UT students who violate COVID-19 rules could face suspension, but not fines


A person wearings a UT Austin shirt and a mask walks in West Campus. (KXAN Photo/ Richie Bowes).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — UT Austin confirmed to KXAN Wednesday that the university’s plan is to start off the fall semester without issuing fines to students, faculty, or staff who may violate COVID-19 rules such as requirements to wear face coverings or requirements to social distance.

As KXAN reported yesterday, UT students who violate COVID-19 guidelines repeatedly or threaten the health and safety of campus community members may be subject to penalties from the office of the Dean of Students, including suspension from campus.

At UT Austin, classes for the fall semester will begin on August 26 with a mix of in-person and online course offerings. Students are moving into the dorms this week.

UT is requiring that “recommended protective face masks” be worn while indoors and had also set up expectations that all campus community members keep social distance.

Face coverings are not required when campus community members are alone in a private office, eating in a campus dining facility or when students are in their own residence hall rooms. When outdoors, these face coverings are encouraged but not required.

The latest executive order from Texas Governor Greg Abbott requires face coverings except in counties that have opted out. The order states that a verbal or written warning would happen for a first-time violation and each subsequent violation would merit a $250 fine. Law enforcement can and should enforce this order, the governor said, but no law enforcement may detain, arrest, or jail people who violate this order (though law enforcement may act to enforce trespassing laws).

Another order this summer from Governor Abbott prohibits outdoor gatherings of more than 10 people with certain exceptions. Local officials can enforce this executive order and other restrictions consistent with it, the order says, so long as people are not put in jail for violating the order.

UT Austin spokesperson J.B. Bird told KXAN Wednesday the university shares the goals the governor outlined in his orders in regards to masking and social gatherings. Bird said the university has adopted rules that mirror what the governor has laid out in these areas.

“While fines are permitted under the orders, universities have other effective ways to enforce conduct rules for students and employees, and our initial plan is to use these established processes,” Bird explained.

Additionally, Bird said Wednesday that some enforcement details are still being worked out.

Yesterday Bird also explained to KXAN these social distancing and masking rules will be enforced on UT students by the Dean of Students office, on faculty by the Office of the Provost, and on staff by university Human Resources.

UT sent KXAN a link to the processes for COVID-19 rules for students and how they will be enforced.

We did not receive details about the specifics of enforcement of COVID-19 rules for faculty and staff, but Bird clarified Wednesday that there are already established policies for faculty and staff misconduct.

“That’s not unique to the pandemic – the only unique part is that they are expected to follow the rules on face coverings and social distancing, similar to students,” Bird said of the processes for faculty and staff.

Bird said that if there is a visitor on campus who is not a student, faculty, or staff member, the UT Austin Police Department will be responsible for enforcing those health guidelines for the visitor. Additionally, UTPD will be asked to step in if a university employee attempts to enforce a COVID-19 guideline and the instance escalates to a criminal violation. 

UTPD spokesperson Noelle Newton noted yesterday that UTPD does not enforce university rules. The department only enforces criminal violations of state law.

Newton went on to explain that COVID-19 health violations will be addressed like other issues on campus — in a tiered approach involving other university employees first and then potentially involving UTPD if things escalate.

“For example, university representatives would make the first contact in situations of university rules violations and request compliance,” Newton explained.

“If the subject doesn’t comply, the university representative can ask the person to leave the premises,” she continued. “If the subject does not comply with university rules and refuses to leave, it becomes a criminal trespass issue. UTPD will respond to acts of criminal trespass.”

Newton added that UTPD officers’ goal is to educate the public and that if officers happen to see groups congregating, “we may educate them by giving them information and ask that they abide by CDC guidelines.”

When UT community members are outside the bounds of the campus, they will be subject to the city of Austin’s COVID-19 rules which require business employees and customers to wear face coverings in most instances. Additionally, gatherings of a groups of more than ten people who don’t live in the same household are prohibited in the city of Austin.

Violators of these city rules can be punished with fines depending on the circumstances.

COVID-19 rules for UT Students

The UT Dean of Students, who oversees student conduct, has set up specific rules that students must comply with to protect against the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

Students are required to wear “recommended protective face masks” at all times indoors (with several exceptions as previously noted).

The Dean of Students clearly states that “deliberately putting others at risk by coughing on, spitting on, sneezing on, and/or purposefully invading the personal space of others while not wearing a recommended protective face mask” violates university rules and can result in penalties.

Any students who refuse to follow directions to wear a “recommended protective face mask” will be referred to Student Conduct and Academic Integrity for disciplinary action. Repeat violations of this direction could lead to additional punishment for the student, including suspension from campus.

Additionally, students “deliberately engaging in behavior that threatens the health and safety students, faculty, staff, and visitors” will also be referred for student conduct discipline with possible punishments including suspension, depending on how severe the incident is.

During class, both instructors and students are required to wear face coverings, the university says. If a student refuses to wear a face covering in class, they will be asked to leave or put their face covering back on.

If the student still refuses to wear a face mask, the instructor may cancel class and dock the student’s participation grade for the day.

The university also says that students, faculty staff, and visitors must keep six feet distance from one another at all times or face disciplinary action.

The office of the Dean of Students has already set up an online system where community members can report violations made by students. The office wrote that it anticipates a high volume of reports made on this platform and urges people filing reports to make them as specific and complete as possible. Due to federal privacy laws, the university notes, people who file reports may not be notified of what happened as a result of the report about a student’s behavior.

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