UT-Austin students adapt to new norms during in-person classes

Jennifer Errico

During Katelyn Davis’ sociology lecture, her professor asked the class to discuss global beauty standards. Davis turned to the seat next to her, but it was empty. The nearest student sat 10 seats away.

“The girl who usually sits 6 feet apart from me was absent because she had COVID-19 symptoms, and I can’t talk to the person behind me because (we’re) technically not 6 feet apart,” English sophomore Davis said. “If I want to communicate with anyone, I have to literally shout.”

As a transfer student, Davis said she registered for two in-person classes to meet new people. Her class experiences differ from what she knew pre-pandemic.  

 According to the fall reopening plan released June 29, classrooms are at 40% capacity and masks are required indoors. An Aug. 20 message from UT Interim President Jay Hartzell said only about 5% of seats are in classes that are fully in-person and 19% are hybrid. 

“I think with time, I’ll obviously get used to the new norm, at least learning-wise,” Davis said. “Sometimes I get so distracted trying to make sure I’m following the rules it takes away from my learning.”

In her sociology class, Davis said students must wear a mask and sit in assigned seats. Unavailable seats are zip-tied to maintain social distancing. 

“Everything’s so structured now,” Davis said. “We can’t just walk into class when we want or leave when we want. There’s always something you have to remember to follow.”


Mechanical engineering sophomore Alaina Tibbs is taking a year-long in-person engineering class. She said it’s hard to remember that what was allowed in class before COVID-19 isn’t anymore.

“My class is two hours long, and at some points I want to drink water, but I can’t just pull my mask down and start chugging,” Tibbs said. “I have to go outside, drink my water, then go back inside. By that point, I want another sip of water.”

Tibbs said the class is hybrid, and students are allowed to switch to online learning if they feel uncomfortable attending in person. Currently, eight students sit in the classroom, while 16 online learners are on a Zoom call that’s projected onto a screen at the front of the room.  

“Sadly it’s kind of like an ‘us-versus-them’ mentality,” Tibbs said. “The professor gives more attention to the in-person students because we’re there. It’s just easier for him to interact with us. 

Both Davis and Tibbs said there are constant distractions in class that prevent them from focusing on learning.    

“My professor’s mic screeches against his mask, muffling his voice and making it hard for me to understand what he’s saying,” Davis said. “I’m also constantly checking to make sure my mask isn’t falling down, and if I have to sneeze, I can’t because I don’t want to alarm people.” 

Despite the extra precautions, physics and math sophomore John Houghteling said he is happy to attend his three in-person classes.

“I’m still in a room with a professor, and that’s what I care about,” Houghteling said. “I’m able to hear their voices better and understand the content more thoroughly than online.”

Davis and Tibbs, however, said they still need more time to adjust to the new learning environment. 

“I miss the in-person contact, like going up to someone new and saying hello or making them laugh,” Davis said. “It’s sad in class, because even though I’m surrounded by people, there’s still a barrier.”