For many San Antonio college students, the worsening delta variant surge means the beginning of the fall semester will look a lot like last year’s.

At the four private universities — Trinity University, Our Lady of the Lake University, St. Mary’s University, and University of the Incarnate Word — students again will be required to wear masks, regardless of their vaccination status. It’s a tool public colleges cannot employ under Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting public entities from mandating masks. But classes and other on-campus activities will be held in person.

Meanwhile, the Alamo Colleges District and the University of Texas at San Antonio recently announced they will begin their fall semesters with mostly virtual instruction and require students and staff to get tested for COVID-19. Alamo Colleges will require weekly testing, but for now UTSA will require students to get tested before moving into campus housing.

These changes all came in the past two weeks, as the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 continues to drive up case numbers and hospitalizations in San Antonio. As of Aug. 12, the weekly case average exceeded 1,300, and 1,267 people were hospitalized.

“The pandemic is not over,” said Thomas Mengler, St. Mary’s University president, in an official news release. “Consequently, the need for each member of the St. Mary’s community to protect oneself, to protect each other, and to protect our family and friends is just as urgent today as it was a year ago.”

Texas A&M University-San Antonio (TAMUSA) is the only higher-education institution that has not announced major changes to its fall semester. The public university will hold classes in person and only require students and staff to self-report COVID-19 symptoms and exposures. Jeanette De Diemar, vice president of university relations, said in a statement that TAMUSA will follow the guidance of the state and the university system.

“We continue to actively monitor the evolving situation including the city, county, and state — and are prepared to adjust to safely accommodate these changing conditions as the state allows,” she said.

Alamo Colleges, UTSA, and TAMUSA all encourage students and staff to wear masks, but, as public entities, they cannot mandate their use or require students and staff to get vaccinated.

Professors and students had varying reactions to the changes to the fall semester.

Scott Gage, an associate professor of English at TAMUSA, said many faculty members in the local chapter of the American Association of University Professors have expressed concerns to him about TAMUSA not enforcing the additional COVID-19 precautions available to the university, such as switching to online classes for the first few weeks or requiring everyone on campus to get tested. Classes start Thursday, but other on-campus events are being held before then.

“If we can’t have a mask mandate on campus, then we need some other level of protection to make sure that people on campus are safe,” he said.

Sierra Salas, a rising junior at St. Mary’s, said she feels at ease about the upcoming academic year, especially because masks are now required. 

“I feel comfortable,” Salas said. “I feel safer than I would if there wasn’t a mask policy.”

Ellis Jacoby, a sophomore at Trinity University, thought differently about the update on his campus. 

“Trinity’s policies for the coming fall semester are uncalled for considering our over-91% vaccination rate,” he said. “Mask usage and the vaccine should be personal choices that individuals can make for themselves, not forced onto individuals from above. … If the vaccine works as well as it is supposed to, then Trinity has virtually nothing to worry about.”

Alamo Colleges starts the fall semester Aug. 23. Most classes will be held remotely for the first two weeks, switching to in-person classes on Sept. 7 if it is safe to do so. UTSA also starts the fall semester Aug. 23 and will hold classes online for the first three weeks, until Sept. 12.

With mask mandates in place, San Antonio’s private universities have decided to hold classes in person. Our Lady of the Lake University and St. Mary’s begin their fall semesters Monday and Tuesday, respectively. University of the Incarnate Word starts Aug. 23, and Trinity University begins Aug. 25.

The private universities will stop regular COVID-19 testing for community members who submit their vaccination forms to the university administration, and unvaccinated individuals will have to undergo weekly free testing. All community spaces will continue to be sanitized and cleaned daily.

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Polina Protozanova

Polina is a Shiner Editorial Intern for the San Antonio Report.

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.