Freshman year represents freedom and fond memories for many college students. However, for UT’s class of 2024, freshman year will consist of online classes, social distancing and a staggering 75% chance of needing to be tested for COVID-19 due to living in residence halls, according to projections from UT’s Health and Wellness Working Group.
Despite this grim prediction, UT administration decided to open the Forty Acres for the fall semester. Within the first two weeks of class, eight students who live on campus reported testing positive for COVID-19.
In order to preserve the health of students, faculty and staff, UT should close the Forty Acres as soon as possible and offer all hybrid and in-person courses online.
Prior to the start of the fall semester, Interim President Jay Hartzell released information about UT’s plans to contain the novel coronavirus.
“There will be far fewer students, staff and faculty on campus than normal, and those who are here will be expected to wear masks and maintain social distancing requirements and encouraged to sign the Commitment to Protect Texas Together,” Hartzell wrote in an August announcement.
The University’s largely voluntary social distancing guidelines failed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 during the summer. In late July, when most students weren’t on campus, UT reported a total of 449 cases and one death. When the 2020 long session began, disease-prevention measures continued to fail. From Aug. 1 to Sept. 5, 43 members of the UT community tested positive for the novel coronavirus in the University’s proactive community testing.
Allowing students to live in dorms on campus will undoubtedly fuel the rise in COVID-19 cases at UT. Students, especially freshmen, cannot be expected to stay 6 feet apart and avoid social gatherings while living in high-volume housing facilities. Now that a few dormitory residents have tested positive, it is fair to assume that more cases will arise.
For environmental engineering freshman Nikhita Ajaykumar, staying home this semester is the only way to keep her and those around her safe.
“I stayed home because I knew people would not be social distancing.” Ajaykumar said. “Students are getting their first taste of independence, and they’re going to want to make friends. I do not want to get sick.”
Shutting down the campus would also limit the rapid spread of COVID-19 in Austin. UT now accounts for 23% of the coronavirus cases in Travis County. This is likely the result of the influx of students on campus and into apartments in West Campus for the beginning of the school year.
UT must minimize the incidence rate of the COVID-19 in this area by closing campus and encouraging students to stay home. Closing campus is essential to ensuring the health of anyone living near UT, especially those who belong to vulnerable populations. Janitorial staff at UT fall under this at-risk demographic, as do minority groups and low-income families. Because these communities are present on and around the Forty Acres in significant numbers, students who are infected with COVID-19 will likely have some form of contact with them.
“Even if students think they’re immune to the virus, they may come in contact with people who have preexisting conditions and are more susceptible,” Ajaykumar said. “We should be working to contain the virus as much as possible.”
If UT truly values the health of students, staff and the city of Austin, they should prohibit anyone from living or working on campus. By failing to do so, UT is enabling the spread of the novel coronavirus in Texas and endangering everyone in proximity to the Forty Acres.
Harwood is a biology freshman from Houston.