With university and college students eager to learn what their fall semester will look like, San Antonio’s higher education institutions have begun to roll out plans for the coming academic year.

All of the details are subject to change should the public health conditions shift at the time classes start, but already, plans reveal significant shifts from the norm.

Local schools plan to offer both online and in-person classes, adjusting so fewer students are physically present at one time. Schools will implement health protocols to sanitize the campuses and encourage mask use.

On July 2, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered all Texans in counties with 20 or more positive coronavirus cases to wear masks in public places. Many universities released their plans to require face coverings before such a mandate was in place. Their plans to mandate mask-wearing on campus don’t include language dependent on government orders.

Some universities also have decided to shorten the in-person semester, allowing students to complete schoolwork entirely online after Thanksgiving to mitigate the risk of spreading coronavirus while traveling home.

University of Texas at San Antonio

University leaders warned students in late June that the fall semester would not look the same as it had in the past – school would be open, but everyone would have to undergo public health compliance training and be subject to heightened safety protocols throughout the school year.

“Our overall goal is to ensure widespread access to high-quality academic experiences and the safest possible physical environments, regardless of the unpredictable circumstances that lie ahead,” university leaders wrote to students in a June 30 email.

The UTSA Public Health Task Force announced several guidelines in a new report last month. The university will require face coverings in all public and common spaces, position hand sanitizing stations in each building across multiple locations, and implement enhanced sanitizing protocols in school facilities.

UTSA will offer both in-person and virtual instruction, but it will work to reduce in-person class size so each student can have at least 6 feet of separation from classmates. The school will work with professors to achieve this goal and look at making classes hybrid-learning environments or adding sections to do so.

UTSA leaders pledged that they would give students final information on individual courses by Aug. 1. The school year starts on Aug. 24.

In-person events will be considered on a case-by-case basis with plans in place to maintain appropriate health guidelines. Faculty and staff will hold meetings and office hours virtually instead of in person. UTSA will install protective barriers or dividers in spaces where social distancing isn’t possible.

Student housing will remain open, and residents will be grouped into what UTSA calls a family unit: two or more students who share a bathroom or common living area. UTSA will encourage students in a unit to socialize within their units and avoid other groups.

Dining services also will remain open, but the number of chairs and tables will be limited in shared dining spaces. UTSA’s public health task force recommends individually packaged meals and the elimination or limitation of buffet-style dining.

The university plans to move all classes online after Thanksgiving. It will release additional information on the fall semester on July 8.

Our Lady of the Lake University

Students at OLLU also will end their fall semester in online classes, as the university will switch to remote instruction following Thanksgiving break. OLLU will permit students to remain in residence halls and use campus facilities and services, but all classes and exams will be online.

The university also plans to adjust its academic strategy to meet the public health needs of the pandemic. OLLU will announce an updated course schedule by July 7. The new offerings could include face-to-face classes in more spacious classrooms, new hybrid options to split class sizes, a lower number of students in science labs, and additional online sections.

OLLU will allow students in residence halls, but the school plans to reopen old residence hall space to create greater social distancing. The school will convert triple rooms into double rooms and no more than two students will share a bathroom space.

Social activities in residence halls will involve more virtual and outdoor options to ensure social distancing. The school will place hand sanitizer stations near facility entrances and intensify the cleaning of high-touch areas.

In OLLU dining halls, the university will install plexiglass guards, add more grab-and-go options, and space out tables and chairs.

The school will require everyone on campus to wear a mask.

St. Mary’s University

Nearby, St. Mary’s University also will adjust its fall semester schedule. The school year will start earlier, with classes beginning Aug. 11, and end before Thanksgiving on Nov. 20. There will be no midsemester break to minimize travel and exposure to coronavirus.

More information on fall classes is forthcoming. The university said fall classes will involve a variety of instruction methods adaptable to the health needs that arise.

St. Mary’s will require masks on campus and in classrooms, labs, meeting rooms, offices, residence halls, chapel, and indoor and outdoor activity spaces. The school also will implement a daily health check tool for faculty, staff, and students.

The university will limit most residence hall rooms to single occupancy, with no more than two students sharing a bathroom. The school will designate a residence hall for students to self-isolate should they test positive for coronavirus.

Campus dining services will use disposable plates and cups and remove self-service stations.

“We have … retained an epidemiologist and worked closely with the crisis management team of San Antonio’s University Hospital, asking them to assess our health and safety plans,” President Thomas Mengler wrote in a June 30 letter to the St. Mary’s community. “As cases of COVID-19 increase in San Antonio, we will continue to follow the guidance of government and public health officials and the health experts we have retained; and we will alter our plans as necessary to help mitigate the spread of the virus on campus and in the greater community.”

Trinity University

Trinity officials adjusted the school’s fall calendar to move students onto campus on Aug. 14, hold classes on Labor Day, and end in-person instruction on Nov. 20 before beginning virtual instruction after Thanksgiving.

Some classes will proceed online and Trinity officials said faculty will record classes whenever possible. Class occupancy will be limited to 50 people, with physical distancing in place at all times. Face coverings will be required, with very few exceptions, in classrooms.

The school, known for its three-year residency requirement, has loosened its rules to excuse several hundred juniors from living on campus. Residence halls will undergo enhanced cleaning throughout the academic year, and all students, faculty, and staff will be asked to sign a health pledge to take responsible actions toward achieving a healthy campus.

Residence halls will close on Nov. 20 when in-person instruction ends. No self-service or buffets will be available in dining halls.

University of the Incarnate Word

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San Antonio’s largest private higher education institution is following a phased operational plan. The school is currently in phase one of three phases, with face coverings mandatory and social distancing enforced.

All common areas remain closed and the university is asking its community to avoid groups of more than 10 people. Online education is the current emphasis.

Residence halls and the school’s wellness center remain closed in this phase. To move to phase two, states and regions must show no evidence of a rebound with a sustained downward trajectory of positive test rates within a two-week time frame. Should the school move into phase two, UIW could continue online education but consider limited in-person classes.

Phase three would require a total sustained decrease in positive tests for six weeks. In this final phase, UIW could resume in-person classes with flexibility to accommodate students who may become ill. All dining services would resume with physical distancing procedures, decreased occupancy, and the elimination of self-serve options. Face coverings would still be required.

Other campuses

Texas A&M University-San Antonio indicated earlier this summer that 70 percent of classes will be held online in the fall, but the school has not released further information on public health guidance for students returning to campus. The Alamo Colleges District also has not released a substantial school reopening plan for this fall.

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.