When it released the plans for the fall semester back in May, UT announced that all classes would move online after Thanksgiving break and students would not return to campus. This plan was intended to prevent a fall COVID-19 surge from students getting infected at home and then bringing it back to campus.
However, University Housing and Dining recently sent out an email asking on-campus residents to let UHD know if they planned to stay home after the break. Not only was this email the first indicator that students would be allowed back on campus to finish the semester, but it also indicated that the default option was to return.
This contradicts the plan released over summer and, as a third wave of the pandemic is already in full swing, brings about major health and safety concerns.
If residence halls are planning to welcome students back with open arms after Thanksgiving, they must adopt stricter health precautions to prevent a potential COVID-19 breakout on campus.
Now that they’ve been given the option to come back, many students feel the need to return to their on-campus dorms due to mental health benefits, better study environments and uncomfortable conditions at home.
“My mental health is a lot better in Austin than it is at home,” biochemistry freshman Maddie Beischer said. “It’s much easier for me to focus here on campus and, during finals, I really want to have a place for me to focus.”
However, coming back to campus poses risks in terms of COVID-19 safety.
“I don't feel safe,” Beischer said. “I understand that I do have to be very careful and there are people who aren’t.”
Aaron Voyles, director for residence hall operations, said that despite the interpretation of the plans released over the summer, residence halls were always planning to stay open after the break.
However, Voyles also acknowledged that no extra precautions are planned for students that choose to return.
“Our procedures are going to be the same in terms of our daily cleaning and disinfecting procedures and all of the student policies,” Voyles said.
The residence halls are more confident about health safety because only 1,074 of the 3,261 residents are scheduled to return, Voyles said. While this is only about 30% of residents, the presence of COVID-19 in 1,074 individuals is much more likely than in zero.
Additionally, the existing policies Voyles identified — testing, quarantines and sanitization — were created to keep up with a student body that remained largely static for the whole semester. I am not confident they can effectively protect against a COVID-19 outbreak when a significant portion of the residence hall population will be leaving and then reentering the dorms within a span of a week.
This is especially concerning because the existing policies are already showing weaknesses. Students are not getting voluntarily tested as much as the school planned for, isolation plans are unorganized and confusing and proper cleaning supplies are not available for residents.
Requiring negative tests before return, making testing mandatory while on campus and providing sanitization materials to residents are all ways to increase safety, especially when students return to campus after Thanksgiving.
At the end of the day, when a university plans a whole semester around a possible post-Thanksgiving COVID-19 surge, it would only make sense for residence halls to be prepared post-Thanksgiving.
As of right now, they’re not.
Hosek is a psychology freshman from Austin, Texas.