Will University of Texas faculty get their wish on COVID-19 mandates?

Classes begin Wednesday, but many petitions are circulating.

Last week, Executive Vice President and Provost Sharon Wood signed off on two significant amendments to learning modalities at the University of Texas at Austin that addressed concerns over COVID-19 brought by unnerved and frustrated faculty members.

One was a provision to allow more flexibility to a “limited number” of professors who could pivot to some remote instruction. Another was to offer more socially distanced classes by reducing the number of students. Both of those approved concessions are good for only three weeks – from the beginning of classes on Aug. 25 to Sept. 17.

UT faculty want more. Buoyed by the acceptance of some of their demands – which are temporary – several new petitions are circulating. Professor Dr. Ayelet Lushkov has more than 100 signatures on her request, which asks that faculty parents during this crisis moment be allowed to teach remotely.

“Our children are vulnerable, and we couldn’t vaccinate them if we wanted to,” says Lushkov, associate professor in the Department of Classics, who has two young children. “I’m very happy that we at least get three weeks to get our feet under us and see what happens. But realistically, we’re in this for the semester and parents are caught. It is incredibly stressful for faculty parents to feel like we are neither allowed to protect our families, nor are we allowed to give our students what they need and what they’re here for.”

Another petition, led by Professor Patricia Maclachlan, has garnered more than 700 signatures. The letter, obtained by University Business, specifically asks President Jay Hartzell to require masks on campus:

“Dear President Hartzell,

As the state of Texas experiences a rapid upsurge in the COVID-19 positivity rate and our hospitals fill to overflowing, UT faces a major public health crisis this fall. Despite strong agreement among scientists that vaccines are safe and effective and that wearing masks can significantly slow transmission rates, including among the vaccinated, the University of Texas System has yet to introduce vaccine and mask mandates. As concerned UT faculty members, we view this stance as unscientific and dangerous. 

We firmly believe that it should be within every professor’s right to demand a safe environment for ourselves and our students, and that voluntary measures are not enough to achieve these goals in the midst of a pandemic.  We therefore urge the University of Texas at Austin to exercise leadership commensurate with its stature as a distinguished institution of higher learning by introducing a requirement that all eligible UT faculty, students and staff be vaccinated as soon as it is feasible to do so. In the meantime, we call for the immediate introduction of a campus-wide mask mandate.”

RELATED: State-by-state look at colleges requiring COVID-19 vaccines

The petitions warrant attention. Hospitalizations in Texas have risen 61% over the past two weeks. Four counties have had a more than 1,000% increase in COVID cases. The 7-day average is now more than 15,000 (two months ago it was 1,200) and in Travis County, where the university is located, cases have doubled in two days. Only 46% of Texans are fully vaccinated. The situation is so serious that some school districts have defied a ban on mask mandates imposed by Gov. Greg Abbott, who himself has COVID-19. They earned a small victory Thursday night when the Supreme Court upheld those decisions. For now.

Two other Texas institutions – Rice University and the University of Texas San Antonio – are starting their years, at least temporarily, will full online learning.

The whiplash effect

But unlike those others, the University of Texas at Austin and publicly funded institutions in some states have not fought for mandates yet, nor imposed the same restrictions they did when COVID-19 was emerging and prevalent. Again, in UT’s case those came prior to Gov. Abbott’s bans.

“Last year, UT’s response was so data-driven and supportive and effective,” Lushkov says. “We didn’t have a major campus outbreak. Students got a good teaching experience, and we were allowed to be remote. And now suddenly, it’s kind of all thrown out the window, even though the science hasn’t changed.”

That guarded approach last year included the shutting down of campus, masks for students and social distancing. But a good spring and summer loosened restrictions.

“Until a month ago, we were all talking about a full return,” she says. “And there was a lot of excitement for that. And then delta happened really quickly.”

That “whiplash” effect, as Lushkov describes it, of trying to reverse course quickly would be difficult because of the bans, because of logistics, because of the promised full reopening in-person and because Lushkov says “a school the size of UT can’t move that fast.”

However, UT officials have acknowledged the gravity of the moment in their allowance of the temporary remote option, as classes set to open in person to 45,000-plus students on Wednesday.

“The COVID-19 situation across Texas, and particularly in Austin, remains serious,” Wood’s letter to UT’s faculty said. “Many faculty members have shared their frustrations and concerns regarding the health and safety of our community. The Provost’s Office is in the process of finalizing additional FAQs for faculty regarding how faculty should communicate with students about the importance of masking and the types of incentives that faculty, departments, and schools/colleges can provide for masking in classes. UT will also be creating incentives for students to get vaccinated.”

RELATED: State-by-state mask tracker: Colleges impose new COVID-19 mandates

At the same time, in a letter to students, UT said it was banking on spread and transmission waning.

“We are hopeful that the steps outlined above to reduce density will allow time for the prevalence of COVID-19 to diminish in the Austin area and ensure we are able to enjoy a fall semester with reduced risk,” the letter read.

The University did respond to a request from UB for comment but had no further updates, saying, “we will be sure to let you know if conditions change.” Its current steps have not stopped the petitioners, the signees and many students (not all) from protesting. What they want are more masks, more testing, more vaccinations … and one more thing:

“When I speak to other faculty, the prevailing sentiment is we want to protect our students and give them the best education that we can. The best way to do this right now is online, however frustrating that might be,” Lushkov says. “And also, UT is an R1 institution. We have the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium. We have great scientists working on this very problem. We would like UT to apply the science that its own faculty is putting out. At a bare minimum, people want more testing and masking. Personally, I would like to see a remote teaching option for parents who want to do that. Beyond that, I think everyone just wants to get through this term safely.”

Unfortunately, she said decision-makers who are “all well-intentioned people are in an impossible situation. We’re in an impossible situation. But every week of remote teaching is a good week.”

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Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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