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Mask mandate, hybrid classes, early departure: University of Texas at Austin releases fall semester plan
The University of Texas at Austin released a plan for the fall semester that includes online, hybrid and in-person courses and mandatory masks, among other measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
"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," Interim President Jay Hartzell said in the statement. "And I know that things are changing every day."
The plans for the semester, which will start August 26, include the following:
- Classes will be online, in-person, or a hybrid, but they will all have the same tuition rates.
- Students may take the full semester online.
- In-person courses will end November 25, before Thanksgiving. After that, students will mostly stay off-campus and take finals online from December 7 to 16.
- Classes will take place from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. with a 40% cap on capacity in each classroom.
- Many hybrid and in-person courses will be streamed or recorded for students who become ill or need to self-isolate to continue their course progress.
The plan was released shortly after a meeting of the UT System Board of Regents concluded. Speaking during the meeting, Chancellor James Milliken emphasized the importance of students continuing their education instead of taking time off.
"We know from student surveys that if we do not open, many students will choose to pause their education, and we know from research that pausing has an impact on persistence and graduation," Milliken said. "The most vulnerable students, low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students, will be at the greatest risk of falling off the path to success."
UT Austin's reopening plan also included stipulations for health and wellness pertaining to university buildings and residence halls. Masks will be required at all times when in campus buildings, except when alone in a private office, alone in a dorm room with a roommate, eating and drinking in dining facilities, and in other cases approved under the American's with Disabilities Act or for religious reasons.
The university is still developing plans for hosting football games and other athletic events in the fall in accordance with state, local and Big 12 Conference guidelines.
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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.