AUSTIN, Texas -- With less than a week until the first day of the fall semester at University of Texas at Austin, students, employees and alumni urged System officials on Thursday to cancel in-person learning this semester.
"I urge you to make enlightened and courageous decisions during the pandemic that will protect all of us and put the overarching humanitarian concerns ahead of short-term financial stress," said Anne Lewis, a professor at UT-Austin and an executive member of the Texas State Employees Union, during testimony at the virtual Board of Regents meeting.
During the meeting, the Texas State Employees Union presented a petition that condemns the upcoming return to campus in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic as harmful, especially to people of color, who are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, and to low-wage earners, who are typically working on the front lines.
The petition calls for moving all face-to-face classes with more than 10 people to remote learning until there's a downward trajectory in cases. It also calls on the UT System to end furloughs and layoffs and to provide hazard pay of $500 to all essential workers while ensuring unlimited and free access to protective equipment and COVID-19 testing.
UT-Austin is offering students free COVID-19 testing and will proactively test up to 5,000 asymptomatic individuals a week.
Speakers referenced Ural Wade Sr., the custodial services worker at UT-Austin who died earlier this summer after contracting COVID-19. Many warned that UT-Austin's in-person return, scheduled to begin in less than a week, will lead to more campus deaths.
"We can't bring him back, but you can prevent others from getting sick and from dying," said Greg Bosley, a computer support employee at UT-Austin.
UT-Austin has said 75% of its class seats will be online-only, which is an indication of how few people will be on campus at any given time, spokesperson J.B. Bird previously said in an email. Only 5% of class seats will be in-person, the school said.
But allowing even a smaller number of in-person classes is dangerous, speakers said.
Employees also said they are already suffering from financial austerity measures the school has put in place. UT-Austin has furloughed at least 260 employees, though many have since returned to work. The school is also considering scaling down academic and administrative departments and has frozen salary increases and university-sponsored travel.
Bosley said because of budget cuts stemming from the pandemic, he's been doing the jobs of two workers for months without additional pay.
"I'm exhausted," Bosley said. He said his department was praised by UT leadership for its hard work but "we need that praise backed up materially, with hazard pay."
Student speakers criticized the UT System for endorsing a reopening plan they view as motivated by money over safety. The petition calls for a tuition decrease of 10% for the duration of the pandemic.
"The UT System can't make any money if all the students are sick, dead or unable to attend because of high tuition costs in a global pandemic," said Bennett Burke, a sophomore at the UT-Austin.
Students have repeatedly questioned the value of college this fall, leading to at least five lawsuits in Texas against universities for tuition-related grievances, according to one law firm's litigation tracker.
Allison Navejas, another sophomore at UT-Austin, said she and other students shouldn't be paying thousands of dollars for tuition and fees if they don't have access to any campus extracurriculars and are dealing with a decrease in the quality of learning.
"Charging $12,000 for what we are getting this semester is, frankly, immoral," Navejas said. "It isn't okay to charge us for the luxuries of a large university when most of your students will be doing the equivalent of online community college."
Both Burke and Navejas also pointed out issues with relying on student behavior and said they have already witnessed large groups of students congregating on campus without masks.
Currently, UT-Austin is reporting 478 total COVID-19 cases among community members since March, with students making up 290 of those.
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