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Many Texas colleges say they are reviewing an executive order issued by Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, on Tuesday ending a statewide mask mandate and allowing businesses and facilitates to open at full capacity, actions that have been widely condemned by public health officials as premature.
Mississippi governor Tate Reeves, also a Republican, likewise acted on Tuesday to lift county-level mask mandates and allow businesses to operate at full capacity. Officials in Oxford, home to the flagship University of Mississippi, subsequently voted to lift a citywide mask mandate.
Federal public health officials have strongly urged Americans to continue wearing face masks to control the spread of COVID-19 and limit the emergence of potentially more dangerous variants while the country embarks on a massive vaccination campaign. Colleges have widely embraced mask requirements on campuses, but the actions by state and local officials in Texas and Mississippi stand to potentially complicate colleges' efforts to enforce compliance with public health recommendations.
Some public colleges in Texas indicated they are still trying to understand the implications of the order by Abbott.
The University of Houston said on Twitter Wednesday it “is reviewing Governor Abbott’s March 2 executive order regarding the mask mandate and opening Texas businesses 100% to determine the safest path forward for our campus community.”
“The health and well-being of our faculty, staff and students remains our highest priority. We remain committed to creating a campus environment that is as safe as possible and minimizes the spread of COVID-19. Faculty, staff and students can expect to receive more information before the order goes into effect,” the university said on its Twitter account. “Until that time, our existing COVID-19 protocols remain in effect.”
J. B. Bird, a spokesman for the University of Texas at Austin, said university officials "are reviewing our COVID-19 protocols to ensure they comply with the governor’s order, which goes into effect March 10. As of today, our guidance remains the same. We will let the community know about any change."
UT San Antonio president Taylor Eighmy similarly said in a universitywide message that officials are “awaiting input from UT System about the implications of [Executive Order] GA-34 and its effect on UTSA’s current operations, as well as on our planning for the summer and fall terms, campus events, commencement, etc. Until then, our campus operations remain the same. UTSA’s Public Health Task Force will develop recommendations on best practices going forward as each of us continues to do our part to protect the health and safety of our community.”
A spokeswoman for Lamar University said the institution "is awaiting TEA [Texas Education Agency] interpretation of the governor’s executive order to determine how higher education fits into his proclamation."
Texas A&M University said in a statement Tuesday that "current rules and protocols at Texas A&M University regarding face coverings will remain in place until March 10, before which date the university will issue further guidance related to Executive Order GA-34 announced today by Governor Greg Abbott."
More than 500 people had signed a Change.org petition as of Wednesday evening calling on Texas A&M to keep its current masking rules in place.
“I’ve had various faculty from the university where I work say, ‘What can we do? We’re scared,’” said Pat Heintzelman, president of the Texas Faculty Association and an instructor of English at Lamar University. “Some people said, ‘I’ve already emailed all my students saying you can’t come into my classroom without a mask on.’ I think you can say that, but I don’t think you can enforce it.”
Heintzelman called the governor’s order “senseless.”
“You keep hearing the health experts say that maintaining masks and social distancing just for weeks more could make such a difference in the number of hospitalizations and deaths,” she said. “The Houston Chronicle reported yesterday that Houston is the first city to record every major variant of the virus. There are all these vaccines that are available now, if Governor Abbott would just wait.”
“Also, spring break’s coming up, so here we are with spring break coming up this month and the variants are on the rise,” Heintzelman added. “It just doesn’t make any sense that he would do this or that universities would not keep those mask mandates enforced. I think we need Governor Abbott to call on the presidents of the universities or at least the governing boards of the universities and instruct them to keep the mask mandate enforced. I don’t have any hope that he will, but I would ask him to do that.”
The text of the executive order appears to leave flexibility for colleges to adopt their own safety protocols. A provision of the order says that public schools may operate under protocols established by the Texas Education Agency and states that “private schools and institutions of higher education are encouraged to establish similar standards.”
Michael A. Olivas, the William B. Bates Distinguished Chair in Law Emeritus at the University of Houston Law Center, said he does not believe Abbott’s order will compel colleges to lift their mask rules if they don’t want to.
"I don’t think this has any force," Olivas said in relation to colleges. "The state could have singled them out, but I think he [Abbott] knows that in the governance of higher education institutions, decisions are made by the Board of Regents, whose membership he appoints. He may have appointed people who are going to be laissez faire like he is, but I do not think he has actual jurisdiction over colleges and universities with regard to this kind of behavior. And most students aren't living on campus anyway."
Some colleges said they plan to keep mask mandates in place. The University of Texas at El Paso said in a message to faculty and staff Wednesday that the university "will continue with best health practices on campus, including mask wearing and social distancing, commensurate with the current health conditions. You should anticipate that masks and social distancing will be required on campus at least through the end of the semester."
Heather Wilson, UTEP's president, said the lifting of the statewide mandate devolves authority to the university to set its own policies.
"We are tracking fairly closely the percentage of our faculty staff and students who are at high risk, and we do vaccination on campus, so we want to make sure that we keep people protected who are working with us until we get to a point where we think we have enough people vaccinated," Wilson said. "Texas will be as of next week vaccinating about a million people a week, so when we look out at what we’re doing and the information we have, we think we’re going to be able to start some co-curricular activities on campus after March 22. June 1 we’re going to have pretty much open offices, and then in July we should be able to have more people on campus."
The University of North Texas said in a statement on Twitter it expects students, faculty and staff to continue to comply with safety measures, and that in-person commencement ceremonies will be masked and socially distant.
Ski Sullivan, a spokesman for North Central Texas College, a community college, said current social distancing measures, as well as face-covering requirements, will remain in place.
Another Texas community college, Del Mar College, issued a statement Tuesday saying that while administrators were aware of Abbott's order, "at this time, there are no changes to DMC’s COVID-19 health and safety protocols -- meaning face coverings are still required on all our campuses."
A spokeswoman for Paris Junior College said the community college "plans on continuing with the same protocols which have been in place since the fall semester, which includes masks, in order to keep our students and employees safe."
And a spokeswoman for Collin College, another community college, said it would keep its mask requirement in place through the spring semester, "and we will continue to follow the various safety and social distancing practices that we have in place. We believe this to be in the best interest of our students, faculty, staff and communities."
A number of private colleges also indicated they were not making any immediate changes to their policies.
Southwestern University, a private college, said in a statement Wednesday that it would keep its COVID-19 protocols in place. “All students, faculty, and staff should continue to wear a face mask(s), practice physical distancing, and adhere to all of the other measures the University has put in place to protect our community from the spread of the coronavirus,” the university said. “The university’s decision takes into consideration the current rate of infection in Williamson County and throughout Central Texas. Although there has been progress made in vaccinating more people, COVID-19 positivity rates remain in the red or ‘uncontrolled spread’ classification for Williamson County.”
Baylor University, a Christian college, said in a statement Tuesday that it was not making any immediate changes to its COVID-19 policies. "Baylor and our Health Management Team will take today's announcement under advisement and will do what is best for the health and well-being of our campus community and guests," the university said.
Southern Methodist University said in a universitywide message that it "will continue to follow our current guidelines requiring masks and social distancing on campus through the remainder of the Spring semester. In light of the governor’s executive order to lift the state mandate on masks as well as other restrictions, we will continue to monitor and review industry-specific guidance and recommendations from the federal Centers for Disease Control and state public health authorities before implementing any changes to our safety guidelines. We are carefully listening to and considering concerns expressed by our campus community -- our students, faculty, and staff -- as well as parents who have entrusted us with their children’s wellbeing and education."
A spokesman for Rice University, another private institution, said the institution is not making any changes to its COVID policies.
Trinity University said in an update on its website Tuesday that it is staying the course. “For the protection of our faculty, staff, students and our neighbors in San Antonio, Trinity University remains committed to our ProtecTU Health Pledge and associated guidelines and policies,” the university said. “This means we will continue to wear face coverings, socially distance, manage capacities in venues across campus, and limit visitors to campus.”
And St. Mary's University, a Roman Catholic institution, said in a Facebook post Tuesday that the university "has continued to make great strides in minimizing the spread of the COVID-19 virus in recent months. This success is aided by the measures we, as a community, have taken to ensure each other’s health and safety. We want to remind you that masks are required on campus for the 2020-21 academic year."
Meanwhile, the University of Mississippi said it would continue to require face coverings in classrooms and offices and public spaces on campuses for the rest of the spring semester despite the lifting of mask mandates at the state and city of Oxford levels. The chancellor, Glenn F. Boyce, wrote in a message Wednesday that “the implications of the orders for off-campus student events will be forthcoming and will be communicated directly to Registered Student Organizations.”
“Our community has done a tremendous job of adopting and adhering to our university protocols to limit spread of the virus, and those protocols continue to work effectively,” Boyce wrote. “We look forward to getting vaccines on campus to administer to faculty, staff and students, which may offer future opportunities to reevaluate our approach.”