‘It makes me uneasy’ — Incoming UT-Austin freshman on mask optional policy

Texas

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Masking is still up in the air as University of Texas-Austin students return to campus. Austin Mayor Steve Adler extended his mask mandate to all public colleges on Friday, but UT has not announced if it will enforce it.

With more restrictions possibly coming into question, one incoming freshman says she is eager for a return to in-person classes for the first time in over a year.

“I haven’t even stepped foot in a classroom since March of 2020,” said Delaney Sorenson.

Sorenson spent her entire senior year of high school behind a computer screen. And she’s hoping her college freshman year looks more like pre-pandemic times. But with the delta variant on the rise and ICU beds nearing capacity across Austin, COVID-19 is threatening her wish.

“I do fear that it will interfere with how my freshman year will play out,” Sorenson said. “I was thinking, ‘oh, well, if it ruins my senior year, I just pray that it won’t ruin my freshman year.’ But with this new variant, it does scare me that I’ll just be online the whole entire time and just hunkered in my bed.”

delaney sorensen UT
UT freshman Delaney Sorensen says she is eager for a return to in-person classes for the first time in over a year. (Clare O’Connor/KXAN)

To alleviate some of this worry in first-year students like Sorenson, UT is pointing to its program designed for freshmen, called 360 connections. A learning community of 20 students that meet regularly to support each other inside and outside the classroom.

Patricia Micks, director of the first-year experience office at UT, says the support groups act as a home base.

“I tell new students to really embrace that small group that they will be in, because they’ll have that throughout the whole semester,” said Micks. “It’s naturally going to be a huge touch point for them in terms of getting acclimated to campus life and life away from home.”

Just like last year, students will have this group if COVID-19 forces classes to meet virtually. But Sorenson hopes spending another year behind a computer screen is not in store for her fall semester.

“It’s going to make meeting new people way harder,” said Sorenson. “And if the delta variant gets worse, I’m assuming a lot of people will end up just going back home. So, it’ll basically be senior year all over again.”

As of now, 88.6% of classes are in-person, 6.8% are hybrid, and 4.6% are online at UT. The university says these numbers represent a normal fluctuation heading into the fall semester.

Students will be required to submit a negative COVID-19 test ahead of the first day of classes on Aug. 25. But masks will not be required. Sorenson believes this lack of regulation is a risky move.

“I think it should be a requirement,” said Sorenson. “It does make me uneasy knowing that there are going to be a lot of people that don’t want the vaccine. And there are going to be a lot of people that don’t want to wear a mask.”

Austin Community College announced Friday that they will be enforcing masks on campus. Because UT is on state property, they are exempt from this local order.

Micks says although the semester may start off with a different feel, UT is predicting a bustling campus.

“The first few weeks might look a little bit different than students might have imagined or anticipated,” said Micks. “It’s hard to think of anything going back to exactly how we were. But right now, we are expecting many students to return to campus.”

Sorenson is hopeful her college days down the road look brighter.

“Maybe freshman year will be not exactly what I hoped for it to be,” said Sorenson. “But, overall for the next four years, I am optimistic that things will get better.”

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