“Protect Texas Together” is UT Austin’s comprehensive plan to operate safely while the coronavirus pandemic continues. But after seeing other universities open for the fall and then shut down because of coronavirus cases, some students say they don't feel very protected.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Notre Dame University and Michigan State University are among the schools that returned to virtual classes after spikes in COVID-19 cases led them to abandon plans for in-person classes. At Texas A&M University, officials are reporting more than 400 coronavirus cases within two weeks of students returning to campus.
UT Austin starts classes on Wednesday amid concerns that the same thing could happen there. Modeling from UT’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium shows between 82 and 183 students could arrive back on campus for fall classes already infected with COVID-19. The researchers also found between 156 and 341 UT students would be expected to test positive if all students were tested during the first week of the semester.
UT has taken steps to try to reduce the risk, such as limiting in-person classes; testing symptomatic and asymptomatic community members; and banning parties on or off campus.
Megan Menchaca is a senior government and journalism major from Frisco, and the managing editor of the student newspaper The Daily Texan. She says she fears, parties or not, a COVID-19 outbreak seems inevitable.
"That's what students are worried about, just the amount of cases, not the parties," Menchaca said. "The nature of interactions with other people and classes and general gatherings is going to lead to COVID spread, and that's almost impossible to prevent."
Menchaca acknowledges there may not be an ideal arrangement given the circumstances.
"The pandemic isn't creating a lot of good options for anybody," she said. "So there's no right answer for what the university can do, which creates a really tough place for them to be in."
It’s "surreal," she says, to see the university and campus community function under COVID-19 restrictions. Listen to the interview below or read the transcript to hear more from Menchaca about what she anticipates from a senior year she could not have possibly imagined.
This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:
Megan Menchaca: Students who are coming back have seen other schools. They've seen UNC. They’ve seen Notre Dame. All of which opened with lots of precautions and sanitizing stations and social distancing measures, but it still wasn't enough to stop outbreaks on campus from happening and the eventual shutdown of the universities.
UT students see that, and even despite the university's guidelines, they worry that the same thing is going to happen at UT. They don't trust that all the preparations and rules are going to keep that from happening.
KUT: I know some of the problems that have been at other schools were the result of off-campus gatherings and parties. Do students have concerns about those?
Menchaca: Everyone, not just students, is worried about the possibility that students will party even though the university has banned it. But honestly the main concern is just UT’s own model estimates that they invited back more than 100 students who will test positive for COVID-19. And that's just about as many that caused UNC and Notre Dame to shut down.
So even without parties, there's going to be more than 100 cases. That's what students are worried about, just the amount of cases, not the parties. The nature of interactions with other people and classes and general gatherings is going to lead to COVID spread, and that's almost impossible to prevent.
KUT: What are you hearing from faculty and staff about their responses and reactions to classes resuming this fall?
Menchaca: Just like students, professors would like if their classes were all in person. But oftentimes they simply just can't make it work due to COVID concerns. The university is allowing people who are high-risk teach online, but some professors are still really concerned about their safety and others are worried about creating a community in the classroom remotely — especially among freshmen who have never been to campus and don't really have that college student experience coming into the year.
The other people I want to talk about is staff who – especially people like custodians or dining workers — don't have the luxury of working from home. And a lot of these staff members are more worried than anybody about having to come back to campus and be constantly exposed to coronavirus. And they're also upset that a staff member dying didn't trigger a more comprehensive shutdown from the university.
KUT: Ideally, then, what would you and other students want UT to have done for this semester?
Menchaca: I don't want to speak for other students or even speak for myself. But I think the university was put in a tough spot here where professors have to have money to teach. The university has to have money to do certain programs. A lot of students were even kept on in leases, too, so they’ll be coming back to campus regardless. There is not one option for anybody, the pandemic isn't creating a lot of good options for anybody. So there's no right answer for what the university can do, which creates a really tough place for them to be in.
Having these tests and sanitation protocols on campus is going to obviously help keep everybody safer. But after seeing how other schools have handled it — even if those schools were maybe more in-person than UT has been — worries some students that the inevitable COVID outbreaks will come to UT once classes start.
KUT: One of the themes that has come up as we've seen coverage of other schools that have already opened and then had COVID cases and then had to go all virtual again — this idea that it's students’ behavior that led to that and things like off-campus parties. I'm curious to hear your reaction to this idea that students aren't responsible enough to follow rules.
Menchaca: There is a lot of responsibility on us, right? Everyone — especially in the pandemic — it is on the students to prevent the spread of COVID. But I also think they've been put in a situation where that spread is inevitable, and blaming them for the inevitable is just wrong.
UT’s model predicts that 150 to about 300 students would test positive if UT tested everybody. But we haven't tested everybody. Students weren’t required to get a negative test before coming to campus. So there's a lot of COVID-positive students who are just spreading it even without partying, even just going to classes, seeing their friends in small groups.
KUT: Can you talk about what it's like to be on and around campus in this environment as classes are about to start?
Menchaca: It's a little surreal to see most people wearing masks as you walk around. There are sanitation stations in the buildings. There are limits on capacity in the elevators. Seating is limited. It is very surreal to see the university that you've attended for three years look so different.
KUT: You're a senior. What is it like for you to be coming back to a senior year that's so different than any other year has been?
Menchaca: That's something I try not to think about as much. In March and April, I realized that the rest of my life, while the pandemic was still around, was not going to look the same. I kind of resigned myself to the fact I wouldn't get a normal senior year and have to accept those circumstances and just move on from that.
But it's a lot easier to adapt now versus in March where everything was so uncertain and changing every minute. It's hard being a senior in this environment and not knowing how your graduation is going to look or how you can spend time with your friends safely. But it just is the circumstances that we're in now, and I have to adapt to those.
Note: KUT staff members are employees of UT Austin as KUT is licensed to the university.
If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.