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How Louisiana Tech University used texting to develop a campus contact tracing program

4 min read

Schools are utilizing texting to keep their campus safer during a pandemic

Colleges across the country are bringing students, faculty, and staff back to campus, and many of those schools are taking on the responsibility of doing their own contact tracing. That makes it easier to contain outbreaks of COVID and keep communities healthy. For schools like Louisiana Tech University, texting is an integral part of the process.

“We decided to manage our own contact tracing, so a group of us got trained and we went through setting up processes, and we decided we’d use Cadence to facilitate our established processes.” - Tonya Oaks Smith, Executive Director of University Communications at Louisiana Tech University

How Louisiana Tech started the process

In March 2020, leadership at Louisiana Tech formed an incident response team and decided the best way to begin was with certification in contact tracing. Certification courses are available in many places such as Coursera.org. They attained certification with Coursera’s class from Johns Hopkins University.

Once certified, the team developed a plan for students to come back to campus. A key component was finding members of the staff who were good at connecting with other people on campus. Louisiana Tech is a medium-sized school, but a tight-knit community, which makes accountability with contact tracing easier. 

“If you can stop a direct contact from going out, you might be able to stop a whole tree from developing with the virus. Our values are such that we take care of each other. Students at our school feel real responsibility for their peers." - Stacy Gilbert, Dean of Student Services and
Academic Support and leader for Louisiana Tech’s COVID Student Resource Team.”” 

After a 2019 tornado plowed through campus, Louisiana Tech appointed a leader for its crisis response initiatives. With open lines of communication established with legislators and local agencies, the school is familiar with the protocols and the process of damage control.

Knowing the three forms of contact

COVID is communicable and spread through three forms of contact:

  1. Physical contact - an infected person coming into actual physical contact with another person
  2. Close contact - an infected person coming within six feet of someone for more than 15 minutes, making it possible to spread COVID through airborne particles
  3. Proximate contact - an infected person being more than six feet away, but in the same room as a person for an extended period of time

Physical distancing and mask wearing are instrumental in slowing the spread of COVID, but there will always be risk for spread when people are in a closed space with no air flow.

Why texting with Cadence was a good fit for contact tracing

The higher ed community is full of compassionate and dedicated  people, but it’s not possible for some people to be on call 24/7. Texting makes it easier to keep conversations going when it’s convenient for both students AND staff. 

“When you work in Student Affairs or Communication, you’re used to getting woken up at all hours of the night, but not everyone wants to make their personal number available in this instance. The task was to find a tool that would let us contact students while still maintaining privacy. That’s text messaging.” - Smith

Contact tracing is not emergency texting

Louisiana Tech staff members use two-way texting with Cadence to communicate with students and help them through the current pandemic. Conversations help the staff learn about COVID while students are better supported at a time when they need it most. It’s important to differentiate two-way texting from emergency, short-code texts used by many schools for urgent notifications.

How contact tracing is triggered

For Louisiana Tech, contact tracing begins with the student or staff member who believes they might be putting others at risk. The school has an easy-to-see banner on their website where people who have symptoms or may have been in contact with someone who has COVID-19 can click through to report their case. 

louisiana tech university contact tracing

That person sends basic information about their case, and then they are contacted by a member of the Louisiana Tech incident response team. Any case involving an employee is passed on to the Human Resources department. Once a list of students who may have been contacted is created, the incident response team will reach out via text. 

Being careful with communication

“Uncertain times” is an understatement. Students and staff are all concerned with their health, and contacting people about a potential spread has to be handled delicately. Louisiana Tech has developed a library of language to help staff members communicate with students in a comfortable manner. While certain guidelines are in place, the documents are continually changing as more about the process is learned.  

“There are things you have to be concerned about and careful with. You don’t say, ‘Hey Suzie, we know you were at a party with Bobby and someone there tested positive.’ Our communication tool box has developed over time. We have a package of emails and a huge spreadsheet of communication to draw from in talking with students.” - Gilbert

Smith has found that most of the time, students anticipate being contacted about possible COVID exposure when a case arises. When a student has contacted the school to begin the contact tracing process, there’s a good chance that they’ve already reached out to most others in their personal contact list. 

A helping hand for students

Most students need someone to turn to, especially amidst a pandemic. The staff at Louisiana Tech has found that students are very receptive to having conversations to address their concerns.

“It’s really one-to-one. We check on our students every day. It has an impact in ways you can’t imagine because you are communicating with them in a platform that is comfortable for them.” - Smith

The culture of caring at Louisiana Tech lends itself to a more personalized approach. Members of the response team check in daily with students to ensure they have the resources they need from their professors and any necessary medications.

Help is on the web

If your institution is interested in learning more about developing a plan for contact tracing, EDUCAUSE has compiled an extremely helpful resource page with links to privacy concerns, public health information, contact tracing programs and apps, and higher ed uses cases.

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