100% Austin news, info, and entertainment, straight to your inbox at 6 a.m. every morning.
In five minutes, you're fully informed and ready to start another great day in our city.
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.
- UT Austin releases fall semester plan - austonia ›
- University of Texas at Austin will require masks in campus buildings ... ›
- UT students to come back in August but leave after Thanksgiving ... ›
- UT plans on Longhorns football in fall 2020 - austonia ›
- Texas A&M, University of Texas systems expect to reopen in the fall ... ›
- Longhorns fans will mask up at home games University of Texas - austonia ›
- UT Austin students gathered without masks get blasted on social media, university responds - austonia ›
- UT-Austin says it will require only student ticket holders to test negative for COVID-19 before Saturday’s football game - austonia ›
- UT Austin debuts new hologram program amid pandemic - austonia ›
- UT Austin announces plans for spring semester amid COVID - austonia ›
- UT Austin reports second staff member death related to COVID - austonia ›
- 30-story student housing tower breaks ground in West Campus - austonia ›
Soccer, the sport of many names, is reflected on and off the pitch in the multicultural city of Austin, from fan clubs like Los Verdes to the Austin FC roster.
Spanning across four continents and 12 countries, Austin FC's roster comes from all corners of the globe.
Austin FC's first signee, Rodney Redes, hails from Paraguay. So does the club's first Designated Player, Cecilio Dominguez. Five other players' hometowns are in South America, while five others are from Europe or Africa. While most on the roster signed to Austin FC from other MLS teams, Austin FC players have played as far north as Finland, as far east as Israel and as far south as Argentina.
English and Spanish are the most spoken languages on the team, although Zan Kolmanic speaks Slovenian and the club is well-traveled, too: Jon Gallagher has lived in six countries, while Kekuta Manneh, the club's only true Austinite, left behind all he knew in Gambia to move to the city in high school.
The multiculturalism on the pitch goes hand-in-hand with the city of Austin itself. Over 30% of the city's population is of Hispanic or Latino descent, and Austin is a majority-minority city (meaning non-Hispanic Whites make up less than 50% of the population).
It's brought even the most unlikely groups together; while supporters of Liga MX and the English Premier League used to be on opposite sides of the bar, now they come together in green.
Jorge Chavez, a member of Austin FC fan club Austin Anthem, said that Austin FC helps unite a city full of travelers and move-ins.
"A lot people here are from all these different places, and they might not have that much in common with each other, but now they do," Chavez said.
- Austin FC's Jon Gallagher has lived in six countries - austonia ›
- Julio Cascante comes from Portland Timbers to Austin FC - austonia ›
- Sebastian Berhalter is Austin FC's youngest team member - austonia ›
- Designated Player Cecilio Dominguez is joining Austin FC in his ... ›
- Rodney Redes brings young talent to Austin FC - austonia ›
- Kekuta Manneh's says there's no place like Austin FC - austonia ›
- Austin FC fan Brad Tillery gets Verde Keeper kit from Stuver - austonia ›
- 12 Austin FC fans get inked up in tattoo marathon - austonia ›
- Austin's Latino's feels "close to home" with Austin FC - austonia ›
Less than a week after a fatal mass shooting on Sixth Street and amid rising concerns about violent gun crime, state Republican leaders and gun lobbyists gathered for a celebratory press conference, where Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law seven bills expanding gun rights, including one allowing permitless carry.
"This is a prolific day for the Second Amendment in the state of Texas," House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said at Alamo Hall in San Antonio on Thursday.
The bills take effect Sept. 1 and include:
- Senate Bill 19: Prohibits state contracts with companies that plan to divest from firearm ammunition companies
- SB 20: Bars hotels from prohibiting guests from bringing guns into their rooms
- SB 550: Permits a person to carry a gun in any type of holster
- House Bill 957: Exempts suppressors made in Texas from federal regulations
- HB 1500: Designates firearms and ammunition sellers and manufacturers as essential businesses
- HB 1927: Allows residents 21 years of age and older to carry a handgun without a permit
- HB 2622: Designates Texas "Second Amendment Sanctuary State"
This expansion of gun rights comes as violent crime rates rise in major U.S. cities, including Austin, where murders were up 50% year-over-year in April.
This week, Austin police arrested two juveniles in connection with the mass shooting on Sixth Street early Saturday morning, left one dead and 14 others injured. Two months ago, a former Travis County sheriff's deputy shot and killed three people in North Austin, prompting an hours-long manhunt.
"We support the right of every law-abiding American to be able to have a weapon to defend themselves," Abbott said. "That is different from teenagers unlawfully getting access to guns to commit crime. Those are people who deserve to be behind bars for the rest of their lives."
Local public safety advocates have attributed this rise to police budget cuts, which Austin City Council enacted last August, but cities that increased their police spending are also seeing increases.
In light of rising violent crime rates, the Austin Police Department launched a gun crime prevention program in April. Although not all violent crime involves guns, gun violence is increasing and may involve stolen guns or illegally manufactured "ghost" guns. "I'm just very concerned about the number of illegally possessed firearms and how we can curb that," Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon said during an April 15 press conference.
Rising violent crime rates continue to spur gun sales in the Austin area—and around the country. "In this increasingly dangerous world, people want to be able to protect themselves," embattled NRA President Wayne LaPierre said at the press conference Thursday. "Thank god Texas is leading the way in making that possible.
A long shot
Conservative activists have lobbied for permitless carry for years, without success. But state lawmakers reached a compromise last month after the Senate added a series of amendments to address concerns from law enforcement groups, which worried permitless carry would endanger officers and make it easier for criminals to access guns.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick celebrated the bill's passage, which he described as an expansion of Texans' freedoms. "The media needs to understand that you are so far out of touch with where Texans and Americans are on this issue," he said.
Nearly 60% of Texas voters opposed permitless carry, according to an April University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll. Melanie Greene, lead volunteer for the Moms Demand Action Austin group, recently told Austonia that state lawmakers are likely motivated to pursue such legislation because of a small, vocal minority of gun rights activists and the threat of drawing even more conservative opponents in primary elections.
- Austin police: Violent crime uptick could be 'here to stay' - austonia ›
- Austin police seek to increase prosecution of violent gun crime as ... ›
- Abbott goes against latest Biden gun control policy with push for ... ›
- After Austin shooting, Texas lawmakers mull permitless carry ... ›
- 5 things to know about the permitless gun carry law in Texas - austonia ›
Austin's tech labor market, which was already tight heading into the pandemic, has grown even more so as California companies flock to the capital city. It's made for a situation where employers are listening more to worker demands to fill job openings.
For tech workers—like their counterparts in the restaurant, construction and myriad other industries facing labor shortages—that means setting their own terms, such as remote work options and higher wages.
"We are living in times when the employees are the king or the queen," said Angelos Angelou, founder and CEO of local consulting firm AngelouEconomics.
A talent center
Lured by the state's business-friendly climate and Austin's growing tech scene, California-based companies such as Tesla, Oracle and TikTok built factories, relocated headquarters and opened offices. Austin posted the highest tech migration rate of any city in the country between May 2020 and April 2021, according to a recent LinkedIn analysis.
With so many new resident businesses, job growth kept pace. The Austin metro ranked fourth nationally for tech job postings growth in March, according to Silicon Valley Bank's latest State of the Markets report.
Oracle relocated its headquarters to the Riverside location in Austin. (Shutterstock)
To fill these roles, local tech companies have to look beyond the city limits. Employers poach from their competitors, recruit recent graduates from area colleges and universities or look to the national labor market for talent, Angelou said.
Summer Salazar, director of employer engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, has seen a huge influx in tech sector job postings on the university's job board in recent months. "We feel that demand," she said.
An employee's market
Jaime Cabrera, 28, recently graduated from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin and is looking for a policy job at a social media company. He didn't go into his job search with plans to stay in Austin but has seen various intriguing openings, citing Bumble, Lyft and TikTok. "I didn't realize how many companies are here," he said.
The tech labor market also affects employees who are not looking for a new job but instead seeking better benefits or internal policy changes from their current employer.
Lawrence Humphrey, 27, lives in North Austin and works for IBM. Shortly after the murder of George Floyd, he co-founded Tech Can Do Better, which advocates for a more equitable industry. Since then, there has been little quantitative progress in terms of more diverse hiring and other metrics. But there has been a qualitative shift. "Issues around racial equity are just far more of a priority from the perspective of the employees, so therefore it's far more of a priority for the employers," he said.
OG vs. newcomers
Although the pandemic has accelerated the growth of Austin's tech industry, the industry was already established. In the latter half of the 20th century, the city attracted big tech originators like IBM because of its enticingly low labor cost and spawned homegrown giants like Dell—trends that continue today.
The arrival of Silicon Valley tech transplants in other growing tech cities, such as Miami, has led to tension with the so-called old guard. In Austin, such competition has forced companies to compete for workers, leading to more mobility.
"When I was in the job market, my god if you changed jobs often—and often meant once every three years—you were considered a traitor," said Angelou, who headed the Austin Chamber's economic development department from 1984 through 1995, helping to recruit companies such as IBM, Apple and Samsung to town. "Now people change jobs every nine months, it appears, and that is considered a plus."
- California tech employees move to austin for business and way of ... ›
- Burnt out? Austin companies offer new employee benefits - austonia ›
- Austin millennials lead recent labor union drives - austonia ›
- Buc-ee's avoids national workers shortage with benefits - austonia ›
- Austin has worse national worker shortage with less workers ... ›