AUSTIN (KXAN) — As the University of Texas at Austin prepares to end in-person instruction for the semester on Nov. 24, university officials are urging campus community members to take precautions to curb the spread of COVID-19. Longhorn community members are being asked to self-quarantine seven days prior to their travel and then for an additional seven days once they have reached their destination.
For someone planning to travel on Nov. 25, that would mean starting their self-quarantine on Nov. 18. UT’s recommendation is a little more lenient than Austin Public Health’s, which advises students to isolate for two weeks prior to traveling over the holidays.
The university is also strongly recommending campus community members get COVID-19 testing through UT’s Proactive Community Testing program or through other COVID-19 testing resources in Austin. Those who get tested outside of the university are encouraged to self-report any positive test results to the university.
Dr. Terrance Hines, Executive Director of University Health Services at UT Austin, advised UT community members to get tested two days prior to their planned travel as the results from testing at the university can take one to two days to turn around. Those who get tested through Austin Public Health resources may be asked to wait up to five days for the results to be returned.
“We’ve really been able to expand our testing services over the last several months,” said Hines.
Hines emphasized the testing is available on campus for free and whether or not the UT community member getting tested has symptoms.
Classes at UT Austin resumed in a hybrid model for the fall semester, with students taking a mix of online and in-person classes. Since May, the university has been planning to stop in-person instruction on campus after the Thanksgiving holiday. When classes begin again on Nov. 30, they will be entirely online.
UT’s COVID-19 dashboard, which reports cases among students, faculty and staff, showed smaller numbers of case counts that never reached more than 40 per day until in-person classes resumed in late August. The numbers spiked in late August and early September, which Hines believes was the result of students infected elsewhere returning to Austin as well as initial socializing during the semester.
“Once we got things going, things really kind of settled down,” Hines said of the COVID-19 cases on campus. “And we were fairly flat through most of the semester. Unfortunately, probably a little bit related to Halloween and maybe some fatigue—everyone’s getting tired of having to deal with COVID for the past eight months—we’re seeing a little bit of an uptick in the last week or two.”
Which is why Hines said the university has been asking students to double down on the precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, both in Austin and in students’ hometowns.
The residence halls will remain open through Dec. 17 when the semester ends, and Hines expects that some students will return to the residence halls after traveling home for Thanksgiving. When those students return after Thanksgiving, UT will encourage them to limit their social interactions when they get back to Austin and get tested again.
UT Austin tells KXAN around 3,000 students are currently in the on-campus residence halls and around 1,000 will return for the end of the semester after Thanksgiving. UT estimated around 26,000 students, or slightly more than half of its student body, were in Austin this semester, but the university says it doesn’t have any solid way of knowing how many will return to Austin after Thanksgiving.
“Fortunately, as a city, we’re doing better than a lot of places around the state and around the country,” Hines said. “And we want to make sure that we can do our best to keep it that way.”
This also means when many UT students return for in-person classes in the spring, they may be traveling to Austin from places where COVID-19 is spreading much faster.
“It’s a concern,” Hines said of the potential of the virus to spread from students returning to Austin in the spring. He said the university plans to continue limiting gatherings, requiring face coverings, and testing frequently during the Spring.
In a letter to the UT community Nov. 9, UT president Jay Hartzell wrote Longhorns had “answered the call” in adapting to challenges of a semester during COVID-19 and encouraged the community to “keep up the positive momentum.”
But Hartzell also acknowledged “cases are beginning to rise again in Austin, and it’s up to each of us to wear masks, practice social distancing, wash our hands and remain vigilant and use good judgment in the days ahead.”
Guidance from Austin Public Health
Austin Public Health sent KXAN the following statement offering guidance to students planning to travel for the Thanksgiving holiday:
“Austin Public Health wants everyone to have a safe and happy holiday season. For college students returning home for the semester, we especially want to make sure that they are keeping the loved ones that they’re returning home to safe from COVID-19. Our recommendation is that everyone self-isolate for two weeks before traveling home, and travel in the safest way that is feasible for you.
Getting a negative COVID-19 test is not a replacement for safely self-isolating. If students do choose to test for COVID-19 before heading home, they should be taking the test 3 days or more after their most recent potential COVID-19 exposure and should stay isolated until they travel home. Additionally, a negative test taken prior to departure does not prevent a person from being exposed en-route to their destination, which can also place loved ones at risk.
We recommend everyone leave at least 5 days for test results if they are being tested through Austin Public Health. Austin Public Health cannot expedite individual test results for travel or holidays. The safety of our community is important, and we know that with students leaving from and returning to Austin for the holidays, it is essential that we think about the consequences of not keeping our loved ones safe.”-Austin Public Health