UT Announces Mandated Masks, Flexible Learning for Fall Reopening

News comes amid COVID-19 surge, especially in young adults

Photo by John Anderson

Earlier this week, UT-Austin released its final reopening plan for the fall semester, including flexible learning options and a mask mandate, among other measures to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The plan, revealed June 29, outlines three class modes available to students when they return to the Forty Acres this August: online; in-person; or a hybrid format, which will combine both in-person and remote learning instruction. Students may take the full semester online; however, online, in-person, and hybrid courses will carry the same tuition rate.

"Our goal is to create an environment that is as safe as possible for all community members, while reigniting the learning, teaching and research that make our university the world-changing place that it is," wrote Interim President Jay Hartzell in a June 29 letter to the campus community. "Today's plan provides a framework for the fall that is designed to accommodate the dynamic environment we're facing and enable us to adapt to changes in the prevalence of COVID-19 in Austin and throughout Texas. And I know that things are changing every day."

Under the plan, health and wellness guidelines mandate face coverings be worn at all times when inside campus buildings. Exceptions include when alone in an office, or when alone, or with a roommate, in a dorm room. Residence halls, which open Aug. 20, "will operate with social distancing measures," though most dorm rooms will be slated for double occupancy. The university has worked with public health officials to develop a campus testing strategy; UT testing labs could process up to 1,500 cases a day during the fall, according to Hartzell's letter. The school will release an app this summer to help students, staff, and faculty self-monitor their symptoms and access testing info. (The full plan, as well as an FAQ, is available at UT's new reopening website, protect.utexas.edu.)

As previously announced by UT officials in May, in-person instruction will cease Nov. 25, after which students will not be allowed to return to campus, instead taking final exams online. In June, UT-Austin made the decision to limit in-person classroom capacity to 40% in an effort to maintain social distancing, a metric which still holds under the reopening plan. Furthermore, in accordance with a separate update last week, around 3,500 out of 11,000 fall semester classes will be online – up from UT's earlier strategy of 2,100 online courses.

Monday's announcement came the same day state health officials reported 4,288 new COVID-19 cases and a record 5,913 hospitalizations in Texas – surging statistics that some officials have attributed to more young adults testing positive in recent weeks. According to Austin-Travis County data, over half of those testing positive for COVID-19 in Austin-Travis County are between the ages of 20 and 40, with the 20-29 age range accounting for the highest percentage of confirmed cases at 28% as of June 29. Based on the most recent hospitalization data from the metro area – including Bastrop, Caldwell, Hays, Travis, and Williamson counties – 23% of people hospitalized for COVID-19 from June 8-14 were between the ages of 20 and 40.

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COVDI-19, University of Texas, Protect Texas Together, Jay Hartzell

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