University of Texas at Austin (Southern Region)
June 15, 2020
As a prospective student of the University of Texas at Austin, the situation in the state concerns me. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has already re-opened the state, but it has just had its largest single-day increase in COVID-19 cases, with more than 47,000 confirmed cases. Despite this, the state continues to move forward with its re-opening order, with nonessential manufacturing, gyms and work offices opening to 25 percent capacity on Monday, May 17. UT Austin, the flagship school of the University of Texas system that enrolled 51,090 students in 2019, continues to state that they are planning to re-open. They have assembled a task force, consisting of a Health and Wellness, Academics, Student Life and Engagement, Research, Operations, and Athletics group. Each of these groups is taking a specialized approach to determine the viability of opening up the campus in the fall. One of the University’s latest updates states, “We will also need to implement new schedules and approaches for many of our fall operations in consideration of health and safety. This will include a renewed commitment to social distancing and hygiene both on and off campus — in residence halls, classrooms and throughout the larger community.”
The school has also stated that likely there will be some in-person classes with social distancing guidelines in place, as well as online classes. There have been no statements on housing, athletics, and other concerns. The University has not released a finite plan or decision yet but assures students and faculty that a decision will be made by the end of June.
Unfortunately, because Texas’ coronavirus cases are rising steadily, coupled with the fact that many experts advise there will most likely be a second wave in the winter, re-opening UT Austin could be a recipe for disaster. Additionally, the Texas Tribune published data that shows how Texas’ metrics conflict with White House and Texas guidelines and recommendations; for example, the state’s framework for reopening the economy included a goal to reach 30,000 tests per day, while data shows the state ran an average of 20,700 tests per day. Austin-Travis County, where the school is located, currently has 2,459 cases,
While it is possible to socially distance in classrooms, the idea of social distancing in a dorm is impossible. Even though the idea of housing one student per dorm is floating around, it doesn’t change the fact that people will still be living on top of each other and sharing bathrooms. All it takes is for one person to have the virus for it to spread not just throughout a dorm, but throughout campus as well. Considering how many students attend the University, the virus could spread fairly quickly. Additionally, the school must take into account club meetings, sororities and fraternities, and other social outings and events that are hard to avoid in college. How the school conducts business on campus is equally important as to how students conduct themselves outside of classes and off-campus. The conditions are ripe for an outbreak, and because Texas has not entirely overcome the worst at this point, it could be a disaster if the school re-opens.
What’s especially troubling is that the state has difficulties following its own reopening framework, even as it continues to reopen businesses. At this point, I think the school should maintain its online courses, and plan for re-opening in January, or until officials get a better hold of the virus. It’s important to remember that there is still much to learn about coronavirus, and any premature actions can have negative consequences. While it would be disappointing for students who want to get the most out of Austin and its opportunities, it is the safest option at the moment.
Human lives are non-replaceable and the most important in this situation, and should be held at the highest priority when colleges decide what to do about re-opening campus in the fall. As Dr. Fauci said, “You don’t make the timeline. The virus makes the timeline,” I implore not just UT but other college campuses across the country to remember this, and to decide to do what is best for the safety of students, faculty, and citizens of the surrounding area and country.
**UPDATE: As of May 21, Syracuse University released an official statement announcing its implementation of an “Accelerated Schedule.” This would involve students returning to campus earlier than originally anticipated and concluding the Fall Semester when classes break for Thanksgiving. Final exams would be administered and completed virtually. UT Austin is following a similar plan, with students returning to campus at the time they normally would, and staying at home after Thanksgiving break, with reading sessions and final exams being instated remotely.