to keep their distance from each other in the classroom.

And I get why a university may not want to grant campus-wide access to buildings connected to places like the football field, basketball arena or the weight room. I remember in the lead-up to the 2013 NBA Draft hearing about how Victor Oladipo had worn out the magnetic strip of his key card to Indiana’s Cook Hall practice facility, which may have been hyperbole, but it’s a good reminder that there are certain athletic facilities on campus that Victor Oladipo should have access to and to which 30,000-plus other students shouldn’t.

Here are a few other logistical questions, raised by Texas A&M Senior Associate Athletic Director Kevin Hurley in an email, which was obtained by Out of Bounds:

Operational items that need to be discussed: current third party event calendar, sanitizing between classes, security, staff to turn over the spaces for events and back to classes, no facilities can be used on Saturday, flexibility in scheduling, costs or payments for use of the facilities, Levy operations. AV needs.

Athletic facilities aren’t the perfect solution to creating socially distanced classrooms, but they might be a solution. Plus, it’s not like universities are only considering athletic facilities for non-traditional classroom spaces this fall. Texas A&M, for example, is also exploring buildings such as the Annenberg Presidential Conference Center, Memorial Student Center and Williams Alumni Center.

The draft of the University of Illinois’ Fall 2020 Academic Affairs Report notes that “Every square foot of potential instructional space, even if less than ideal, should be evaluated for the Fall 2020 semester. Supplemental space must be accessible, possess a layout suitable for instruction, and include the level of classroom technology standard to regular classrooms.”

The report is a valuable window into the incredibly critical eye that universities are taking when looking at every angle of education as they prepare for the 2020-21 school year and whatever level of in-person education is deemed safe by local and national governing bodies and health authorities. While the 22-page report from Illinois never explicitly mentions the potential use of athletic facilities as non-traditional classrooms (but it does mention by name the Illini Union, Campus Recreation and the Alice Campbell Alumni Center, among other non-academic spaces), the University of Illinois’ Instructional Contingency Planning Task Force made the following assumption (bold added for emphasis):

In evaluating the possibility of “modified on-campus instruction,” the Task Force made several assumptions associated with campus activities. In particular, we assume if any form of face-to-face instruction occurs: … Physical space and time necessary to carry out academic instruction have priority over non-academic or co-curricular activities.

Athletics could potentially fall under that “non-academic or co-curricular activities” category, and the educational and athletic missions of major universities might have to work in concert to keep all parties safe and happy during the upcoming school year.

The University of Illinois’ Task Force noted that during a “normal semester” more than 80 percent of the university’s classrooms are in use for much of the week and the classroom utilization percentage exceeds 90 percent during peak hours of the day. But social distancing will limit classroom occupancy, which puts a cap on the amount of in-person teaching. There’s also the fact that Phase IV of Restore Illinois limits gatherings to 50 people or fewer.

Here are some more seating and capacity numbers from the Academic Affairs Report:

To ensure that individuals remain 6 feet apart in the classroom, we must allocate approximately 40 ft^2 per person. Seat arrangement (fixed versus moveable) and other considerations such as airflow may further reduce capacity. Based upon assessments at other institutions, we assume that rooms with fixed seating (e.g., auditoriums) will be at 15-20% capacity, while rooms with moveable tables/chairs will be at 25-30% capacity.

It’s the latter number – the 25 to 30-percent capacity if rooms have moveable tables and chairs – that could make athletic facilities potentially appealing for universities. Athletic facilities could allow for safer, higher-capacity and flexible seating arrangements compared to some standard classrooms, plus they have the potential for multiple classes to safely share large rooms, as shown in the third Texas A&M classroom sketch outlined above.

As of Thursday, July 9 in Brazos County, where Texas A&M is located, 36.2 percent of the 2,704 COVID-19 cases have been people in their 20s – more than the combined percentage of cases affecting people in their 30s or people 19 or younger (30.7%), per brazoshealth.org.

Seventy percent of the total cases in the county have been traced to community spread.

Even though the number of new daily hospitalizations in Brazos County has decreased since reaching its peak roughly a week ago at 41 new hospitalizations per day on back-to-back days, new hospitalizations have since increased to nearly 30 per day.

From Wednesday, July 8 to Thursday, July 9, Brazos County’s total hospital bed occupancy increased day-over-day from 67 to 74 percent and the total ICU bed occupancy increased from 69 percent to 73 percent, per the Brazos County Health District.

For all those reasons, that is why Texas A&M and other universities are exploring socially distanced, non-traditional classrooms in places like football complexes, alumni centers and campus recreation buildings for the upcoming school year.

In the first half of 2020, we unfortunately saw Division I athletic facilities used as a temporary medical facility to provide overflow housing for coronavirus patients and a field jail to detain protestors following protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Hopefully in the second half of the year, athletic facilities will not only be used for their intended purpose of athletic training and competition, but also as a solution for providing safe, in-person education to students.

Because at the end of the day, isn’t providing a safe education the fundamental reason why these universities exist after all?

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Thank you for reading this edition of Out of Bounds with Andy Wittry. If you enjoyed it, please consider sharing it on social media or sending it to a friend or colleague. Questions, comments and feedback are welcome at andrew.wittry@gmail.com or on Twitter.