Texas A&M University’s new president M. Katherine Banks said this spring that she anticipated a “fall [semester] of joy” when the university reopens after 15 months of lockdowns and remote learning.
She wasn’t alone. As coronavirus case numbers dropped throughout the spring, higher education leaders across the state excitedly announced the return of in-person classes, 100% capacity at football games and an end to social distancing requirements for the fall.
But just a few weeks before students are expected to return to campus, university leaders are faced once again with uncertainty as the highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus spreads throughout the state and country. This time, public university administrators are tasked with trying to mitigate the virus on campus without the ability to reinstitute mask mandates or require vaccines due to Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning such directives. They’ll be limited in how they can respond even as the Centers for Disease Control has advised fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors to prevent the spread of the virus and some students and faculty have expressed worry about how safe their return to campus will be.
“As the fall semester approaches, I have a feeling of déjà vu, albeit an unwelcome one,” wrote University of Texas at Austin President Jay Hartzell in a letter to the university community on July 30. “I recall last summer and winter, as we prepared to start semesters in the face of a COVID-19 virus that has an uncanny ability to time increasing threats to coincide with the academic calendar.”
While universities say they are monitoring the delta variant and whether they’ll need to pivot, many are moving ahead with previously decided reopening plans, including full football stadiums and in-person classes, while encouraging everyone to wear a mask and get vaccinated. Yet faculty and some students say they are increasingly worried about how they can effectively protect themselves and others on campuses where leaders can’t prevent unmasked or unvaccinated students and employees from entering and unknowingly spreading the virus.
Much of the frustration among faculty, staff and students is due to Abbott’s executive orders limiting masks and vaccine mandates. The faculty senate at A&M is scheduled to vote next week on a resolution calling on the state to allow universities to make their own decisions and “follow the science in their efforts to combat COVID-19.”
“There are heavy concerns when you think about the fact that institutions like A&M, the University of Texas … have a rich history based on the study of scientific principles,” said Dale Rice, speaker of the Texas A&M Faculty Senate. “And now they’re being constrained from following the science.”
Last week, a group of student leaders at UT-Austin slammed the governor for not allowing universities to make decisions on their own campuses, but also urged UT-Austin to do more.
“[I]t is also irresponsible for the University of Texas to plan for a full re-opening with little to no virtual classes available,” the letter from student leaders across various colleges read. “We have been made witness to the vast benefits of virtual learning for students, faculty, and staff who are disabled, have to work 2-3 jobs to keep up with the rising living costs in Austin, or have adapted to working or learning from home.”
For sure, the vast majority of people would prefer to be back on campus if that can be done safely, but as long as it cannot then remote learning for those who want or need it must be provided as well. Really, though, this is about vaccines and mandates. All of these campuses would be vastly safer if the overwhelming majority of people on them were vaccinated, and the only way to get there is to mandate it. You know, as they have done for decades for things like measles and whooping cough and meningitis. Legally speaking, there’s nothing to stop any campus from such a requirement, as past precedent and current judicial rulings demonstrate. The barrier is the threat that Abbott and the Republicans in the Legislature would zero out their funding.
(Note that I drafted this two weeks ago – there’s been too much damn news, y’all – and since then Rice University has announced that it will begin with virtual learning, though students are on campus.)
I can’t and don’t speak for any of these institutions. Some of them claim to be doing quite well on the vaccination front (we’ll see that in a minute), and good for them if so. But for any school that’s not well above the 80% mark – not just students, but faculty and staff and volunteers and contractors and pretty much everyone else who is regularly on campus – I’d be taking a hard look at our risks, both in terms of an outbreak and how likely the Lege actually is to follow through on a de-funding threat. Where is the bigger exposure? They all need to try to answer that question.
UTEP’s leaders said they feel they can reopen safely due to high vaccination rates in the surrounding community, citing in a note to the school community that more than 80% of El Paso residents 12 years or older have had at least one dose of the vaccine. The school has also ended testing for faculty and staff, encouraging them to use community testing centers, but will provide testing for students throughout the fall semester.
UTEP, along with some other Texas public and private universities, has asked students to voluntarily share their vaccine status.
Officials at UTEP estimated two-thirds of students and 90% of employees are fully vaccinated. Texas Tech University in Lubbock estimated about 75% of students and 90% of faculty are vaccinated, based on a voluntary spring survey. Baylor University said in a note that 47% of the campus community is vaccinated. Texas Christian University is also asking students to share their vaccine status ahead of the fall semester, but are not requiring vaccines
and has said masks are “expected” but not required for unvaccinated students(NOTE: See update at the end).
Some private universities across the state have reacted to the increase in positive cases with stricter measures, though vaccines remain optional. On Tuesday, Rice University in Houston announced masks will be required indoors in group settings. Rice is also asking all students and employees to share their vaccination status. Those who are fully vaccinated must get tested every two weeks. Unvaccinated members coming to campus must test two times per week.
Trinity University in San Antonio is also requiring masks indoors and weekly tests for those who are unvaccinated. Baylor told students it will require weekly COVID-19 testing for the first part of the fall semester for students and employees, except for fully vaccinated students and students who have had a positive test within the last 180 days. St. Edward’s University in Austin initially said it would require a vaccine for all students, but later stated students could be exempt from that requirement under the governor’s executive order.
Emphasis mine. If you needed a reason to avoid Waco this fall, there you have it. There is definitely room here for colleges and universities, public and private, to at least put some of the costs of Delta on the unvaccinated. More frequent testing is an obvious one, but let’s not stop there. Require a vaccine or a positive test to attend sporting events, participate in intramural sports, attend any kind of public indoor event like lectures or movies or parties or concerts, eat in the cafeterias, and so on. Get vaxxed or stay distant, for your safety and everyone else’s, simple as that. That’s more likely to draw a lawsuit than a legislative response, but if so then there’s a decent chance you can get some people vaccinated before you’re forced to put the policy on hold, and maybe you won’t be forced to pause at all. See my earlier comment about evaluating risks and acting accordingly. Anything that results in more vaccinations should be strongly considered, even if it winds up being a short-term measure. Push that envelope, the long-term payoff is worth it. The Chron has more.
UPDATE: I received a message from TCU informing me that their policies have changed since that Trib story was published. They now require masks for indoor spaces. My thanks to them for the feedback.