Abilene Universities Ready For New School Year Amidst COVID Surge
Universities are welcoming back faculty and students amidst the turmoil of another surge in COVID-19 cases. And they’re taking different approaches. UT Austin is requiring a negative COVID test for all students on campus. Texas A&M also has mandatory testing. At Baylor University in Waco, students will be tested weekly. In Abilene the three private universities, have adjusted plans for this year drawing on what administrators learned from the last COVID-affected school year, and evaluating current conditions.
At Abilene Christian University, prospective students are taking last minute campus tours this week as student athletes prepare to juggle sports and academics for another semester. Here, in Taylor County, COVID infections are growing, like in the rest of the state, and Abilene’s university communities are cautiously moving forward with in-person classes. “We did come out with a new set of guidelines, particularly in response to the Delta variant and the increase in local cases,” said Sandra Harper, President of McMurry University.
McMurry has over eleven-hundred students, and was also the first of Abilene's three private colleges to announce it’ll require mask-wearing on campus. And while vaccinations aren’t required Harper says, “They're expected if you're planning on being in person at the community. And if you do not want to get vaccinated, or do not want to tell us if you're vaccinated, then you will have to have a negative test right before school starts.”
Harper adds, unvaccinated McMurry students may be subject to more periodic coronavirus testing throughout the semester. McMurry and Hardin-Simmons University officials say they’ve made these kinds of decisions by consulting with similar schools in their athletic conference, like Howard Payne University in Brownwood or East Texas Baptist in Marshall.
Abilene Christian University, the area’s largest with some 3,500 students takes a similar approach, maintaining a database of COVID-19 protocols in place at colleges across Texas. Both ACU and HSU are taking a more hands-off approach than McMurry. Eric Bruntmyer is president of Hardin Simmons. “We're going to really encourage our students to get that vaccination done but at the same time we're not going to jeopardize their financial well-being because we're going to do something against the governor's orders,” Bruntmyer said, referring to Governor Greg Abbott’s executive order against requiring masks or vaccinations for any school receiving state funds.
This upcoming semester, all three universities will offer in-person classes and a “more normal” athletic and social calendar, even as the schools face very different financial realities
Abilene Christian University is moving into the challenges of the new school year with some big wins. During what’s been a difficult period for some higher education institutions, ACU has broken enrollment and donation records. Phil Schubert, President of ACU, says the university has learned a lot over the course of the pandemic, “I've never seen a year the faculty and staff came together to work across disciplines, across departments, to join hands in teamwork to protect the institution and to provide for our students.”
At Hardin-Simmons, they’re still recovering from the implementation of a strategic plan to downsize that started right before the pandemic. President Bruntmyer says those decisions were worth it, “We are better off than we've ever been but not as good as we're going to get.”
Hardin-Simmons officials are looking to the future. The school’s taking physical steps to launch a new mechanical engineering degree program in 2023.
After putting a fundraising project on hold last year, McMurry University will also open a new fully online cyber-security degree program this year. President Harper says it’s in response to seeing more and more security hacks within their own community, including the university and a local hospital system, “I think we're the first school to do that at the baccalaureate level and so we're thrilled that that's starting up.”
All three leaders said that struggling through a year of constant change has created resilience and flexibility for their faculty and staff. “The lessons are be prepared for the unexpected, remain flexible, be diligent and continually assessing your decision so that you can adjust them to get a better outcome,” concluded ACU’s Phil Schubert.
School starts on August 23rd.