UT-Austin names scenarios that would lead to a shutdown this fall. One trigger: a student dying of COVID-19.
Texas universities planning for students returning to class this fall in the midst of a global pandemic are already preparing for the possibility that they could have to abruptly shut down campus again if conditions worsen.
Earlier this month, the University of Texas at Austin laid out a list of scenarios that could trigger a midsemester closure. Prominent on the list: a student's death.
The acknowledgment that a student on campus could die from the coronavirus served as a grim reminder to the UT community of the risks people will be facing when thousands of students file into classrooms, dormitories and dining halls this August at a time when all Texans are being told to space out and stay home when possible.
Universities and colleges nationwide made the unprecedented move to send all students home in the middle of the spring semester, when coronavirus cases were relatively low. Now students will return to school as Texas emerges as one of the nation's hot spots for the virus, and as people in their 20s have become one of the fastest-growing populations of those being infected.
Earlier this month, UT-Austin laid out a comprehensive set of benchmarks answering the question of what it would take to close down campus again. Along with student death, these triggers to campus closure include "significant actions" by the governor or other public officials, sharply diminished hospital capacity, testing shortages on campus and unmanageable, widespread clusters of cases.
Another school closure would result in canceled sports, completely virtual instruction and students being kicked out of dorms. It also could leave universities on the hook for millions of dollars owed back to students, just as it did last spring.
As the first day of school nears, experts and public health advocates have sounded alarms for what a full-scale return to campus could do to students and the state.
"College students know they need to wear a mask, they can follow instructions ... but with the extracurriculars, the sporting events, living in dorms and shared spaces — you're going to have a lot of bodies in one area, mostly indoors," said Jill Weatherhead, a professor of tropical medicine and infectious diseases at Baylor College of Medicine. "While it may not have a massive impact on students themselves, they go back to their own communities. It's just adding fuel to this transmission cycle that is then difficult to get under control."
UT has outlined six phases, from fully open to a complete shutdown. Administrators said the school is expecting to open at Level 3 — campus buildings are open and operational, but large numbers of classes will be online. Moving to Level 4 would see further restrictions, with only "skill" classes allowed to be taught in-person, while the last level would transfer all classes online in a repeat of the spring.
While a student death would trigger school closure at UT-Austin, no mention was made of what would happen if a staff or faculty member died from the coronavirus.
A week after publishing its reopening plans, a custodial service worker tested positive and died. Interim president Jay Hartzell said in a letter to the UT community that it was the university's first death related to COVID-19.
Statistically, college students are less likely than other people to die from COVID-19. Earlier this summer, state officials pointed to people in their 20s as primary factors in the state's soaring case numbers. Although nationally around 20% of people who have contracted the virus so far are between 18 and 29, people in that age group made up only 0.5% of deaths in the country, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"From a medical standpoint, it's unlikely that someone in the age group of a student would actually die," said Amy Young, the chief clinical officer for UT Health Austin.
But the messaging has prompted outspoken concern from students like Shelby Hobohm, a UT-Austin senior who said the university's acknowledgement that students could die from campus exposure is reason enough to not have them return.
"I was shocked. ... I didn't think that was going to be said so openly," Hobohm said. "If a student dies from reopening campus — these are completely preventable deaths. They're not thinking critically about how the administration can protect people."
Hobohm said she is leaning towards completely online classes — mirroring similar decisions from Harvard University and the University of California system — as the best option for her and her classmates. Otherwise, she worries about an explosion of cases midway through the semester.
UT-Austin is something of an outlier nationally for so clearly identifying benchmarks that would trigger another shutdown.
Chris Marsicano, a professor of higher education policy at North Carolina's Davidson College who heads the newly formed College Crisis Initiative out of Davidson, is studying institutional response to the pandemic. He said he has not yet heard of a similar phased approach to shutting down from any other university.
The two other most populous institutions in the state, Texas A&M University and the University of Houston, have not released information on how officials would navigate another shutdown.
Marsicano called the list of triggers a "brilliant strategic move." By publicly outlining the steps it would take to shut down, the UT-Austin plan creates an "accountability mechanism" that can potentially ward off campus closure, he said.
"Any university administration worth its salt has a plan written down somewhere for the fall. ... The question is if they are releasing it to the public," Marsicano said. "[The University of] Texas is taking a real leadership role in higher education right now that we don't even see in the Ivy League."
On the flip side, UT-Austin has not given itself much flexibility.
"What the administrators have done is, by writing down the triggers, they have provided an expectation, a contract, to any student who enrolls," Marsicano said, adding that the university could be opening itself to lawsuits if it doesn't follow its own policy.
Yet even as UT-Austin and most other large institutions push forward with reopening, a handful of smaller schools recently decided they won't be taking the risk.
One of those is Paul Quinn College in Dallas, a historically Black institution that made the decision last week to offer online classes only, becoming one of the first colleges in the state to do so. That announcement was quickly echoed by Jarvis Christian College, another historically Black college near Longview; a third, Huston-Tillotson University in Austin, said in June it was going online.
Paul Quinn President Michael Sorrell said he made the choice after drawn-out consultation with experts. The school ultimately moved all classes online and slashed tuition by $2,000 for every student while promising Wi-Fi and laptops to those who need them.
But there will be a significant financial hit; Sorrell has already crunched the numbers and budgeted for a decrease in student enrollment.
"I'm not saying I've got a crystal ball that has told me that this isn't a risk. ... It's absolutely a risk. The difference is, it's also a risk bringing people back to a petri dish," Sorrell said. "If you have sick students everywhere, ailing staff, and heaven forbid — someone dies? That just struck me as the worst option."
This story originally appeared at The Texas Tribune, a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans—and engages with them–about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
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For the first time since July 30, the seven-day moving average for COVID hospitalizations dropped below 50 on Tuesday, reaching the Stage 4 threshold.
At 49, the number is low enough to lower guidelines, but the city has not yet changed its Stage 5 status.
Austin has been in Stage 5, the highest level of Austin Public Health's COVID risk-based guidelines, for over a month as case rates and hospitalizations surpassed last summer's surge, the Delta variant targeted the unvaccinated and a younger demographic and ICUs surpassed capacity in the Austin metro. But with the seven-day moving average at 49 on Tuesday, it may be a sign that the third surge is beginning to end.
On Tuesday, 515 new cases were reported, down from a third-surge peak of 1,261 on Thursday, Sept. 7. Two days after the peak, Austin reported 1,000 COVID deaths and broke a daily death toll record with 23 deaths in a single day.
But while cases and hospitalizations are dipping, the city still has many factors to consider before dropping safety guidelines. Austin Public Health told KXAN Wednesday that key indicators including "positivity rate, the doubling time of new cases, and current ICU and ventilator patients" will need to be evaluated first.
The metro continues to have no ICU beds available as Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes says patients from other counties come into the area to seek care. Travis County saw 35 COVID deaths for the week of Sept. 17, slightly down from a peak of 36 for two weeks prior.
The lower hospitalization rate comes as Austin reaches a 70% vaccinated population, a number once thought to be needed to reach herd immunity. With the highly contagious Delta variant, however, many think that the new herd immunity rate is closer to 80%. But Austin officials have reported being "cautiously optimistic" as the moving average for hospital admissions slowly declined from their peak of 83.6 on Aug. 11.
"We're starting to see our case numbers decrease over time, and that is an exceptional thing to say at this point, but we're still cautiously optimistic," Walkes said.
Under Stage 4 guidelines with the Delta variant, APH continues to recommend limiting dining to takeout/curbside for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated individuals and slightly lifts shopping and travel guidelines to "only if essential." Stage 4 continues to recommend masks for vaccinated individuals in social and public settings but now includes high-risk vaccinated individuals that were recommended to stay home unless essential in Stage 5.
(Austin Public Health)
(Austin Public Health)
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Austin's new police chief is former assistant chief Joseph Chacon, Austin City Manager Spencer Cronk announced Wednesday morning.
Narrowing a pool of 46 candidates down to seven, then three, Chacon beat out Avery L. Moore, assistant chief of the Dallas Police Department, and Emada E. Tingirides, deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, for the position. Austin City Council will still need to confirm the appointment come Sept. 30.
"I'm confident Interim chief Joseph Chacon is the right person to lead our City's police department to achieve results, build trust and transparency, and accomplish equitable public safety outcomes for all Austin residents and visitors," Cronk said.
Chacon, who was the interim chief for the past six months, will assume the position after Brian Manley retired in March and the department underwent scrutiny with a rise of murders and crime in the city. The Austin Police Department is also undergoing reform as a result of last year's Black Lives Matter protests that ultimately resulted in city council cutting and reallocating millions of the police budget. The department has additionally faced a staffing shortage that predates the budget cuts and was exacerbated by the halting of police cadet classes—classes have since resumed with a new curriculum at the beginning of summer.
At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Cronk said the final decision was driven by input from the community. He said Chacon is committed to reshaping public safety and gaining the trust of the community—putting in the work to do so.
Chacon acknowledged APD is at a crossroads, saying its relationship with the community needs a reset and it the department will be committed to transparency. He cited a change he made as interim chief that releases video of officer-involved incidents in 10 days as opposed to 60, which he says is in line with such expectations of transparency.
When discussing the spike in homicides, he said the homicide unit has worked to solve most cases and hold those responsible accountable.
"We remain one of the safest big cities in the United States and this is in large part due to to the daily efforts of the men and women of this department who show up every day with courage, respect, professionalism, integrity and a heart for service," Chacon said. "They keep this city safe every day."
He also addressed the attrition rates at the department, citing that while officers are leaving at high numbers, people are also applying at record rates.
Like Manley, Chacon is an internal hire; Cronk said he did not anticipate making an internal hire initially.
Chacon has been in law enforcement for 28 years and was appointed assistant chief in Austin in 2016.
"I am extremely excited and humbled by this amazing opportunity," Chacon said. "Austin PD is at a critical juncture, and I am honored that the city manager is showing the trust in me to lead this amazing organization. I will be engaging our department employees and our community to make sure we are moving forward in the best way possible."
This story was updated after the 1:30 p.m. press conference.
What, you think the only thing there is to do at Austin City Limits is to watch your favorite artists? Must be your first time. ACL is more than just a dreamy three-day soundscape in the park—between sets, the festival has so much to offer that it's nearly impossible to get bored.
You're bound to have some downtime while attending ACL 2021, so when you do, make an effort to explore the booths, zones, markets and branded seatbelt forests—you'll be glad you did.
Ice for your Hydroflask
(Katrina Barber for ACL Fest)
Empty plastic or aluminum water bottles are welcomed inside the festival and ACL does a great job of keeping attendees hydrated, so there's no reason to buy water or waste plastic while attending. You have to bring the bottles in empty but there are several filling stations for water bottles located around the park. None of them offer ice, which can be essential during those 100-degree days. Head to any of the bars located in the park and ask for a cup of ice—bartenders are happy to part with it and you'll be cool as a cucumber!
Access to private lounges
Need a break from the never-ending sun? A snack that doesn't cost $30? There are private, shady lounges all over the park—some for exclusive ticket holders, some waiting to be discovered by even the one-day crowd. Take for instance the T-Mobile Lounge, located adjacent to the stage of the same name, offered patrons a wristband to access the lounge in exchange for a social media post back in 2019. If you're an American Express cardholder, the benefits are numerous: a lounge open only to cardholders and complimentary merch awaits those who don the card.
Free prizes, snacks and drinks
(Katrina Barber for ACL Fest)
With dozens of vendors on the grounds, swag is not hard to find. You might have to play a game, answer some trivia or post on social media to qualify but the free merch often comes in handy. Forgot a fan? A vendor has one. Need a bandana? Visit the Tito's stand. Lose your water bottle, sunscreen or earplugs? A vendor has you covered, so be generous with the Instagram tags.
The ACL Art Market
(Roger Ho for ACL)
Support local by visiting the artisans at the festival's art market, located in the center of the park. Artists from all walks of life and levels of success sell their artwork yearly at the festival, so you'll need space to store your new keepsake if you're planning to collect. Blue Lux, Austin Art Garage, Greg Davis and Futurgarb are a few previous attendees. You'll know you've made it when you stumble across the massive, colorful "ART" sign.
Clean up trash for free merch
(Katrina Barber for ACL Fest)
Ensuring that Austin's beloved park stays clean throughout the festival, ACL partners with Austin Parks Foundation for its "Rock & Recycle" program that offers a little something for everyone. Stop by the Austin Parks Foundation booth when you have some free time to pick up a bag, fill it up with littered recyclable items and return the full bag for a free T-shirt—that's it. Plus, you can be entered to win other contests every time you help keep the park clean.
See some interactive art installations
Each partner at the festival has something up their sleeves, often worth exploring. As ACL partners change, you're likely to see some returns, like the Honda Seatbelt Forest or the Bumble BFF Find Your Bestie Booth. In 2019, Honda gave attendees a colorful backdrop to pose in front of and a break from the chaos, whereas Bumble promised to introduce you to a new friend and gave out merch to those who gave it a go!
Lend your ear (or your wallet) to a good cause
(Roger Ho for ACL Fest)
ACL is more than just a festival—it's a time to raise awareness for local organizations. Stop by the ACL Cares area, where nonprofits and organizations gather to spread the word, and you're likely to find organizations like Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, SIMS Foundation, Austin Music Foundation, Keep Austin Beautiful, The Nature Conservancy and the Love Hope Strength Foundation, where you can register to be a bone marrow donor at the festival.
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