Unlike other universities, UT-Austin will not have COVID-19 case threshold to trigger shutdown

Anna Canizales

UT has not declared a set number of confirmed COVID-19 cases that would cause a campus shutdown but has declared student death as a potential shutdown trigger. 

University spokesperson J.B. Bird said UT could transition to fully online classes if the number of cases would create a public health threat to the UT community and overwhelm the University’s ability to test, trace and isolate. He said a committee has been set up to monitor UT’s case numbers and make changes as warranted.

As of Aug. 24, UT has reported four student cases and 19 faculty and staff cases since July 29, and a total of 291 student cases and 188 staff and faculty cases since March.

Some universities across the country, including Syracuse University and Liberty University, have declared a specific number of cases as their threshold for transitioning to online learning. A University of Georgia associate professor told the New York Times universities could reach their shutdown threshold days or weeks before those cases are reported because of the lag time between a person becoming infected and the time they develop symptoms and test positive.

Susan Hochman, associate director of assessment, communication and data informatics for University Health Services, said the University’s capacity for rapid COVID-19 testing will help to stay on top of cases and avoid a testing lag.

“Our in-house testing strategy gives us an advantage here,” Hochman said. “Our contact tracing team can immediately act on a positive test result, allowing us to quickly interrupt further spread of the virus.”

Bird said the majority of UT students are already taking most of their classes online. If campus was to transition to entirely remote learning, he said housing would continue to be offered with a focus on vulnerable populations, and the University would provide emergency housing if necessary, similar to what happened in the spring. 

“Faculty are entering the semester with continuity plans in the event their teaching is interrupted by illness,” Bird said. “Students unable to attend remote classes due to illness will be able to seek academic accommodations, as in previous semesters. 

Finance junior Blake Motl said keeping the community safe requires students and other community members to take on the responsibility of following health and safety guidelines.

“My main concern is taking the right steps and making sure it’s not a death or something tragic that ends up causing the University to close down,” Motl said. “We really have to almost act like we are carriers … because you really can’t know. We’re all young. We don’t always make the best decisions, but now more than ever it’s really important to think about others.”

Bird said the University is working hard to avoid another death in the community and keep students, faculty and staff safe. He said it is important to recognize there will be anxiety surrounding the beginning of the semester because the situation is uncertain.

“Any death in the UT community — of a student, which is a very low risk, staff member or faculty member — would be a widely mourned event that would lead to review of our safety procedures and protocols and consideration of changes to a higher level of campus closure,” Bird said. “No single factor would by itself trigger a change in levels."