Sign up for The Brief, our daily newsletter that keeps readers up to speed on the most essential Texas news.
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.
Positive cases in Texas have not risen this high since the mask mandate was rescinded in March, while hospitalizations across the state have reached levels not seen since February, right after Texas experienced its largest spike in cases. Meanwhile, 44% of the eligible Texans are fully vaccinated.
“It’s almost feeling a little bit of helplessness in the sense that, ‘What can we actually do to make the situation better in the fall?’” said UT-Austin senior Steven Ding, who is president of the Senate of College Councils. “There’s a little more hope because there is a clear answer to resolving a lot of this mess: to get vaccinated. But I’m going to be a senior next year and [for] other students at this age, it’s the frustration that it’s this all over again.”
At least one school made a slight change to its reopening plan this week. Banks, A&M’s president, announced that everyone must participate in COVID-19 testing within the first two weeks of returning to campus regardless of their vaccination status. The school is also starting a drawing to incentivize students to get the vaccine. Winners could get some educational expenses covered.
The University of Texas at Arlington’s leaders said while they are moving forward with reopening as announced, they have started to discuss what to do if the university is forced to scale back operations this fall, including hybrid classes and telework options.
“We’ve got 40,000 students on the campus that we need to serve,” said John Hall, vice president for administration and campus operations, at UT-Arlington. “[We] didn’t have that a year ago.”
Meanwhile, some smaller private universities in Texas have made more drastic changes in response to increased cases, including mask requirements indoors and weekly testing for unvaccinated students and employees.
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.”
UT-Austin did not respond to requests for comment.
While some faculty say they are sympathetic to administrators, others said there has been much less communication about how to handle this semester compared to last fall. As cases increase, faculty leaders on campuses across the state said they have heard from increasingly anxious professors, especially those with young children or immunocompromised family members at home who cannot get a vaccine.
“It’s not one person rocking the boat. It's not one person expressing concern,” said Gina Nuñez-Mchiri, professor and faculty chair at the University of Texas at El Paso, who said she’s been inundated with texts and phone calls from fellow professors seeking guidance. “That fear is real, that anxiety is real, it’s palpable. And I think leaders in higher education need to be listening, need to be aware and not ignore these concerns.”
Public universities in multiple states across the country, including California, Minnesota, Missouri and Michigan, have reinstated mask mandates in recent weeks. Indiana University instituted a vaccine mandate for students and employees, which an appeals court upheld after it was challenged by some students.
Recently, a group of nearly 30 national higher education organizations, including the NCAA, released a joint statement condemning states that have banned mask and vaccine mandates in higher education.
“These restrictions undermine the ability of all organizations, including colleges and universities, to operate safely and fully at a time of tremendous unpredictability,” the statement read. “Furthermore, these restrictions prohibit higher education institutions from taking responsible and reasonable public health measures and ultimately threaten the health and safety of students, faculty, staff, and neighboring communities.”
In a statement, Abbott’s spokesperson defended the governor’s decision to end the mask mandate.
“Governor Abbott has been clear that the time for government mandating of masks is over—now is the time for personal responsibility,” said Renae Eze. “Every Texan has the right to choose whether they will wear a mask, or have their children wear masks.”
In messages to university communities, officials say they encourage, but don’t require masks and vaccines. Many universities are continuing to offer free COVID-19 testing and will continue contact tracing efforts, mandatory reporting of a positive COVID-19 test and quarantine requirements for students who become infected.
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.
Other university officials said they have shied away from voluntary surveys because they often have low response rates that don’t provide enough data to draw conclusions about the entire school community. For instance, at Texas Tech, the spring survey had just a 21% response rate out of the entire university population.
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.
Last year, much of the spread among college students occurred off campus as most schools required masks for in-person classes. Rice, the faculty leader at A&M, anticipates a similar situation with students attending parties and events that lead to the spread of the virus, especially at the start of the academic year. He worries how that will contribute to the situation this fall, despite the fact that people can get vaccinated now.
“So many people have a strong desire to get back to normal, they will treat the opening of the semester as a normal academic year,” he said. “And I think it’s anything but. It’s incredibly far from a normal academic year. We can pretend that it is to some degree. But that’s what’s going on. We’re pretending.”
Disclosure: Texas A&M University, Baylor University, Rice University, St. Edward's University, Texas Christian University, Texas Tech University, University of Texas at Arlington, University of Texas at Austin and University of Texas at El Paso have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
Join us Sept. 20-25 at the 2021 Texas Tribune Festival. Tickets are on sale now for this multi-day celebration of big, bold ideas about politics, public policy and the day’s news, curated by The Texas Tribune’s award-winning journalists. Learn more.