Masks, 40% capacity classrooms among changes for fall semester at UT


AUSTIN (KXAN) — Students and faculty members at the University of Texas at Austin can expect to wear a face covering indoors and be in socially-distanced classrooms this fall when it reopens, university officials say.

In a plan called “Protect Texas Together,” the university outlines how it intends to run learning, health and wellness, residence halls, faculty and staff, graduate programs, research and athletics in the upcoming fall semester when campus reopens.

In the plan, students will be able to choose if they want to take classes in-person, online or through a hybrid of the two. Tuition remains the same for all three options, the university says.

“Our goal with this plan — as it has been from the beginning — 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 outstanding place that it is,” UT Interim President Jay Hartzell said.

“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,” he said.

Classrooms will be kept at 40% capacity. University officials say the 400 largest classes have been moved online. Those are often lower level courses done in a lecture setting. Other, smaller courses that made sense for online learning were also chosen.

The wearing of cloth masks will be mandatory in university buildings except when alone in a private office, while eating at a campus dining facility and for students in their own dorm rooms.

Wearing masks while outdoors will be encouraged, the university stated.

The university will release an app that will offer “testing and public health information and help UT community members self-monitor,” and the testing labs on campus are expected to have capacity to complete 1,500 tests per day.

Students, faculty and staff members will be screened daily for symptoms to “help keep the campus community safe,” the university said.

The residence halls will be ready for move-in August 20, and most of them will be double occupancy. There are a limited number of single occupancy rooms, the university said. Single occupancy rooms, like always, will cost more than double occupancy rooms.

University officials say communal bathrooms will remain open in residence halls, however students will schedule their showers and plexi-glass barriers will be place between sinks and wherever else necessary.

In many cases, UT Austin Interim President Jay Hartzell says, the fall semester will be an exercise in trust with students.

“Part of what we’re doing is trying to instill in our students a sense of doing the right thing, even when they’re not in the classroom or in our dorms or residence halls,” Hartzell said in an online press conference Monday. “We’d like for them to be thinking about each other, to be thinking about the broader community, whether that’s our faculty, our staff or Austin at large as they think about whether they go to a party that night or on the weekend.”

Hartzell says the university has established that there could be consequences for students who don’t adhere to the mask policy. University leaders say students could also face consequences for violating other guidelines in relation to COVID-19, but they add that they’ll likely seek compliance with warnings, first.

Faculty members can hold office hours on campus, while adhering to social distancing guidelines, or via video conference.

Staff members who can work from home will continue to do so with manager approval, the university said.

Staff members who have a health condition or other risk factors or live with someone with health conditions or other risk factors can request Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations to teach remotely or request flexible teaching options.

As for athletics, those plans are still begin developed, but UT “expects to narrow even scenarios under consideration by the first week of August.”

Perspective from Students

KXAN spoke to a number of college students following the University’s announcement.

For incoming Texas Tech freshman Madeline Butler, who went to school in the Hays Consolidated Independent School District, college was always a part of the plan. However, the pandemic has made moving away from home even more nerve-wracking.

“Rush is online. Orientation is online. All the summer camps are over. So we are really nervous because when we move in, that will be the first time,” Butler said.

It’s no different for upperclassmen. University of Texas senior Brittney Colbath said she is hesitant to attend class in-person, although that is her preference to close her college experience.

“I would like to be in-person still since it is my senior year and I will be doing a lot of research. But I would really like for my bigger lecture classes to move online. That would make me feel a lot better,” Colbath said.

Colbath said the biggest concern she is hearing from fellow students is how to safely navigate life in the residence halls and off-campus. She laughed when asked about her freshman year college experience.

“We had communal showers and communal meeting spaces, study spaces and dining halls. It’s almost impossible to enforce that social distancing with that amount of students,” Colbath said.

UT officials say communal bathrooms will require scheduling, so students will need to reserve a time to shower. New plexi-glass installations will also enable social distancing.

Butler hopes she still gets the college experience she has been dreaming of since her freshman year in high school.

“You don’t get the feeling of being there [when classes are virtual],” Butler said. “Tailgates and football games and all that. We don’t know if that is promised this year.”

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