UT-Austin keeping most classes virtual through January as coronavirus infections soar in Travis County

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Students walk around the University of Texas at Austin on Aug. 24. The flagship university is keeping most classes online through January as coronavirus infections soar in Travis County. Credit: Allie Goulding for The Texas Tribune

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The University of Texas at Austin is shifting more spring semester classes completely online through the end of January as COVID-19 cases continue to ravage the city and state. According to an email sent to students Friday, all classes that are split between in-person and online will be completely online through the end of the month.

“Although students may be at lower risk for serious outcomes from COVID-19, you can still carry and spread the disease to other vulnerable individuals in your family and the community,” Daniel Jaffe, interim provost, wrote to students in an email Friday. “The rollout of vaccines will eventually slow the spread, but we need your help to minimize exposure on and off campus, particularly now. Our hospitals and health care workers are stretched thin, and ICU availability is extremely limited.”

Students with entirely in-person classes must contact their professors to determine how the class will be held in January. The spring semester starts Jan. 19.

It’s the latest schedule change to the unusual academic year as universities across Texas attempt to educate students during an unprecedented pandemic that has continued to worsen over the winter break.

Infections in Travis County are higher than ever recorded. When UT-Austin shifted entirely online the week of Thanksgiving, average daily cases hovered around 240 in Travis County. As of Friday, the county reported an average of 600 cases per day this week with ICU capacity shrinking.

Some schools had already adjusted spring semesters due to the pandemic. Texas Tech University in Lubbock and Texas A&M University in College Station both reduced spring break to one day, while UT Austin still has a scheduled spring break this year.

While UT-Austin officials urged students to spread out their return and families to limit their time in Austin to drop off students, the university stopped short of mandating steps to return. Instead, they encouraged students to get tested three to five days before returning to Austin, or to get tested on campus immediately upon return.

UT-Austin officials have said they do not believe a public university can legally mandate testing as a prerequisite to accessing any kind of education benefit. But the Texas attorney general’s office has not confirmed that is true because the office said it has not been asked to give an official opinion on the matter.

However, Texas State University in San Marcos announced this week that students who live on campus must get tested upon returning to school. Officials there also encouraged faculty to move classes remotely during the first two weeks of the spring semester.

Texas A&M University is also requiring students who live on campus to get tested within the first week of classes, on or before Jan 22.

Officials at Rice University in Houston also announced Friday they will also offer all classes online-only through at least mid-February. Students cannot return to campus until Feb. 15 unless they have an exception.

According to that university, 25% of the positive cases since the start of the academic year occurred in the last two weeks. The campus has recorded 193 total positive tests since Aug. 1, with 33 of those in the past 7 days.

“This increase was while there was almost no activity on campus,” Rice President David Leebron wrote to students Friday. “All of the infections were traced to off-campus activities over the winter recess.”

Rice officials are also limited group activities to no more than five people indoors or 10 people outdoors. Only essential staff is encouraged to come to campus until Feb. 8.

Disclosure: Rice University, Texas A&M University, Texas Tech University and University of Texas at Austin have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.