Student leaders call on the University to implement more COVID-19 safety protocols

Sheryl Lawrence, News Reporter

Student leaders are calling on University administration to mandate masks and abolish attendance policies in response to student concern about the upcoming semester with COVID-19 cases rising in Austin and few mitigation efforts in place.

The Senate of College Councils, the Student Government Executive Board and the Graduate Student Assembly released a statement and petition on Thursday demanding UT administration expand contact tracing, appoint four students to the University’s COVID-19 executive committee, abolish attendance policies, implement a mask mandate and provide hybrid accessibility to all courses. 

“Returning to a fully open university without the necessary safety precautions — such as requiring masks or proof of vaccination — puts not only students, professors, staff, and their families at risk, but also threatens to create a public health crisis in the greater Austin community,” the statement said.

Before releasing the statement, Senate conducted a sentiment survey, which received 1,112 responses, to gain student input on COVID-19 safety protocols at UT. Students gave the University a 3.37 out of 10 rating for their confidence in its reopening plans. 

The survey showed that 87.5% of students support a vaccine mandate, 83.3% support a mask mandate and 70.9% support a testing requirement. It also surveyed the preferred modality of classes, which showed 41.6% of students favoring “mostly in-person, with some virtual options,” 24% for “fully in-person” and 24.5% for “mostly virtual, with some in-person options.”

However, University spokesperson Eliska Padilla said the University is implementing safety protocols and changes consistent with state laws. She said UT President Jay Hartzell’s most recent message laying out vaccination and testing efforts, reduced classroom density and flexible work arrangements is an example of the University changing its approach to the fall.

Senate president Steven Ding said student leaders have been left out of the decision making process. But he said after releasing their survey and statement, UT has increased communication with student leaders, and he hopes it will continue to do so.

“Everyone is very concerned about the safety of people coming back to campus,” said Ding, a management information systems and urban studies senior. “Especially thinking about our vulnerable populations, and a big group of that is currently faculty with young children at home who are not eligible to receive the vaccine period, it’s very concerning how our campus is coming back to normal without basically any safety precautions.” 

The joint statement also calls for incentives for those who complete daily health checks on the Protect Texas App and the creation of a notification system to inform those who have been in contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19. 

Alex Sexton, vice president of the Graduate Student Assembly, said student leaders felt their questions were not being answered by University administration. He said he wants direct communication from top UT administration about policies such as when TAs can conduct work remotely and sick leave for graduate students across colleges.

“Everything is just one giant question mark, and we’re not getting any certainty because no one has any certainty,” said Sexton, a social work  graduate student.

Student Government did not respond to multiple requests for a comment on the joint statement.

Kaushiki Roy contributed to this report.