Texas State's administration provided details on the university’s plan for a return to normalcy this fall semester and addressed the benefits of COVID-19 vaccinations during an April 20 virtual Town Hall meeting.
The hour-long broadcast featured University President Denise Trauth, Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Gene Bourgeois, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Emilio Carranco and Vice President for Student Affairs Cynthia L. Hernandez. A question-and-answer session was moderated by Vice President for University Advancement Dr. Barbara Breier.
President Trauth expressed an eagerness to return to “pre-pandemic conditions” after a “harrowing 13 months”. She encourages the community to wear face masks and get vaccinated as soon as possible.
Trauth also thanked faculty and staff for adjusting and adapting throughout the pandemic. She presented a 3% bonus, a one-time award paid over 12 months, to eligible employees. The bonus will be issued on Oct. 1.
Trauth says she is positive vaccination rates will be sufficient for the return to 100% in-person capacity this fall. She adds Texas State will continue to aid vaccination efforts by administering 1,500 to 1,800 doses per week in addition to mass vaccination clinics like the one scheduled for April 22 at the University Events Center.
The upcoming vaccine drive is in partnership with Hays County. The event aims to vaccinate 6,000 individuals, matching the “nearly 6,000 vaccine doses” Trauth says the university has provided so far.
“At this rate, all employees will have the opportunity to get vaccinated on campus by the end of May, and all students will have the opportunity to get vaccinated before the fall semester begins,” Trauth says.
Bourgeois echoed the benefits of vaccinations and focused on the transition to the full return to in-person classes and campus activities this fall.
“We need to have that vibrancy of on-campus life, and curricular and co-curricular and extracurricular experiences for all of our students, for all of our faculty and quite honestly, for our staff and for members of our community,” Bourgeois says.
He clarifies summer classes will follow the template of the 2020 summer semester when in-person instructional capacity was capped at 50% for classes offered.
Bourgeois says Bobcat Trace, Texas State's COVID-19 case reporting system, might be needed less this fall compared to previous semesters as the university continues to administer vaccines.
"Our presumption is that all the faculty and all the students who can receive a vaccination will have been afforded opportunities to receive those vaccinations, prior to the start of the fall semester," Bourgeois says.
Sewell Park will remain open after graduation for the community. Facial coverings and social distancing will be required at the park. Hernandez says the university may revisit the issue later should conditions change.
As of now, Sewell Park will not have enforcement roles in place to ensure visitors are following COVID-19 requirements, however, Bourgeois believes visitors will instinctively follow the rules.
"I think our students will actually be basically self-policing not only themselves, but I think probably, politely, saying to somebody, especially if they're not a Texas State student, at Sewell Park, 'Hey, look [at] our guidelines for this summer, we're masking up and we're having some social distancing'. Not that anyone's going to be, I think, ruthlessly enforcing it, but I do think our students will be very good ambassadors for us and helping to kind of softly police the area," Bourgeois says.
Hernandez says New Student Orientation will add optional days for families and students wishing to visit campus in person over the summer as mandatory days are currently virtual. Bourgeois says the optional days will give incoming students the chance to meet with advisors and tour resident halls and campus buildings.
Cat Camp will also offer in-person opportunities this summer. However, it has yet to be decided if the camp will be overnight or if it will be more than one day.
According to Hernandez, the Student Recreation Center will mirror campus capacity of 50% during summer months until at least the second summer term. In the fall, campus spots may have special limitations regarding the university's mask policy, Bourgeois says.
Carranco began his remarks by listing COVID-19 statistics that reflect a decrease in infections, positivity rates and fatalities in Texas. He says he believes the state's progress is due to facial coverings, social distancing, vaccine distributions and the following of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines.
He also reiterated the university’s claim of there being no evidence of COVID-19 transmission in classrooms or dorms, outside of roommates.
“What you take away from that is that we have created a safer place for all of us to learn and to work, it is safe for us to be in the classroom, it is safe for us to return to the workplace,” Carranco says. “Because we expect that these trends will continue over the summer and into the fall, I think that all of you should be confident that you can be at Texas State whether you're a student or you're an employee and do what you're here to do in a safe environment.”
Carranco adds while Texas State is doing “much better than the surrounding communities" and even the state of Texas, spring and Easter breaks had an impact on the positivity rates tracked by the school — increasing it from 2 to 3%, and most recently, 6.7%. He notes fewer overall tests being administered contribute to higher positivity rates. He says testing dropped from 1,600 throughout the majority of the spring semester to currently 1,000 times per week.
Carranco answered vaccine-related questions after the conclusion of the main portion of the meeting and spoke on the possibility of a COVID-19 booster shot in the future. He also discussed the temporary natural immunity present in the human body after contracting and recovering from COVID-19.
Carranco did not give a definitive answer on whether social distancing and masks would be required in the fall, saying the university will rely on CDC guidance and make a decision based on conditions closer to the start of the semester.
While the percentage of the classes expected to be in-person this fall is near 89%, Bourgeois says this may change at any time due to class enrollment. He adds professors can still offer class supplements via Zoom, however, it will no longer be required.
A recording of the Town Hall is available on the University President's website. Some comments from Bourgeois were provided on April 21 during a separate interview with The University Star.
Timia Cobb contributed to this story.