UT, A&M to require masks inside campus buildings

The University of Texas at Austin campus on March 23, 2016. Photo credit: Tamir Kalifa for The Texas Tribune

By Raga Justin, Texas Tribune

Both the University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University will require all students, faculty and staff to wear face masks in campus buildings next fall to prevent the spread of COVID-19, campus leaders announced.

A&M’s flagship campus in College Station released its mandatory face mask policy Tuesday, following a similar UT-Austin policy announced earlier this week. They appear to be the first universities in the state to implement a mandatory face mask policy for the fall semester. In an email, A&M president Michael Young said face masks would be required both indoors in all non-private offices and residential spaces, as well as outdoors where physical distancing was difficult. It is unclear how A&M will enforce the policy.

A Monday email to the UT community announced similar measures. Interim Dean Jay Hartzell said students and faculty may remove their face coverings in a campus building if they are alone in a private office or in their residence hall room. Masks will be encouraged in outdoor areas of campus, and enforcement measures will be announced later.

The university is also planning to test asymptomatic individuals and routinely screen people for symptoms as they enter buildings on campus.

“This policy — which is currently in place for the summer — is consistent with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which makes clear that face coverings, in addition to social distancing measures, are among the most effective strategies in limiting the spread of COVID-19, particularly in high-density areas,” Hartzell said in the email.

In the email, which included other planning updates for navigating the fall semester, Hartzell said employee furloughs at UT-Austin have begun. The university did not immediately provide details about how many people were affected.

Institutions are steeling themselves for major economic blows from the pandemic. UT-Austin had previously announced that furloughs and a hiring freeze were imminent, while layoffs are a likely possibility in the near future. State leaders have also directed certain higher education institutions and agencies to reduce their budgets by 5%; Hartzell said these cuts will be released shortly.

Both UT-Austin and A&M are in the process of navigating strategies to mitigate COVID-19 spread for the fall semester. Last week, Hartzell announced that more than 2,000 UT classes will be online, while on-campus classes will run from August to Thanksgiving and then continue remotely in an effort to limit student travel. Meanwhile, classrooms will be limited to 40% of their capacity, and classes will take place between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. to reduce the number of students on campus at any given time.

While some face-to-face classes will resume at A&M, many will be conducted in a hybrid model mixing in-person and online instruction. Classrooms and meeting spaces will also sharply curtail capacity and physical adjustments will be made, such as installing plexiglass separators or other distancing aids. While residence halls will be open, students will be expected to maintain social distancing and are discouraged from traveling away from campus.