Studying for his all-virtual semester from his off-campus apartment may not be the college experience Jared Orkin envisioned when he dreamed of attending the University of Texas at Austin, but the incoming freshman is optimistic. “I want my first year to be as normal as it would be for anyone else who’s gone through UT,” said the McCombs business major.
Normal, of course, is relative these days – this is college in the age of COVID-19. Still, Orkin joins the tens of thousands of students seeking an as-normal-as-possible college experience when UT picks up its fall semester on August 26, whether they'll be living in Austin or learning remotely.
As COVID-19 continued to surge across the nation well into the summer, many colleges in recent weeks have walked back their reopening plans, opting for a mostly or fully online fall semester or scaling back the number of students living on campus. Others, including Texas State in San Marcos and UT, have stayed on course to reopen their campuses – with some restrictions.
When UT revealed its fall strategy, called Protect Texas Together, at the tail end of June, the plan outlined three class modalities: in-person, remote, or hybrid, which combines the two. At that time, university officials said about a third of classes, around 3,500 out of 11,000, would be online; when in-person classes do occur, attendance will be limited to 40% of classroom capacity. The plan also mandates wearing a mask inside any university-owned or -operated building, with the only exceptions being when alone in an office; eating at an on-campus dining facility; or when alone, or with an assigned roommate, in a dorm room.
With classes set to start in less than a month, the university continues to fine-tune its strategy. However, as cases climb locally and beyond, how UT goes about reopening the Forty Acres strikes a divisive chord among the campus community.
The New York Times published a survey last week of nearly 270 U.S. colleges that self-reported their data on coronavirus cases. Of the more than 6,600 cases identified (as of July 28), 449 were at UT-Austin, giving the Forty Acres the unwelcome No. 1 spot on the Times list. (As this article went to press, UT's COVID-19 dashboard reported 471 cases among students, faculty, and staff since March 1. )
Art Markman, who leads the academic planning portion of UT's reopening, was critical of the Times' survey when he spoke to the Chronicle: "It's frustrating for me because we've tried to be very transparent about the results of testing of members of our community, in ways that most other universities haven't." Markman, who teaches in UT's psychology department and co-hosts KUT's Two Guys on Your Head, continued, "The New York Times took that information and made it look like, 'Oh, we must be doing something wrong because we have so many cases.' We're not doing anything wrong." Markman doesn't dispute the survey numbers, but says, "We're trying to use that information to make sure we learn as much as possible from what's going on, to improve what we're doing."
Markman and other university leaders have stressed UT's reopening plan is a dynamic one, not static. It reflects policy recommendations from six working groups – totalling 250 faculty members and students, by UT's estimate – encompassing university life, including academics, health and wellness, operations, athletics, student life and engagement, and research. The chair of each working group sits on an executive committee that includes Interim President Jay Hartzell, among others. The plan's breadth speaks to the myriad and often difficult questions officials have to address in their strategy for the academic year.
One of the most vexing elements of a reopening plan is how to define the metrics that will inform officials' decision to again close campus should conditions warrant. At UT, officials have defined six levels of campus operations, with Level 0 being normal operations – think pre-COVID-19 conditions – and Level 5 being a complete campus shutdown, as was the case last spring semester. For now, university officials plan to open UT at Level 3, under which campus buildings remain open though most classes will be online. (UT is also considering football games at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium with capacity limited to 25%. The plan’s drawn concern from Austin Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott; ultimately, though, UT answers to state guidelines.)
What then would trigger a jump from one level to another? The health and wellness working group drafted guidance on "decision triggers" that could inform officials about whether to increase or decrease restrictions. Some are community considerations, like action by a public health official; others are campus-specific criteria, one of which is student death. Markman explains that specific metrics would trigger UT's analysis of the efficacy of its health and safety measures, which in turn could change the operations level. "To the extent that we feel like we have lost control of that process of being able to test, trace, and isolate, or that we have clear evidence that the procedures that we put in place are putting people at risk, that's the point at which we would likely want to make a change."
One of the most difficult COVID-19 challenges for colleges will be testing and monitoring the campus community. Do they require students to get tested before coming onto the campus? How do they go about testing symptomatic versus asymptomatic individuals? And to what extent is testing mandatory once the semester begins? There is no standard approach, and many schools' strategies respond to factors unique to their reopening plans, such as whether students will be living on campus or if, and how much, in-person instruction will be happening.
UT's strategy focuses on voluntary symptomatic testing, contact tracing, and proactive community testing of those who are asymptomatic. Of those three, university officials identify the last as most critical to UT's public health strategy. "It can help us to monitor the spread of infection within our campus community within specific campus populations and identified areas of higher risk, and it can give real time feedback from our contact tracing team," said Dr. Terrance Hines, the executive director and chief medical officer of University Health Services, in a media briefing August 4. UT's goal is to proactively test up to 5,000 individuals per week, and it also estimates that hundreds of tests may be needed daily for those who are symptomatic.
In order to meet these demands, Hines, who is part of the health and wellness working group, said the university has purchased three Abbott Laboratories ID Now rapid testing machines that will allow for about 100 tests per day, with a 15-minute turnaround time. Hines said also that UT's testing strategy represents "a multimillion dollar investment on the back of the university for our community." Symptomatic students and faculty will be able to get tested at either University Health Services or UT Health Austin (the clinics at Dell Medical School); uninsured students will also not have to pay out-of-pocket expenses for testing, thanks to the university subsidy.
On the heels of the Times' survey came another statistical snapshot of COVID-19 and UT – this time from the student body. Organized by the Senate of College Councils, Student Government, and Graduate Student Assembly, the "UT-Austin COVID-19 Student Sentiment Survey" sought to provide administration with direct student feedback on UT's reopening plan. The survey was distributed online between July 15-25, and garnered 1,418 responses from students – the overwhelming majority of which were undergraduates.
The majority of students surveyed were uncomfortable with UT's reopening plan; respondents, on average, rated their comfort at 2.73 on a scale of 0-10, with 0 being extremely poor and 10 being extremely well. Students also rated UT's communication about the fall reopening as poor, and there was much dissatisfaction with the tuition rates, which will be the same for online, hybrid, and in-person classes.
Nick Hancock, a rising junior studying biology, said that while he feels tuition shouldn't be cut "too much," he did feel that UT should cut out the percent of tuition covering campus facilities he doesn't think will be used as often, such as Gregory Gymnasium. "I definitely feel like you should decrease [tuition] because, I mean, let's be honest, Greg's not going to be open. That's such a bad idea, because it's already gross enough when there's not a pandemic happening," said Hancock.
For Hancock, who will be living in an off-campus apartment, his sole in-person class is an organic chemistry lab. He's unsure how that will work, as labs normally require working with partners, which he sees as unlikely given social distancing guidelines. But Hancock is not overly worried about coming to Austin: "Obviously I don't want to get COVID, but I'm not, like, shaking in my boots at the thought of returning."
The pandemic has exposed – and worsened – existing inequities and vulnerabilities faced by the most marginalized communities, and when it comes to education, many students are now facing disparities in internet access and housing. Working groups involved in UT's reopening plan did make policy recommendations addressing some of these inequities, but it remains unclear what part they will play in UT's fall strategy as it unfolds.
Students living on campus will also have to navigate an environment constrained by new health and safety measures. No visitors will be allowed in dorms, though dorm rooms are one of the few places where students will not be required to wear masks. According to Justin Jaskowiak, director of apartments, occupancy, and conferences at UT, out of the 170 single-occupancy rooms and 3,400 double-occupancy available on campus, more than 60 students are assigned to single rooms, 902 will be living alone in a double room, while about 3,500 are slated to share rooms. Jaskowiak said 4,500 students are currently under contract to live on campus; UT is able to house 7,300 students at 100% capacity.
According to Protect Texas Together's guidance, current modeling suggests that 75% of students in dorms may develop COVID-19 symptoms and need to be tested and quarantined. If all students living on campus are sharing double rooms, UT predicts 5,909 instances of student self-quarantine or self-isolation during the academic year, according to the guidance. (It's unclear how this modeling may change, if at all, based on the numbers provided by Jaskowiak.) UT officials have said the city's public isolation facility at the Crowne Plaza Hotel (at I-35 and U.S. 290 East) will be available to students unable to safely isolate.
Graduate students occupy a unique space within the academic community. While students, they also serve in instructional roles for which they're compensated; some feel that puts them in a difficult situation when it comes to campus reopening.
Earlier this summer, a worker advocacy organization called Underpaid@UT sent letters to university leaders demanding they support and protect graduate student workers during the pandemic. Chief among their demands – many of which predated the COVID-19 crisis – was a call to not reopen campus until it was deemed safe. Now, less than a month out, Underpaid@UT still does not support UT's plan to reopen. "No matter what," wrote Underpaid@UT to the Chronicle, "asking people to return to campus for the sake of university profit is murder. University administrators are now placing responsibility on individuals to self-quarantine, instead of taking responsibility for putting people in danger in the first place."
Rebecca Johnston, a doctoral candidate in history and an Underpaid@UT member, won't be working next year due to a fellowship; she said other graduate students are anxious about the prospect of working on campus. According to Johnston, in a College of Liberal Arts graduate student townhall in mid-July, COLA administrators said the college would not be able to accommodate 100% of its graduate students' requests to work remotely. As Johnston sees it, the announcement seems contrary to an earlier email that the college sent to its graduate students in June which stated, in part, "no one will be expected to teach or conduct research in situations that they or the university deem to be unsafe."
For Johnston – who emphasizes that COLA leaders didn't say "'Oh, we're walking back our statements in the email'" – the situation underscores a broader need for more flexibility and a bigger voice for grad students in the reopening decision-making process. She says colleagues at UT and other universities fear that if "they don't volunteer to teach on campus – whether that was a fully in person course or a hybrid course – that would adversely impact their chances for finishing their program on time. ... There's a lot of anxiety when people are working in schools that don't have clear guidelines from the top about how these individual decisions are going to impact our careers and standing in the departments."
Underpaid@UT member Yasmin Mikhaiel, a master's candidate in theatre and dance, said she's currently assigned to TA a hybrid course, and "based on formal correspondence from my department thus far, I will be expected to TA on campus." Mikhaiel said, "Even as we sit almost three weeks from classes beginning, many TAs haven't received clarification on their assignments. Many of us still don't know if we will be required to show up in person despite requesting to be online-only. UT is exacerbating grad student worker precarity, and the stakes are life and death."
Jeremi Suri taught in the virtual realm well before COVID-19 made it a necessity. A professor in both UT's Department of History and LBJ School of Public Affairs, Suri created six years ago the first online version of a popular undergraduate-level course called "The History of the United States Since the Civil War."
Suri said the pivot to online then provided an alternative for several reasons. First – and most significant for Suri – was pedagogical. As Suri sees it, undergrads today learn differently than those in the past, chiefly in young people's predilection for, and proficiency in, an interactive technological environment: headphones, watching things on screens, and the like. Moving online also made the course possible for students who'd previously been unable to enroll due to scheduling conflicts like work, or a near-impossible cross-campus trek from another class.
Instructors are also rushing to better understand the online tools they're expected to use this fall. Suri said he participated in some summer workshops designed to help UT faculty unfamiliar with online teaching tools. From his own experience, Suri said the key to a successful virtual environment lies in an instructor's ability to best leverage online tools to create an entirely new learning experience – not a copy-and-paste replication of the in-person classroom. "In the crisis environment we were in in March and April, maybe there was no choice but to do that," said Suri of the latter approach.
(Multiple professors did not return interview requests for this article. In one case, an instructor and lab director in the College of Natural Sciences, who had expressed interest in speaking with the Chronicle, ultimately decided against an interview, as they "didn't want to deal with admin's potential reaction on the chance" they say something that "runs counter to their statements.")
Throughout UT's response to the pandemic, one throughline in its messaging to the campus community is clear: We're trusting students to make the right decisions.
This trust in the community to "do the right thing" amid the COVID-19 crisis is hardly unique to UT. In the absence of a vaccine or therapeutic treatments, it's human behavior that public health experts are relying on to help mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus – that is, the actions we do or don't take to help reduce risk of transmission. Likewise, colleges are also depending on their ability to monitor and to a certain extent control students' behavior as part of their strategy to combat the spread of coronavirus. For example, in a July 31 message to students, Soncia Reagins-Lilly, vice president for Student Affairs and dean of students, said that parties both on and off campus would be banned, though it was unclear how UT planned to enforce this.
Human behavior is unpredictable and difficult to control, and as we've seen in the broader community, those who make a point of not complying can get a lot of attention. Students like Nick Hancock believe most undergrads will make responsible decisions, but it will be the students who don't comply that make the spotlight. "It's like you have 95 percent of students being responsible [and] the five percent of the students that aren't – those are the ones you're going to have videos of people being like, 'Oh, look at all these students partying."
It's Art Markman's belief that, in people's rush to paint college students as wild and irresponsible, their ability to act in their own best interest is often overlooked. "I think our students understand in a pretty deep way what the potential consequences are here," said Markman. "Will there be some bad behavior? Of course there will, but that doesn't mean that the bulk of our students are going to be behaving badly. They know that our ability to provide them with the education they want depends on everyone cooperating."
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