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COVID resurgence complicates in-person events for UT, ACC students

Austin American-Statesman logo Austin American-Statesman 8/4/2021 María Méndez, Austin American-Statesman

As the University of Texas and Austin Community College prepare to welcome students back, rising COVID-19 cases once again are posing challenges to organizing in-person events.

An optional retreat for incoming UT students run by the Texas Exes alumni association was canceled over the weekend after staffers at the off-campus campgrounds tested positive for COVID-19.

In a late Saturday tweet, officials said staff at Camp Buckner, the site of the retreat in Burnet, were in quarantine.

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Texas Exes spokeswoman Dorothy Guerrero said that meant not enough staff would be available for the campground to remain open, which led the Texas Exes to cancel the four Camp Texas sessions scheduled through Monday.

"They were forced basically to shut down for 14 days," Guerrero said. "We found that out late Saturday, and that spanned all four sessions of Camp Texas."

The first session for 185 students was supposed to begin Sunday. Officials helped students already in town with transportation. Alumni association officials also are working on reimbursing the 740 students who signed up for the camp sessions, Guerrero said.

The optional camp is separate from the required student orientations that took place over the summer, in which students were given the option to attend virtually or in a hybrid program.

More: COVID-19's return sends Central Texas schools scrambling to add remote learning options

For the hybrid option, students were able to stay at a campus dormitory for a day and night to participate in social programs, said Katie Sullivan, communication manager for UT's New Student Services. Students then completed class registration and other requirements virtually.

The university conducted COVID-19 testing and vaccinations. No students tested positive for COVID-19 during the orientations, Sullivan said.

A smaller orientation session scheduled for this month will be completely virtual, Sullivan said.

Amid rising COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations from the delta variant, UT President Jay Hartzell last week reiterated that the school is still expecting the school's more than 50,000 students to return to campus this fall.

"We are still planning for a full return this fall," he said in a message to the UT community. "As I have said in previous messages, the residential college experience is a big part of what makes UT such a special place. Although we face rising case counts, the availability of vaccines and robust testing mean that our fall plans remain feasible."

In the message, Hartzell said the university is monitoring conditions and would communicate any policy changes. He also encouraged students and staff to get vaccinated.

Fact-check: No, the government isn't monitoring SMS texts for COVID misinformation

ACC registration events

Austin Community College also is preparing to reopen this fall. ACC Chancellor Richard Rhodes said the college will continue to offer online and hybrid options, but it will offer more in-person opportunities. 

"This fall, we will significantly increase the number of face-to-face classes on campus," Rhodes said in an online message posted on ACC's website.

Ahead of the start of classes on Aug. 23, the community college is hosting student registration events on Friday and Aug. 13 called Registration Express.

Despite concerns expressed by some staff members, employees are being asked to attend the events, according to an email obtained by the American-Statesman.

"I just wanted to remind everyone that the Registration Express event is mandatory (it’s come to my attention that some people believe it’s voluntary) for all our team members," Ruth Reinhart, associate vice president of student support services, wrote in a July 30 email.

"I understand there is hesitancy regarding safety protocols resulting from the increase in COVID-19 cases; however, this is an important event to support our students and enrollment," Reinhart added.

In separate emails reviewed by the Statesman, staffers expressed health concerns and confusion over whether the event was voluntary or required.

"With the COVID cases increasing daily and Austin already in Stage 4," one staff member said in a July 29 email. "I am concerned for my safety and my son. I am vaccinated, but this does not protect me against the delta variant. Also, my son is not old enough to receive a vaccine, leaving him to be high risk if exposed."

In another email, a staff member wrote, "Without more information regarding the set-up and safety protocols that will be in place for these 'events', I am not prepared to volunteer." The staff member then volunteered to help virtually.

But in a response, the staffer was told by a supervisor: "I fully understand your concerns and have expressed them myself. ... However, I may still have to assign you a day/shift. As far as I know, this is not intended to be a virtual event."

In response to questions from the Statesman, an ACC spokeswoman said the events were created in response to requests from students for more help with registration and "are a continuation of in-person student services that have been available at the college since last summer."

"ACC developed a sign-up sheet for employees who are participating in these events. All employees received information about how to request accommodations," ACC spokeswoman Sydney Pruitt said. "Those who have a health concern are encouraged to follow the college’s internal processes to request accommodations."

Pruitt added that "if staff have an approved health accommodation that precludes them from working in person, they are NOT and will NOT be required to attend."

No cases of COVID-19 transmission have been reported on any ACC campus or facility, Pruitt said, adding that the college is collecting reservations for the event to "help staff plan for proper social distancing."

Another email from Reinhart said 69,000 "prospective and unregistered current students" were invited to the events, and at least 157 individuals had signed up for slots.

This article originally appeared on Austin American-Statesman: COVID resurgence complicates in-person events for UT, ACC students

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