UT-Austin COVID-19 committee “cautiously optimistic” next semester will be in-person

Skye Seipp

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the April 16 issue of The Daily Texan.

The fall 2020 course schedule shows more than 90% of classes will be in person, and UT will not require students, staff and faculty to receive the COVID-19 vaccine due to current state law. 

UT is not allowed to have a COVID-19 vaccine mandate after Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order on April 6 barring institutions that receive public funds from having a vaccine requirement. Some private institutions, such as St. Edward’s University in Austin, can require proof of COVID-19 vaccinations for attendance if they do not receive state funding. 

Elizabeth Sepper, a law professor and expert in health law, said Gov. Abbott’s order prevents any public institution on the state and local level from requiring proof of a vaccine authorized under Emergency Use Authorization to acquire services, which includes students acquiring their education. 

Sepper said there is a chance that once vaccines reach full authorization that a requirement could be enacted. However, she said because the COVID-19 pandemic has become so politicized and vaccines are still not readily available, she does not think this will happen.

“For a university, it’s clearly excellent public health policy to have a vaccine mandate for a respiratory illness when you’re talking about people who live together and attend classes together,” Sepper said. “It’s a pretty low hanging fruit for public health measures.” 

Art Markman, head of the academic working group for COVID-19 planning, said that as of now, the committee is planning on having normal classroom occupancy in the fall. However, it won’t be until closer to the beginning of the fall that the committee will know for sure what fall 2021 will look like, he said. 

Whether UT will require safety measures, such as wearing masks and reduced occupancy, has not yet been decided, Markman said. The academic COVID-19 planning committee will evaluate data related to COVID-19 to make health recommendations during the fall, he said. 

“What we’re doing is really encouraging all the members of our community to get vaccinated,” Markman said. “Our hope is that a large proportion of the community is going to get vaccinated, and we’re going to be monitoring that.” 

Markman said as a state vaccine hub, UT has a database of community members who have been vaccinated on campus. The database does not record names, but officials can see what percentage of employees or students have received vaccinations. 

UT President Jay Hartzell said the University expects vaccines to be offered to all members of the UT community by July in an announcement Thursday. 

For students who were vaccinated in other areas of the state, he said there are other databases UT is trying to obtain to collect a more accurate view of how many people are vaccinated. 

Right now, the committee is watching two things: the rise of variants and vaccine efficiency over time, Markman said. 

Markman said COVID-19 vaccines have proven to offer some protection against the different variants, but there is a chance another variant could arise that evades the vaccines. Also, it is unknown how long COVID-19 vaccines will remain effective, and booster shots might be needed in the future, Markman said. 

“At the moment, everybody’s cautiously optimistic that we’ll be back in person, but if something were to happen that was unforeseen, we will protect the safety of the community,” Markman said.