Make Protect Texas Together Mandatory

Tanya Chen

Over 600 new COVID-19 cases have been reported since classes started, which means that UT has managed to surpass 1,000 total cases in the six months since the pandemic began. Student attitudes regarding the University’s coronavirus response range from despondent to outraged, with many criticizing the carelessness of their fellow students and UT’s lenient enforcement of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. 

Prior to reopening campus, UT stated their commitment to protecting the well-being of students, faculty and staff, highlighting the Protect Texas Together app as a useful resource for those returning to campus. 

However, students’ limited usage of the app has hindered its potential as a preventative measure, and efforts to engage in contact tracing via the app may be too little, too late. UT administration needs to do more to ensure that students not only know this app exists but also that they use it on a regular, mandatory basis. 

Development on the Protect Texas Together app began on June 1 with a focus on displaying up-to-date UT COVID-19 statistics and recording students’ voluntary symptom surveys. Since the app’s initial launch in mid-August, the developer team has been releasing regular updates to improve functionality, such as better error reporting and support for larger font displays. The app’s most recent update on Sept. 13 allowed students to participate in proactive community testing through the app. 

According to Cameron Craddock, associate professor of diagnostic medicine at Dell Medical School and head of the Protect Texas Together app team, the app has received about 17,000 downloads in total. However, these downloads may not all be unique, and many students feel that this number is not reflective of students’ actual usage. 

Physics junior Jonathan Tebo, who attends his lab section in person, noted that he hasn’t seen many of his fellow students utilize the app’s services.

“From what I've heard in casual conversations, not very many students use the app to check into and out of their classrooms, and I've even been guilty of forgetting,” Tebo said.

In terms of usability, Tebo thinks the app does the job fine. 

“Room check-in and checkout is a breeze and the symptom survey is easy to navigate,” Tebo said. “(However), I think it'd be helpful if the app pushed a notification reminding me to check in or out whenever I was on the move.”

While adding new bells and whistles to the app sounds great in theory, the benefits of any update are mitigated by just how few members of the UT community consistently use the app. UT has advertised the app in almost all of their emails to the student body, on social media, and even in flyers in residence halls, but clearly, this hasn’t been enough. 

“(Incentivization) is one of the things we struggle with,” Craddock said. “We’re hoping that linking the app with proactive community testing will incentivize more people to use it.”

UT administration can collaborate with student organizations on campus to send out notices about the app — I’m sure student leaders would be happy to help make campus a safer space for their fellow students. However, if UT wants students to really take the app seriously — as they should — they need to tie its usage to permission to enter public campus spaces. That way, students would be held responsible for protecting others and contact tracing would be more effective. 

Pandemic-related safety measures shouldn’t be optional; to help ensure the well-being of the campus community, UT needs to more strongly enforce the usage of the Protect Texas Together app.

Chen is a finance and Plan II sophomore from Austin, Texas.