AUSTIN, Tex. – As the first week of school arrived, students from all over the country came to the University of Texas at Austin to start classes as Covid cases were surging across the nation.
While some students were nervous and hesitant to come to campus, others were excited and ready to go back to normal.
To control some anxieties, school officials told students that they were required to receive a negative Covid-19 test, in order to come to campus. To make it easy, the university offered free testing on campus. Vaccinations and masks are not required on campus. As a campus with over 50,000 students, something was bound to fall through the cracks.
Governor’s executive order on masks
Because of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, UT Austin cannot require masks on campus.
In July, Abbott signed an executive order ordering that government entities, including school districts, cannot require anyone to wear a mask or mandate another person to wear a mask, according to KVUE News.
UT Austin is a government entity, as it is a public institution.
For new and returning students who were eager for college classes to be normal, returning to campus with no clear Covid-19 guidance was also met with a layer of fear.
Some first-year students were looking forward to being on campus and meeting new friends, but they were also worried. It would give them peace of mind if there were mandates put in place on campus.
Peace of mind
Sally Parampottil, a freshman, explained that although masks are not required on campus, her peace of mind depends on many factors.
“It kind of depends on which situation I’m in. In the dorms, you see like half of people wearing masks, half of people not wearing masks, but it’s never been crowded enough to where I’m like, I do not feel safe,” Parampottil said.
However, there was a moment where she felt a little uneasy.
Parampottil recalled the “Gone to Texas” event, an event that welcomes new students to campus. Throughout the event, speakers greeted the students.
One of the speakers, Parampottil said, went to the stage and told everyone to, “Hug their neighbors.”
“That was a little odd, I did not feel super safe during that,” Parampottil said.
She said she did feel better knowing they were outside, but thought this was a strange thing to do in the middle of a pandemic, especially while new positive cases are reported everyday in Austin.
Rising case numbers
On the first day of school, Aug. 25, using their on-campus testing, UT Austin reported a total of 15 positive student Covid-19 cases and four faculty cases. Since then, UT has reported a total of 232 positive student cases and 33 faculty cases.
The increase in Covid-19 cases could be caused by a variety of things, including heightened student interactions on campus.
Billal Lyzzaik, a freshman, says that the dorms are not a major concern for him — the worst part is the dining hall.
“I’d say if I were worried anywhere it’d maybe the dining hall. There’s way too many people,” Lyzzaik said.
Lyzzaik said that the lines in the dining hall were incredibly long, making the space crowded with students.
“The lines had gone down the stairs and into the door, it was that crazy. It goes on the second floor. Just imagine a line of people down the stairs to the first floor,” Lyzzaik said.
Classes and the dining hall are not the only places students show concern. Football games add another layer of concern.
Akshar Shrivats, another freshman, wants consistency in addressing Covid-19 concerns.
“I would prefer everything to be in person, you know. If you’re going to have the football game going on, there’s no point not having my classes too,” Shrivats said.
Classes vs. football games
Shrivats has five classes, the majority of which are half in-person, and half virtual. Since Shrivats is a freshman, some of his classes have a large number of students, making it hard to social distance. Staying safe becomes even harder when not every student is wearing a mask.
“I feel like wearing a mask is like the bare minimum. I feel like you would be doing a disservice to not only yourself but even to the professor if you don’t wear a mask in the class,” Shrivats said.
Like Shrivats, other students are worried about how the Covid-19 numbers will be affected after the football game this weekend. UT played the University of Louisiana at Lafayette on Sept. 4 in Darrell K Royal — Texas Memorial Stadium. The stadium seats over 100,000. The stadium opened for students and fans at 100% capacity, while also not requiring masks. The school however, did require a negative PCR test 72 hours before the game, according to the Austin American-Statesman.
As the numbers have stayed steady, they could rise again as thousands of students and visitors pack into the stadium — but the consequences won’t be known for a few weeks, as the school monitors case numbers.
It is this inconsistency Shrivats pointed to as he started his UT Austin year — and he wishes that he felt safer both in the classroom and in the stadium.
“I would really like it if, you know, they would mandate the vaccine and mandate masks,” Shrivats said.