Just over a month into the fall semester, the University of Texas at Austin announced that it plans to structure the spring semester "in much the same way," according to a community-wide email sent by President Jay Hartzell.
Hartzell commended students for the adjustments they've made, which he said have helped to keep the university's COVID-19 numbers "as low as possible" and have been "largely effective" at containing the disease.
Since the current semester began on Aug. 26, the university has reported 754 cases among students and 11 among faculty and staff. Hartzell said this falls "within the range of what we had expected given UT's size" in his email.
UT Austin has a total enrollment of more than 50,000 students. Researchers at the university's COVID-19 Modeling Consortium have assumed that around around 22,000 of them either live in Austin or have returned to the city for the fall semester.
The administration announced plans in August to test 5,000 asymptomatic community members a week. But it has fallen short of that goal, testing fewer than 2,000 a week since classes began.
The university's faculty council said in a recent update that it had not been able to meet the 5,000-mark because of federal and state health information laws that prevent mandatory testing.
"The answer, in part, is that we have fewer than 5,000 people a week who have been willing to take the tests," the council wrote.
Hartzell said the university is working out "some kinks" in its proactive community testing program to try to expand its scope, including not requiring a second confirmatory test for students' whose rapid tests returned positive results, allowing for walk-up testing that does not require an appointment and debuting a new incentive program, details for which are forthcoming.
UT Austin has faced criticism from students, staff, the campus newspaper and others for its reopening plans.
Before the fall semester began, members of the Texas State Employees Union presented a petition to the UT System calling for the cancelation of in-person classes, tuition cuts and hazard pay for essential workers.
Two days before classes resumed, a photo of sorority pledges gathering—unmasked and in dense groups—in West Campus prompted blowback on social media. Reports of off-campus parties led Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott to warn Greek life organizations that such behavior could lead to criminal charges.
Earlier this month, Austinites raised concerns about the risk of transmission at football games.
At the Texas Longhorns' first home game of the season, the university required student attendees—but not others—to be tested for COVID prior to entering the stadium. Of the 1,198 students tested, 95 received positive results. This positivity rate, of nearly 8%, exceeded the local positivity rate reported by Austin Public Health and other testing sites, which was less than 5% at the time.
But Hartzell pointed to other metrics in his assessment of the university's response.
"[T]here has been a relatively small number of infections among faculty and staff members," he wrote, "and the return of our student population has not resulted in wider spread through Austin and Travis County or increased hospitalizations."
Since the fall semester began, the moving average number of new confirmed cases reported each day in Travis County has fallen from more than 150 to 107 and the moving average number of COVID-related hospital admissions has dropped from 19.6 to 13.
However, local health officials have raised concerns about the potential spread from teenagers and young adults to the broader community.
"I want to remind our young people … to please engage in protective behaviors not only in the classroom but outside the classroom," Escott said Tuesday.
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