Local Students Face an Open-Ended Spring Break

School's out for ...

Photo by John Anderson

In its latest response to COVID-19, the University of Texas at Austin announced it will be moving all spring semester classes online, according to University President Greg Fenves.

Starting on March 30 – the first day of class after the school's extended two-week spring break – undergraduate and graduate instruction will transition to remote delivery via Canvas, Zoom, and other methods. In a March 17 letter addressed to the UT community, Fenves said in "specific and unusual cases, such as clinical placements leading to professional licensure," faculty members will work with students to arrange instruction that adheres to social distancing guidelines. Students without off-campus access to a computer or wi-fi were directed to contact Student Emergency Services for support.

The announcement came mere hours after city officials banned gatherings of 10 or more people in Austin, though schools and colleges were one of several "critical facilities" exempt from the orders. The move, however, follows that of colleges across the nation, many of which have since announced the cancellation of in-person classes following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation against gatherings of 10 or more people earlier this week.

UT is asking students not to return to campus after March 30 if they have living arrangements elsewhere. Students living in residence halls are required to move out, though emergency housing will be available on a case-by-case basis to students who have "compelling reasons to remain on campus, or who do not have other living arrangements." Fenves said details on how to apply for emergency housing will be made available in the upcoming days. The university will also offer prorated refunds on housing and dining contracts.

UT is asking students not to return to campus after March 30. Emergency housing will be available on a case-by-case basis to students who have “compelling reasons to remain on campus, or who do not have other living arrangements.”

In regard to campus operations, staff members working "to support the university's core priorities" – that is, those providing online learning support, critical on-campus services like utilities, and support for students living on campus – were instructed to continue to do so. "I am pursuing all options to preserve your compensation regardless of your work status," Fenves said. Some research, including "efforts specifically related to COVID-19," will continue with social distancing procedures in place, though all lab directors have been tasked with making localized decisions about whether to maintain operations.

"This decision today will create new challenges for many of our students, specifically regarding the completion of courses and credit (especially for students intending to graduate this year), housing, the retrieval of personal items from university residence halls and access to technology away from campus," said Fenves. As May commencement approaches, Fenves said the administration will determine whether public ceremonies are appropriate upon assessing the public health situation. "Our goal is for all students to complete the courses they are registered for during the spring 2020 semester. I am directing faculty members, deans and university leaders to work to accommodate student needs throughout these difficult times."

A day before UT's announcement, the Austin Independent School District announced it had canceled classes from March 23 through April 3 amid COVID-19 concerns. In a letter to the AISD community, Superintendent Paul Cruz said the district, which began its scheduled spring break this week (March 16-20), will operate a modified work week after the break. This will provide planning time to transition to a distance learning environment for students, as well as telework for staff where possible, according to the letter.

On March 13, the AISD board of trustees held an emergency meeting in which the board unanimously approved a resolution granting Cruz authority to take "immediate action" on coronavirus prevention in Austin schools. The resolution gave Cruz the power to authorize procurement expenses that relate to cleaning supplies and online learning, in addition to compensating employees who may be affected by school closures.

Cruz also confirmed that AISD Food Services will prepare and provide meals for students Monday through Friday starting March 23. Each student will receive a meal pack containing both breakfast and lunch, which they can pick up curbside from select sites (find the latest list at www.austinisd.org/student-health/coronavirus/meals). On Wed., March 18, AISD expanded the food services to parents and caregivers accompanying their children, in addition to announcing meal delivery sites throughout the community.

At Monday's press conference, an H-E-B representative also announced the Texas-based grocery store chain (currently operating stores on a reduced 8am-8pm schedule) would be donating $100,000 to help AISD jumpstart its food services efforts. The donation benefits Austin Ed Fund's newly launched AISD Crisis Support Fund, which aims to supplement access to food services, health programs, and remote learning during AISD's response to COVID-19.

AISD's cancellation coincides with a swath of Central Texas school districts that announced closures until the beginning of April, including Eanes, Hays, Lake Travis, Leander, and San Marcos. The Texas Education Agency also announced earlier this week that the state's STAAR standardized testing would be canceled for the 2019-20 school year. Furthermore, Gov. Greg Abbott said he would also ask the federal government to waive this year's standardized testing requirements.

As the Chronicle went to press March 18, close to 700 Texas public school districts have closed in response to COVID-19 concerns. 39 U.S. states have decided to close schools. Combined with district closures across the nation, at least 91,000 public and private K-12 schools enrolling 41.7 million students are closed, scheduled to close, or were closed and later reopened, according to Education Week. As of press time, Kansas is the only state to close public and private K-12 schools for the rest of the academic year.

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COVID-19, UT-Austin, Greg Fenves, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, AISD, AISD Food Services, Austin Ed Fund, Paul Cruz, H-E-B, AISD Board of Trustees, AISD Crisis Support Fund, STAAR, Texas Education Agency, Greg Abbott

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