Colleges & Universities Heading Back to Class This Week

Every school is taking its own approach to the school year when it comes to safety protocols

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All month, NBC 5 is bringing you coverage of local districts going back to school.

Now this week, many colleges and universities are gearing up to send their own students into another school year amid the pandemic.

UT Dallas, University of North Texas, Texas Christian University, Southern Methodist University and Dallas Baptist University start classes on Monday, Aug. 23. Dallas College and Tarrant County College also begin on Aug. 23.

UT Arlington begins on Wednesday, Aug. 25.

New Year, Same Challenges

Every school is taking its own approach to the school year when it comes to safety protocols, highlighting the struggle the pandemic continues to bring to higher education across the country.

“I feel like this semester is even crazier than the last one. We’re trying to be as calm as possible starting the new school year,” said Bel Khuu, who is entering her first year of graduate school at UT Dallas. “I’m excited for everyone to come back in person. It’s also a little bit scary.”

It will be the first time she comes back to class in person, after spending the last year and a half finishing her bachelor’s degree in the virtual realm at UTD.

“I’m really hoping with the new professors that I’ll be meeting, they are being graceful about this whole situation,” she said.

Her school cannot enforce masks due to Gov. Greg Abbott's ban on mask mandates. But many students are prepared to take their own precautions through masks and vaccines.

“I trust my peers to understand the importance of getting vaccinated and masking. We are a very science-based tech-driven community and I think that in many ways UTD is lucky in that mindset," said Andres Andujar, who is entering his final year at UTD.

It's a challenge public colleges and universities are dealing with amid the surge in delta variant cases.

“It’s put things back into a state of flux,” said Tarleton State University president Dr. James Hurley, who provided insight on the matter.

Classes at Tarleton started on Aug. 19. He said there was more optimism at the beginning of the summer on what the fall semester would look like.

“Now we’re dealing with the variant. And how do students faculty, staff, and parents – loved ones that are taking care of our students away from campus – how do they react and how do we react?” he said. “How do we place the value around keeping our individuals safe first and foremost? We have to trust the science and believe in humanity that we’re going to get through this together.”

He added that leaders like himself are facing pressures they've never seen before.

“Just ensuring that every decision we make is in the best interest of our stakeholders – that’s our students first and foremost, faculty and staff,” said Hurley. “It made us more aware to meet students where they are, instead of students meeting us where we are.”

Having served as both a public and private university president, he said every school is having to craft protocols that work for them.

“I’m constantly on the phone with some of my peers and mentors across the country in higher education. If the pandemic has done anything, it has unified education leadership more so than ever has been,” he said. "I have the unique perspective of knowing that private schools have a little bit more latitude and the ability to do things differently.”

Hundreds of schools across the country are requiring vaccines and masks. Others are not – or cannot because of local orders.

Still, most schools are providing free testing and vaccine clinics on campus, even setting aside extra dorm rooms to serve as isolation quarters for students who get sick. Schools have also extended hours of their wellness or health centers, as well as providing more mental health counselors for students.

Others like UTA and Tarleton State are not maximizing classroom sizes so that students can more easily social distance.

“We did some things last year during the pandemic that worked really well and we did some things not so well. So we hope that this new plan moving forward is the best of both worlds,” Hurley said.

SMU – a private university – will have a temporary mask requirement.

"We still want to be in lockstep with public institutions as much as possible but also want to utilize the freedom that we do having some respect as a private institution to really identify what is going to be the best fit for us,” said Leigh Ann Moffett, association vice president and chief risk officer for SMU.

She also leads SMU's emergency operations center and said private universities face their own challenges, too.

“One of the examples I would use is early on when the vaccine started to roll out, state institutions seemed to be able to obtain the vaccines earlier than what we were able to,” Moffett explained. “There’s just that balance – there are some advantages that we’ve had but there are other obstacles as well.”

Vaccines are not required at any of the colleges or universities in North Texas but are highly encouraged. Students should keep in mind that your school might want you to report it if you are vaccinated, for data purposes.

“It really does streamline our process in the event that case management needs to evaluate close contacts and be able to provide them the appropriate guidance,” said Moffett. “It’s a good idea of how we’re doing as a community and understand what our campus population looks like.”

Despite the challenges this year, she said her school is trying to press on with a normal semester.

“We’re now able to compare that to something. Last year, we had nothing to compare it to. This year, we’re leveraging that content and that information. We have to be ready to pivot – and that’s part of always looking at what is our contingency plan,” Moffett said. “Keeping a good idea and understanding of what’s going on out there, evaluating the activity on our campus, and ensuring that we are responding accordingly.”

Looking to the Future

Despite the challenges another year of COVID brings, university leaders said students are excited to experience “college life” on campus again.

“I do sense the excitement around this freshman class versus last year -- it's elevated. And part of it is because I think we’ve navigated this for 20 months," Hurley said.

Leaders also don't want their students to lose sight of their future.

“Just like last year, we will get through this,” said Hurley. “They should continue to forge forward and persevere, even if it’s at a part-time level in any institution. Continue to further your education."

Andujar said it’s also important for students to make the effort to become acquainted with campus life again.

“It’s really 50% of the experience. During virtual, all of that was really hard to access for someone who wasn’t proactively constantly on the university website or on social media platforms trying to get involved,” he said. “My biggest concern for me and students, in general, is that the habits that we developed during the pandemic persist…I think there’s a lot of people who figured out how to go it alone and I think that’s not really how the learning environment is best utilized.”

Andres Andujar
Bel Khuu, Andres Andujar and their friends are ready for in-person classes at UT Dallas.

Andujar, who transferred to UT Dallas before the pandemic, also worries about other transfer students who might struggle with connecting to campus life.

“Transfer students and really international students have a unique place in the university community especially those who are new to the school. And they don’t always realize or have the same access to all of the welcome programming that the university provides. I think that is something that schools all over the country need to pause and sort of recognize,” he said. “UTD does a really great job of understanding that and does a lot of programming thought the transfer mentor program…It makes a big difference.”

Students say it’s also important to give each other grace, especially in their personal goals.

“This is the time where most of us will decide whether we want to charge forward or just give up and shut down – and I think this is the best time to just challenge ourselves to follow through,” said Khuu. “And make big plans. Do as much as we can and make sure we’re feeling great about it.”

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