Wednesday marks the first day of the fall semester at UT-Austin, but like everything else in 2020 it is anything but normal. The school has brought students back to campus under new protocols to prevent spread of coronavirus, like required masks and limits on gatherings. Classes are a mix of in-person, remote and online, and will go all online after Thanksgiving to prevent students from traveling back to campus.
But that isn't good enough for a group of students and faculty led by the Texas State Employees Union. They've launched a petition asking the school board to cancel all in-person classes due to ongoing danger from COVID-19 on campus. Cerena Ermitanio is a student-teacher at UT-Austin and one of those behind the petition. "UT has the second largest endowment in the nation, and although it might be resource-intensive to move all classes fully online, UT is well beyond capacity to do that," she says.
Ermitanio tells KTRH the school's current standards for coronavirus are too lax. "From what I understand, they believe having a small amount of cases will be expected, but what will trigger a full closure would be a student (COVID-19) death," she says. "So it's a little bit strange."
UT-Austin leaders maintain they are acting responsibly and taking measures to protect students while ensuring students can return to campus. "They are moving as many classes as they can online, and they are attempting to offer PPE (personal protective equipment) to students," says Ermitanio. "But they're only doing it through vending machines, so students still have to pay for it."
There may be more than just student safety behind the union's petition effort, though. Ermitanio notes they're upset that the university has warned of layoffs to faculty and staff during the pandemic, while continuing to rake in donations. "UT-Austin has specifically raised a lot of money during the pandemic," she says. "I believe they have earned about a couple hundred million dollars since the end of February or March."