After more than a year of online learning and social distancing protocols, the UTA community is anticipating a fall semester similar to life before the COVID-19 pandemic. But despite a national vaccination blitz, lowering infection rates and loosening federal guidelines, there are still a number of uncertainties regarding how life will look at UTA.
Interim President Teik Lim announced March 22 that UTA will host the majority of fall classes in person, and some summer classes will begin transitioning to in-person. Increased vaccine availability and optimism from health experts contributed to the university’s decision, according to previous Shorthorn reporting.
University spokesperson Joe Carpenter said UTA will publish a detailed plan for the fall semester in June. While the specifics aren’t available yet, the university is working with a few goals in mind, including a return to in-person classes, revamped student life and a normal living experience in dorms.
Given current COVID-19 cases and vaccine trends, the university believes in-person classes are feasible for the fall, Carpenter said. UTA is waiting on updated state and national guidelines before drafting its finalized policy.
He said the working intent is to have most classes in-person, but there will be some hybrid courses as well as synchronous and asynchronous online courses. Mask and social distancing guidelines will remain in place, but specific policies won’t be available until mid-summer.
While UTA has maintained its COVID-19 protocols on campus, university officials have relied on self-enforcement and community cooperation throughout the pandemic, Carpenter said. The plan is to continue relying on self-enforcement moving forward.
“This is not as much enforcement as [it is] embodiment,” Carpenter said.
So far, there have not been COVID-19 compliance issues, and Carpenter expects this to continue in the fall semester. When situations rose, they were addressed successfully, he said.
Faculty Senate chairperson Bill Carroll said while faculty don’t have concerns about enforcing COVID-19 guidelines, professors have expressed some anxiety about teaching in person.
Many faculty members are eager to return to the classroom, but some are hesitant because of safety concerns, family situations or other factors, he said. Some professors have become used to teaching online and want to know if they’ll be able to continue.
Carroll hopes the university will create flexible guidelines regarding which professors will be able to continue online teaching. Faculty just want input about how they will be able to teach going forward, he said.
Carpenter said accommodations for professors and students are being prepared, but the specifics won’t be available until the university publishes its policy. However, the working plan is to accomodate students or faculty who meet certain criteria.
The pandemic has been stressful for students and professors alike, Carroll said. Many professors had to learn a new way to teach, and it has been hard on professors to see their students struggle. Many professors are ready to return to the classroom, he said.
Students, like aerospace engineering freshman Lex Bocanegra, are concerned about how the workload will change as classes transition into a predominantly in-person format.
“I don’t know if they’re going to put on a lot more work on us than normal,” Bocanegra said.
There is also the uncertainty of how accurate lab and class descriptions are at this point in time. One of Bocanegra’s classes that was initially in person has been changed to synchronous.
In addition to in-person classes, Carpenter said UTA intends to revitalize student life, and the university will actively promote student organizations and events. While there may be some COVID-19 precautions, student organizations should prepare to have on-campus events this fall.
Tentative scenarios for COVID-19 outbreaks will be included in the upcoming guidelines, and university officials are working to make any response to a local outbreak flexible.
Last fall, there was a localized COVID-19 outbreak at Davis Hall, Carpenter said. As employees started testing positive, the rest of the staff working in Davis Hall began working remotely. UTA can be flexible with certain types of outbreaks like this one, he said.
Enhanced cleaning protocols will remain in place. The university plans to continue proactive testing and is providing free Pfizer-BioNTech vaccinations for all interested employees and students through a partnership with Texas Health.
Fraternity and sorority organizations will follow university guidelines, Kelli Vincent, Fraternity and Sorority Life director, said in an email. The office and organizations are developing in-person events and recruitment within UTA guidelines and plan for virtual opportunities as well.
“Safety continues to be a concern,” she said “Organizations are working to ensure that they create events that are as safe as possible.”
Athletics director Jim Baker said the program will continue to follow the university’s guidelines and encourages staff and student-athletes to seek vaccinations.
He said he doesn’t anticipate crowd attendance limitations at College Park Center and other sporting events in the fall.
“We’re going [into fall] under the assumption that we’re back to mostly normal,” he said.
Civil engineering freshman Anjel Pineda said it’s exciting to finally have in-person classes with the students who they’ve established virtual friendships with.
“It’s not as scary as if you were coming in as a freshman in-person [and] not knowing who you’re going to meet on the first day,” Pineda said.
Because the majority of classes and events have been virtual since the beginning of the pandemic, Pineda said the past year has felt more like a test or a simulation of what college is supposed to be like.
“The idea of coming back next semester and having things be more open and more people coming in, it feels like the real college experience,” Pineda said.
News reporter Dang Le contributed to this article.