A breath of fresh air

As campuses reopen with differing COVID protocols, especially mask policies, students work to stay safe

University+of+Texas+students+collect+in+the+grass+outside+of+the+UT+tower.+Some+wear+masks%2C+others+do+not%2C+as+they+socialize+after+almost+a+year+and+a+half+of+online+school.+%E2%80%9CCampus+now+feels+really+lively%2C%E2%80%9D+UT+professor+Stephanie+Holmsten+said.+%E2%80%9CStudents+are+walking+about+campus%2C+there+were+student+organizations+set+up+on+campus.+There+were+folks+enjoying+the+beautiful+weather+on+the+south+mall.+So+students+are+back+and+you+feel+it%2C+you+feel+it+on+the+sidewalks.+Students+who+maybe+spent+COVID+in+their+childhood+homes+have+come+back+to+Austin.%E2%80%9D

Kate Boyle

University of Texas students collect in the grass outside of the UT tower. Some wear masks, others do not, as they socialize after almost a year and a half of online school. “Campus now feels really lively,” UT professor Stephanie Holmsten said. “Students are walking about campus, there were student organizations set up on campus. There were folks enjoying the beautiful weather on the south mall. So students are back and you feel it, you feel it on the sidewalks. Students who maybe spent COVID in their childhood homes have come back to Austin.”

Kate Boyle, staff reporter

College campuses have begun to reopen. After a whole year of learning online, students now begin to crowd classrooms and lecture halls again. On Texas college campuses, students walk in crowds, shouting and laughing, starting to adjust to the new normal.  

“It’s like a breath of fresh air,” Texas State freshman and McCallum alumna Abby Robison said. “It was a real shock to see so many people on the first day because I don’t remember the last time I had been in an environment like that. Things just felt normal again. Being in a classroom feels really weird. I am so happy to be back in school and hope that everyone does their part to keep it that way!”

Texas is one of the 40 states in the U.S. that doesn’t have a statewide mask mandate in schools. It is also one of eight states that prohibits schools from mandating masks. 

It was a real shock to see so many people on the first day because I don’t remember the last time I had been in an environment like that.”

— Abby Robison

Colleges in Texas have taken a varied approach to COVID policies. Private schools have more freedom in their approach to COVID, like St. Edwards, which requires vaccinations and masks. Public schools have less control over the policies that they have, like the University of Texas, which has no mask mandate.  

“President Hartzell communicated with the UT community on May 19, 2021, sharing that masks are optional when inside UT facilities and outside,” the UT website stated. “The president indicated that the masking changes were the result of updated CDC guidance and the recent governor’s order. As a public university, UT Austin is considered a ‘governmental entity’ for the purposes of the executive order.”

Similar to UT, Texas State isn’t requiring masks this year. 

“My school strongly advises mask-wearing and some of the buildings have social distancing markers,” Robison said. “I personally wish more people wore masks and took the spread of COVID more seriously.”

Some students feel more comfortable with safety measures at their colleges. 

“I’m on my third day of classes at Texas State right now,” freshman and McCallum alumnus Daniel Duenas said. “The COVID restrictions are sort of interesting, they want masks to be required and they urge students to wear one, but since it’s a public school, every student does have their choice on yes or no to mask. Personally, I don’t wear my mask because I feel safe enough to not. I’m fully vaccinated, I stay safe and I’m not too worried.”

Chi Kappa Phi, a service society at UT, meet outside. They do a team-building exercise, laughing as they make new friends. All students at the meeting are wearing masks. “I work well in an in-person environment,” UT freshman Daphne Blick said. “It’s the social aspect, the people, friends, that make learning in an actual classroom better.” Photo by Kate Boyle

Texas Christian University has a mask mandate this year for any classes inside. 

“My first day of classes looked normal,” TCU freshman and McCallum alumnus Graydon Olsen said. “I didn’t go to school much my senior year [of high school] so it was a nice feeling. I like the precautions because everyone in my classes has masks on but when I’m walking to class I don’t have to worry about it.”

Stephanie Holmsten is a professor at UT. This year she’s teaching hybrid classes. She offers all of her students an in-person option and has Zoom open for those who aren’t comfortable in person. She feels that schools were put in a difficult position this year. 

“Because Delta kind of ravaged its ways through our community, it changed things quickly,” Holmsten said. “The preparation has been much more condensed this year. We have practitioners in our community that are keeping us up to date on the stages of COVID. We are a state institution, in a state with a governor that is not comfortable with mask mandates. The question then becomes, how do you balance those pressures?”

We are a state institution, in a state with a governor that is not comfortable with mask mandates. The question then becomes, how do you balance those pressures?”

— Stephanie Holmsten

UT freshman and McCallum alumna Daphna Blick weighs in on how her classes at UT are set up.

“I’ve noticed everyone has some variety of in-person and online,” Blick said. “Most of my classes are online. My professors are very strict about masks and social distancing, which I appreciate. I have two hybrid classes that were originally supposed to be in-person classes. It is kind of a bummer but I still get to experience the university and meet new people even though it’s mostly online so that’s great! Of course, I would love to have all of my classes in person but that is just not realistic or safe as of this moment.”

At ACC, most classes were online for the first three weeks. Masks are currently required on campus.  

“Two of my classes have been in person since the beginning of the semester,” ACC sophomore and McCallum alumnus Dylan Gernert said. “Both seem to have relatively low-class sizes, each having under 15 people. Right now I feel relatively safe in all of my classes, though I’m unsure of how the new COVID variants will play out. The halls at ACC are mostly empty, but I can’t help but wonder how busy they’ll become once the online schooling for the first three weeks ends and people come back to class.”

Between online, in-person and hybrid classes, combined with an array of masking choices, students this year are having to make difficult decisions about their safety. This year is about learning their new normal.