As coronavirus cases rise, UT should rethink in-person fall classes

Drew Sanderson

Editor's note: This column was submitted to the Texan by a member of the UT community.

During a family conversation about the pandemic at the center of our disrupted lives, I ask my girlfriend’s sister — soon to be a freshman at The University of Texas — about her future class schedule. Whereas some universities will remain online, UT-Austin is among those planning to bring students back to campus for the upcoming fall semester. As an incoming education major, she is scheduled to have multiple in-person classes with other students amid a rising tide of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the state. 

Her mother worries about the spread of the coronavirus within Travis County. As a medical student, I explain some measures her daughter can take to try to protect herself from a pandemic that has killed over 140,000 people now across the country, young and old. Even if her daughter does everything right, she could still catch the disease from her roommates, her professors or other students. 

The challenge with public health is that it requires a communitywide response. It has only been a few years since I graduated from UT myself, so I am familiar with the culture of the student community, both on and off campus. I wish students could return to a normal college experience, but I also fear that bringing more than 50,000 students back to campus will result in a dramatic increase in the number of COVID-19 cases within the UT community. 

If University administrators are so eager to take risks in a quick bid to return to normal life, why should we expect college students to not follow their lead? The temptation to resume the activities of normal life could be too much for students to resist. We already saw an example this spring when 211 UT students went to Mexico over spring break despite travel warnings, and 49 brought COVID-19 back with them. More recently, the 47 coronavirus cases confirmed after a fraternity party at UC-Berkeley may be a chilling indication of what’s to come in the fall. 

Attempts at preventative measures are often not enough, as evidenced by the 13 athletes who already tested positive for COVID-19 just four days after UT began voluntary summer workouts for the football team. This same University administration doesn’t seem to see the potential problem with having crowded football games during the fall.

When UT dispersed students from campus in March and moved classes online for the spring, there were about 200 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Austin and Travis County. This move was consistent with the advice of the medical community to prevent unnecessary disease and death in the community. However, in our collective quarantine fatigue, we have lost sight of that original goal. Now, Travis County has more than 17,000 confirmed cases, we still don’t have a definitive proven treatment or vaccine and UT plans to bring all these students back to campus, where they will inevitably intermingle. With our hospitals already nearing capacity, actions like these will only exacerbate the public health crisis we are facing.  

I am a proud UT alumnus, but I fear my alma mater is making a poor decision. Regardless of the preventive measures being implemented in the reopening plan, administrators still cannot control the off-campus behavior of students. By bringing quarantine-fatigued students back together from all over the country, UT is inviting a high risk. Only for those classes that are completely impossible to conduct online, it may make sense to allow students to return to campus with extraordinary preventative measures. However, most students should not return to campus and should take their classes online and remotely. 

Sanderson graduated with honors from The University of Texas at Austin in 2018 with a degree in biochemistry. He is currently a second-year medical student in the Long School of Medicine at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.