From a Distance: The Story of UT’s 2020 Spring Semester

On Wednesday, March 11, Conner Vanden Hoek, BA ’20, sat down to take his speech writing midterm. Before the then-government senior could begin, his professor, Roderick P. Hart, summoned the students’ attention.

“I’m sorry to interrupt your midterm exam, so I’ll make this as brief as possible,” Hart said. He held up a gradebook, explaining that it was from a class he had taught at Penn State University in spring 1970. That May, National Guard troops had fired on student protestors at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four, and spawning protests at campuses across the country. Other schools, including Penn State, partially or completely closed.

“Fifty years later, we again face dangerous times,” Hart continued. “Once again, colleges are shutting down. Soon, I believe, UT will join them. If the rumors are correct, this will be the last time you and I will meet together in this room. I hate the thought of online education. I like [students] close at hand, to look them in the eye, to get them to think and react spontaneously. I care for each and every one of you. Now go finish your exam.”

Five days earlier, in an attempt to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, Austin mayor Steve Adler, JD ’82, had stunned the city by declaring a local state of disaster. At the time, most of the country’s confirmed COVID-19 cases were on the coasts, where numerous colleges had already sent students home to finish the semester online. The virus had yet to be detected in Austin, but administrators urged students to consider it as they planned spring-break travel.

Vanden Hoek was surprised to hear Hart’s prediction. Friends had speculated that UT would close, but his professor’s words carried more weight. When he turned in his test, Vanden Hoek shook Hart’s hand and thanked him—just in case. That night, Vanden Hoek received an email from then-President Gregory L. Fenves’ office, explaining that spring break would be extended for a second week. The extra time would allow instructors to shift lectures online and figure out how to teach labs and performing arts courses in person while keeping students a safe distance apart. Classes would resume on Monday, March 30.

As Vanden Hoek labored over a take-home exam on Thursday, the men’s basketball team was warming up to play in the second day of the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City. But with 45 minutes until tipoff, league officials and athletic directors called off the tournament. Coaches pulled the athletes off the court and told them to pack for an afternoon flight back to Austin. Later that day, the NCAA canceled all winter and spring championships.

On Friday morning Vanden Hoek’s phone vibrated with an emergency text from UT, canceling the day’s classes. His stomach dropped: Hart had been right. Hours later, his phone buzzed again, this time with an email from Fenves, explaining that the university had closed because the first case of COVID-19 within the UT community was confirmed that morning. The person who had tested positive was Fenves’ wife, Carmel Fenves. (She has since recovered.)

By the following Tuesday, the university had suspended in-person classes for the rest of the semester. Students who lived on campus were told not to return after spring break. The city, which initially had banned gatherings of 2,500 or more people, reduced that limit to 250, and finally to 10.  Soon, all non-essential workers in Austin were ordered to stay home.

Speech writing, it turned out, was the last in-person class of Vanden Hoek’s college career.

“As seniors, we weren’t able to have those final moments with our friends to say goodbye, and that last meal on the Drag,” he said. “To not have that closure and to just abruptly leave like that is really difficult.”

Over the next two weeks, as Austin streets sat eerily empty, UT made an extraordinary pivot. It shifted courses for over 51,000 students online, prepared to move 7,100 students out of residence halls, and transitioned most employees to remote work—all while maintaining safety measures, down to disinfecting the buttons in the elevators. When school resumed on March 30, classes, as well as club meetings, medical appointments, and research showcases, were conducted online. UT had not confronted a major outbreak since the 1918 flu pandemic, when the university’s 2,812 students saw classes suspended for several weeks. This year, UT had to transform a campus-based education—where social interactions are fundamental to the experience—into one that could fit onto a computer screen.

The story of the spring 2020 semester is one of long hours, difficult decisions, disappointment, and innovation. Week by week, every dimension of university life adapted to minimize the threat posed by the novel coronavirus.

In late May, UT announced that fall classes will end at Thanksgiving and students will take final exams at home, to guard against the spread of infection. Surveillance testing of asymptomatic volunteers will help officials understand how COVID-19 is—or isn’t—spreading on campus. As the university plans for the future in a world without a vaccine, its approach will continue to evolve. But the spring 2020 semester will be remembered as the one when everything changed.

Spring Break: March 16-27

On Monday, March 16, Dean of UT’s School Undergraduate Studies Brent Iverson, Life Member, woke up with a bad headache. He and his wife had self-quarantined since the news broke about Carmel because, as someone who regularly met with the president, he presumably had been exposed. Shaking with chills, the couple went to UT Health Austin, which, two days earlier, had begun offering drive-through testing. The next day, their results were ready: positive. They, like Carmel, were some of the earliest confirmed COVID-19 cases in Austin.

Over the next 10 days, Iverson battled a fever and gastrointestinal issues and lost his sense of taste and smell. When he tried to take a deep breath, the resulting pain immediately transported him back to his years living in Southern California. “If you exercised when there was a smog alert in the 1980s in Los Angeles, it would hurt to breathe,” he said. “That’s what we felt.” (Iverson and his wife ultimately guessed they had been exposed at their gym because several other people in their fitness class had gotten sick.) By March 27, the couple felt better, although, to their dismay, both tested positive again on April 8. To be on the safe side, the Iversons stayed home for four full weeks after they recovered—by which time Austin had close to 1,400 confirmed cases.

As the city of Austin readied its medical infrastructure for the pandemic, including the UT Health Austin test site the Iversons had used, so did the university. Dell Medical School students temporarily shifted from their normal clinical rotations to helping in the field: screening patients at UT Health Austin partner clinics for COVID-19 symptoms, and assisting with contact tracing of Austinites who tested positive. University Health Services, which began administering COVID-19 tests on March 12, reconfigured its clinic to separate patients with respiratory symptoms from those without. (In an ironic twist, UHS, which was established in response to the 1918 flu pandemic, was forced by the coronavirus to cancel its 100th anniversary celebration this spring.)

But beyond bolstering its health care resources, UT had to make hundreds of other changes, starting with academics. Professors who had never taught an online class had to learn how—and adapt their syllabi—by the end of the month. Staff from the Faculty Innovation Center, Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services (LAITS), the colleges and schools, and the library stepped up as their coaches, helping them make the most of Zoom, the now-ubiquitous videoconferencing platform, and Canvas, the university’s online course management system where instructors can create discussion boards, upload recorded lectures, and administer quizzes.

LAITS, which helps professors across the university create online courses, became a go-to resource for instructors. Staff created Zoom tutorials, arranged curbside computer pickup for faculty and staff, started a hotline, and set up technology in empty classrooms so faculty who couldn’t film at home could record lectures there. For some, the extended “spring break” became two 100-hour work weeks.

In the College of Fine Arts, faculty navigated how to teach dance, painting, and musical performance virtually with the help of newly appointed assistant dean for instructional continuity and innovation Julie Schell. And with university libraries closing March 20, staff searched for resources to help students conduct research from off campus. That meant offering more online materials—e-books, databases, streaming media—and access to HathiTrust, an online repository with a collection of 12.5 million volumes.

As professors prepared to teach online, Texas Global was helping Longhorns all over the world—and international students and scholars in Austin—make decisions and travel arrangements. Texas Global’s Risk and Safety team had been tracking the coronavirus since December, just as it would any natural disaster, disease outbreak, or political unrest. Then, on March 11, after the CDC had issued multiple health notices elevating the threat level for international travel, UT suspended all education-abroad programs for spring and summer. The several hundred students, faculty and staff who were abroad were advised to return by March 30 and self-isolate for two weeks, just in case. Even though some countries had robust testing programs and few cases, little was known about the new virus and its risks.

“It was more prudent to recall everyone and to do it in a way that was systematic and strategic,” said Sonia Feigenbaum, senior vice provost for global engagement and strategy and chief international officer.

Domestic students abroad and international students in Austin both saw their semesters dramatically altered. Nutrition junior Josh Winn was studying abroad at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, a city-state that had fewer than 600 cases until mid-April. Train stations and malls there were staffed with temperature-takers, and most people voluntarily wore masks. After the initial spread of the virus at the Chinese New Year, the government banned gatherings of more than 50 people, which meant his larger classes moved online. Eventually, NTU shifted all his courses to the internet.

Winn returned to Texas on March 16, connecting through San Francisco, where he was startled at the lack of precautions he observed. “It was different from an airport in Singapore, where almost everyone was wearing masks, and there were temperatures taken,” he said.

While Winn was heading home to the U.S., finance freshman Peiyu Ouyang was trying to get home to her family in Guangzhou, China. But her home country had restricted travel, and flights kept getting canceled. Ultimately, Ouyang realized that going back to China was impractical, since she would have been attending online classes in a time zone 13 hours behind the one where her family lived. Instead, she finished the semester as a guest in the Dallas home of the host family she had lived with during high school.

Ouyang finally managed to buy a ticket to visit China in the summer, aware that leaving the U.S. was a gamble. The U.S. currently limits travel from China. Many of the 5,200 international students at UT this spring had to make similar tough choices about visiting family. Because U.S. consulates had suspended visa processing, students whose visas expired while they were out of the country risked not being able to return.

March 30

On Mondays and Wednesdays in the “Before Times,” senior lecturer Gretchen Charrier, MPA ’96, taught two back-to-back sections of Fundamentals of Financial Accounting in the University Teaching Center. Most days, she lightened the mood before class by playing music and chatting with her 50 students as they arrived. She learned their names and hometowns and what organizations they had joined. When she taught, Charrier interspersed her lectures with interactive discussions of financial statements or recent news articles.

On March 30, when she began teaching via Zoom, her routine changed. As she sat down in front of the computer, her heart beat a little faster—something it never did when she taught on campus. Teaching in front of a webcam felt oddly formal. It took extra energy to enunciate clearly and to monitor her computer screen, questions the students typed in the chat box, and her tablet, where she annotated the day’s PowerPoint slides. By the end of the three hours of teaching, she was exhausted. She lamented the loss of organic classroom discussions. Instead, her students appeared as small boxes on the side of her computer screen.

“When you’re talking to a computer and there’s no response, it’s hard to know if your message is getting through,” she said. “In the classroom, you can see people struggling, or several people leaning over and asking questions of someone else in class. You’re like, ‘Oh, hey, let me go over that again.’ You can just read the room, and it’s more difficult to do that on Zoom.”

Daron Roberts, BA ’01, Life Member, who teaches the 150-student course “Gameplan for Winning at Life,” tried to combat that Zoom fatigue by changing things up, occasionally lecturing via Instagram Live. He broadcast the lectures from his makeshift home office—a converted closet—while, in another room, his wife oversaw the school lessons of the couple’s five children under 10. Roberts’ teaching assistant monitored direct messages from students, who could also offer feedback via emoji. “The only difference [from Zoom] is you can throw some hearts up. And I can’t use PowerPoint,” Roberts said.

Students watched those lectures and submitted their assignments from wherever they’d landed during spring break. About 50 who were unable to go home, and had nowhere else to go, had moved into emergency housing in San Jacinto Hall. The rest studied in their off-campus apartments or their childhood bedrooms. Students who had decamped for their family’s home worked under widely varying conditions. Some had a private space with a door that closed. Others watched lectures while babysitting younger siblings because their essential-worker parents were on the job.

Meanwhile, the 7,100 students who had lived on campus had to clean out their rooms. To maintain safe social distancing, University Housing and Dining asked residents to register for a checkout time on or before May 20. Staff limited the number of students who could move out of any floor or wing of a residence hall at once, to avoid crowded hallways and elevators.

The university’s custodial staff had already been working extra hard, disinfecting frequently touched surfaces like door handles, elevator buttons, light switches, and restroom fixtures multiple times daily. As students moved out, cleaning crews donned protective gear and sprayed each room with disinfectant, then sealed it for 24 hours to ensure any virus molecules were killed. After summer maintenance and deep cleaning are finished, a crew will use an electrostatic mister, which breaks disinfectant into even finer particles, to treat each room again.

The logistics of move-out were, of course, harder for students from the far corners of Texas or from out of state. Radio-television-film freshman Jennifer Beck flew home to the Chicago area for spring break shortly before Illinois issued its first stay-at-home order. As she waited for the order to be lifted (it wouldn’t expire until late May), Beck debated the risks and costs of flying versus driving back to Texas to move out. “We had very limited options, and none of the options were desirable,” she said. Ultimately, her family chose an option University Housing and Dining offered students in her situation: The family hired a moving company to pack her belongings out of her room in Jester West.

When students went home, inequities that had been mitigated by campus resources suddenly reappeared. Students who didn’t have computers or internet access no longer could rely on UT computer labs, and those who made ends meet with a campus job were suddenly unemployed.

The Student Emergency Fund helped fill the gaps. The fund, which was established in 2006 and is administered by Student Emergency Services in the Office of the Dean of Students, typically provides one-time grants of up to $300 to students facing temporary or unexpected hardships. Last year the fund received 315 applications for assistance. Between March 17-28, it was flooded with more than 10 times that number.

The fund’s normal budget is $36,000, but in spring 2020 its resources were expanded by a $2 million contribution from the president’s office and $1.45 million from a HornRaiser crowdfunding campaign that reached parents, faculty, staff, alumni, and the community.

In response to students’ applications, the fund had 621 new laptops shipped directly to recipients’ homes. It sent students money to pay for webcams, new routers, and, in some cases, new internet service or cell phone hotspots. The fund also helped students cover rent, utilities, and groceries. Vanden Hoek, the student in the speech writing class, had paid for his Riverside-area apartment by working at the Starbucks in the Union. When the university closed, so did the Starbucks. The Student Emergency Fund helped him pay rent through the end of his lease.

In light of the extraordinary circumstances, staff waived the $300 limit on individual grants. Although the fund was not able to fulfill every request, it provided $3.3 million in assistance to 3,871 students this spring.

For off-campus students who needed groceries, SES converted the UT Outpost—the campus food pantry—to a delivery service. Staff from the Dean of Students office and Student Affairs each week drove more than 200 20-pound bags of sweet potatoes, oatmeal, granola bars, fruit, and shelf-stable items like soup to student apartment-dwellers in Austin. Dining Services also donated food it had ordered, but no longer needed, to the UT Outpost and to the Angel House soup kitchen.

Recognizing that many students were learning in less-than-ideal environments, the university offered them the option to take classes pass/fail, even letting them decide after finals.

“This change to the online environment has really amplified differences,” Iverson, the dean of Undergraduate Studies, said. “The environment [students] are in, the house they’re in, whatever’s going on around them, is completely different in different places. And some are more conducive to learning than others.”


The next month began with another major change: On April 8, it was announced that McCombs Dean Jay Hartzell, PhD ’98, Life Member, would step in as interim president in June. (The previous day, Fenves had confirmed he would be leaving UT to become president of Emory University, a decision made prior to the pandemic.)

Meanwhile, as students and professors adapted to remote learning, other aspects of the university went virtual, too. Nearly every dimension of UT life had to move online—even high-touch, social activities like campus visits.

On April 29, two dozen prospective students logged into a Zoom campus tour. Several were out-of-state seniors only days away from their deadline to pick a college. Tour guide and American Studies David Lunan, BA ’20, sat at his desk in his Austin apartment, grinning into his webcam.

“Welcome to The University of Texas at Austin,” he began, before introducing his fellow guides, some of whom would answer students’ questions via chat. The group started its virtual trek across campus, guided by PowerPoint slides with photos of select buildings: Jester Hall, the stadium, and the William C. Powers, Jr. Student Activity Center.

At the last “stop”—the Tower—he invited questions, which the prospective students typed in the chat box. After the guides weighed in, Lunan wrapped up the tour.

“Thank you for being part of our Zoom call today,” he said. “We know this isn’t the ideal way to experience campus, but this is what we’ve got for now, and we hope you learned something.”

It was a far cry from walking the campus for 90 minutes, getting to know the visiting families, and recommending his favorite Austin restaurants. With digital tours, he said, “it’s all the same content, but there’s an emotional connection that you don’t get any more.”

Even if they had been able to walk the Forty Acres, UT’s normally vibrant campus life was online only. The Daily Texan, which has only suspended publication once—for just six days during the 1918 flu pandemic—printed its last physical issue on March 13. (It has continued to publish online.) The Longhorn Research Poster Session, a showcase of student work coordinated by the Office of Undergraduate Research, usually packs hundreds of students and faculty into a cacophonous ballroom. Instead it became a series of Zoom meetings in which students individually presented their work to the panel of judges.

Across I-35, the tennis courts and baseball and softball diamonds sat empty and quiet. Most athletes, like other students, had gone back home. They worked out in the backyard or ran at their high school track, then Zoomed with their coaches. The NCAA’s cancellation of all winter and spring championships had been a necessary but enormous disappointment, said Athletics Director Chris Del Conte. The indoor track and field and swimming and diving teams had been expected to perform well at their national championships in March, and every spring sport—men’s and women’s golf and tennis, rowing, softball, and baseball—was ranked in the top 15 nationally.

“They were ready for the challenge of competing and winning a national championship, and those conversations [about the cancellations] were difficult, but ultimately we are looking out for their safety and their well-being,” Del Conte said. Seniors took solace in the fact that, to compensate for the lack of a 2020 season, the NCAA allowed universities to grant student-athletes in spring sports an additional year of eligibility.

Late April

Amid all the disappointment, though, there were bright spots. Iverson, the dean who’d contracted COVID-19, contributed to a study conducted by research assistant professor Greg Ippolito, BS ’91. Ippolito analyzes blood from COVID-19 patients,  drawn at intervals during their recovery, to understand the body’s immune response. Meanwhile, Iverson’s lab is researching whether a treatment could use therapeutic proteases, molecules that can cut other proteins in half—potentially making them a far more efficient mechanism than antibodies.

The pandemic also spurred university departments to try new technology that, in some cases, worked well enough to be adopted permanently. When campus closed, University Health Services providers began offering telehealth consultations, a project that had been on the clinic’s to-do list for a while. “We expected it would take a year to fully implement, and like a lot of other providers, we were able to do that in a couple of weeks,” said Terrance Hines, executive director and chief medical officer of UHS.

And the Texas Global Virtual Exchange—a Texas Global initiative launched well before the pandemic—will continue to expand. Through the initiative, UT faculty co-create and co-teach online courses with peers at universities around the world, using videoconferencing and chat platforms to help students at both institutions work together on projects.

At press time, classes were slated to meet in person in the fall—but many questions remained about the logistics of social distancing and surveillance testing. On April 22, Fenves appointed professor of psychology and marketing Art Markman, executive director of the IC2 Institute, to lead a university-wide task force to find answers. The group had to pursue two competing objectives, Markman said: providing the best educational experience while minimizing the infection that would result from relaxing social distancing. That might mean limiting the number of students in classrooms. The university could fill lecture halls to 40 percent capacity, seating students at wide intervals, and arrange for everyone else in the class to attend online. By late spring, staff were moving (and removing) chairs in libraries, dining facilities and study lounges, calculating how many students they could accommodate while maintaining social distancing.

“We have to keep people as safe as possible under the circumstances while still providing a high-quality education. And we have to balance those goals,” Markman said. Sure, it’s a loss. It’s not fair. But, “the real key to life is playing the hand you were dealt, and this is the hand we were dealt.We’re going to play it as well as we can.”

Commencement: May 23

At 3 p.m. on Saturday, May 23, Conner Vanden Hoek donned his black mortarboard and gathered his parents and siblings in the living room of his family home. He shared his iPad’s screen with the television so everyone could watch the College of Liberal Arts virtual convocation ceremony. It didn’t take long. After listening to Dean Ann Huff Stevens’ brief prerecorded remarks, Vanden Hoek searched the site’s slide show of the 2,724 graduates’ names for his own. Instead of walking across a stage, he clicked “play” to hear his name read aloud. The slide displayed his headshot and a sentiment he’d chosen for the day:

Faith without works is dead. Have faith for a better world and work to fix it.

Thank you to those who had faith in me and helped to get me here.

Vanden Hoek opened his graduation cards. His family took photos in the front yard. After dinner, the family gathered again to watch the livestream of commencement, the university-wide celebration typically held on the South Mall. Broadcasting live from his office in the Main Building, Fenves congratulated the graduates and introduced student body president Camron Goodman, BBA ’20, whose brief address had been recorded at home. Then commencement speaker Brené Brown, BSW ’95, Life Member, broadcasting from her Houston home, began.

“What starts here changes the world, but it will not be on your terms, and it will not be on your timeline,” she said. “The world will not ready itself for our plans. What starts here will change the world, but it will take your commitment to get back up and begin again the exact same number of times you fall, trip or get pushed down.” Brown’s own experience of applying to UT four times before she was able to enroll resonated with Vanden Hoek, a fellow transfer student who’d had to work hard for admission.

With “Pomp and Circumstance” playing in the background, the college deans saluted their graduates and asked them to stand (when Stevens spoke, Vanden Hoek stood). Then the live feed went back to Fenves, now standing on the terrace of the Main Building. “Degree candidates of The University of Texas at Austin,” he began. “I now confer upon each of you your respective academic degrees, with all the rights, privileges, responsibilities, and obligations that come with them. Congratulations—it’s official: you are UT graduates.” A wash of orange light flooded the Tower behind him.

Ten weeks after his classes ended abruptly, Vanden Hoek felt hopeful. His online training for Teach for America started the next week, and he’d move to the Rio Grande Valley in July. “If there’s one thing this pandemic has taught us, it’s how to stay connected with people even though you’re at a distance,” he said. “That’s a skill that’s definitely going to be valuable when we all go to different parts of the world to start our professional lives.”

Commencement marked a momentary pause in the university’s frenzy of planning for the fall. Campus leaders had many more decisions to make before students could return in August. But, for an evening, the UT community stopped to reflect and celebrate its new graduates. With the Tower glowing orange on the screen behind him, Vanden Hoek turned the tassel on his mortarboard and flipped his ring so the Texas Exes symbol was closest to his heart. He tossed his cap in the air, where it hit the ceiling and promptly fell to the floor. But, as his family applauded, he picked it back up.

Photographs by Matt Wright-Steel



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