UT students demand more COVID-19 safety precautions

University of Texas student leaders are calling on campus administrators to implement more COVID-19 safety precautions in response to concerns about the omicron variant.

Members of the UT Student Government, UT Senate, and various other student organizations shared a petition on Tuesday evening saying that UT “continues to endanger the safety and well-being of students, faculty and staff by resuming in-person classes and on-campus operations.”

The statement calls on UT to implement various policies, including adding face mask dispensers to all buildings and providing home COVID-19 testing kits for all students.

“Students faced various obstacles in the new variant, from managing their health to dealing with increased levels of financial and emotional insecurity; the decision to resume campus operations is reckless at best and life-threatening at worst,” the petition reads. “While the Omicron variant is often seen as a ‘mild’ threat to everyone, this is simply untrue.”

UT has referred a request for comment on the petition and student requests to an online statement on the university’s COVID-19 protocols and the campus’ COVID-19 dashboard.

“The university’s decision to resume in-person learning was made with careful deliberation and input from our public health officials and COVID-19 researchers – by members of our community for members of our community,” the statement read. “We believe it is safe to return, as we have done in previous semesters, and that the in-person academic and social experience will provide the best educational outcomes while promoting your well-being.”

Following:Omicron push shows signs of decline in Austin area, but new ‘stealth’ variant could pose risk

Drop in cases on campuses

UT COVID-19 cases hit record highs earlier this year as the omicron variant led to an increase in coronavirus cases statewide. During the first week of January, the university reported a 10% weekly positivity rate among asymptomatic proactive tests and 627 positive COVID-19 tests.

Over the past month, however, COVID-19 cases have plummeted on campus. In the past seven days, UT has reported 238 total positive cases of COVID-19, and the weekly asymptomatic positivity rate has fallen to less than 2.5%, although this percentage is higher than almost any rate recorded at fall or spring 2021 semesters.

Austin also remains in Stage 5 — the highest tier — of the region’s coronavirus risk-based guidelines due to a high transmission rate of COVID-19 and a high number of average daily admissions to the facility. ‘hospital. However, COVID-19 cases appear to have peaked in the city, and health officials say Austin could transition to Stage 4 within the next two weeks.

Although cases are decreasing, Sameeha Rizvi, co-author of the petition, said she has asked UT to make some changes to its policies because COVID-19 cases are high on campus compared to previous semesters, and the virus is still a threat, especially to immunocompromised students.

“As student leaders, we have heard from many students telling us that they feel uncomfortable returning to in-person classes and not having the freedom to have a hybrid option or to have policies. very flexible attendance because they are directly impacted by this variant,” said Rizvi, a junior at UT.

Following:UT reports more than 1,200 COVID-19 cases in first two weeks before classes start

UT is currently providing home testing kits only to students, staff, and faculty who test positive for COVID-19, as well as free walk-in COVID-19 testing. The petition asks UT to follow the lead of other universities that have provided all students with home COVID-19 testing kits, including Texas A&M University and New York University.

The university is also offering free KN-95 masks and surgical masks at two locations on campus. Rizvi said the masks UT currently offers are not enough for the 50,000 students who attend the university, as well as faculty and staff, and that the university should invest in purchasing more.

Hybrid classes

Students are also calling on UT to give faculty discretion to conduct hybrid courses and resume notifying the entire class if any student in the class tests positive for COVID-19. According to the petition, many students and faculty members are uncomfortable returning to in-person learning and dealing with increased stress levels.

UT has asked faculty members to teach classes online or in a hybrid format for the first two weeks of the semester in response to the surge in COVID-19 cases and increased hospitalizations in the region. ‘Austin, and students and faculty returned for in-person classes afterwards. .

Several students told the American-Statesman in January that they wanted to resume in-person classes, but they appreciated the university’s decision to move classes online for security reasons.

Following:Key Austin metrics and Texas hospital data show drop in omicron-related COVID cases

In September, the university stopped notifying an entire class when someone tested positive for COVID-19. Campus officials said the decision was made because all members of the community should follow COVID-19 guidelines such as weekly testing, indoor masking and social distancing regardless of the condition. exposure.

“We all know this variant has a very high rate of transmissibility, so it’s really important for students to know if they’re exposed, just so they don’t pass it on to someone else,” said Jerold Holman, co-author of the petition and a sophomore at UT. “If someone tests positive in your class, everyone deserves to know.”

The petition also calls on UT to abolish attendance policies, provide “lenient” grading, and provide work extensions for students who get COVID-19 to include marginalized communities on campus who are affected. disproportionately by the virus, such as students with disabilities or those affected. by long COVID-19.

In a message to faculty in January, UT Provost Sharon Wood recommended that faculty members communicate their attendance expectations and consider flexible deadlines in exceptional circumstances, but the The school does not require teachers to take actions such as removing attendance requirements.

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Susan W. Lloyd