#UTT24 and the coronavirus: Starting college during a global pandemic

Chandler Gibson • Editor-in-Chief

“I was really looking forward to Swoop Camp to kick off my first year in college, physically going to class, and all student activities,” Brea Tobin said in an interview on Twitter. "Now, it may not be what I initially thought my college experience would be.”

Tobin is an incoming first-year student at The University of Texas at Tyler. Hailing from Dickinson, a city on the Texas coast near Kemah, between Galveston and Houston, she decided to come to UT Tyler for, according to her, the nursing program and the scenery.

Brea Tobin
Photo courtesy of Brea Tobin

Tobin is one of a slew of students, identified on social media platforms as #UTT24, who are starting their first year at UT Tyler during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“My parents are obviously very concerned about COVID, and I am too,” Tobin said. “HOWEVER, I am still eager to live the college experience!”

UT Tyler has launched a series of reopening procedures, attempting to acclimate returning and first-year students to the proverbial new normal. However, some students feel that they haven’t been fully informed about the reopening procedures.

Procedures for Fall 2020 Return to Normal Operations
Photo courtesy of The University of Texas at Tyler website

“I feel like I haven’t been told enough,” Tobin said.

As the university plans its reopening around social distancing guidelines, mask mandates and an increasingly steep rise in cases across the United States, some students are concerned about the possibility of prematurely opening college campuses.

“For my freshman year, I was really looking forward to being away from home for the first time,” Nicole Bokanyi said. “Since my senior year ended unexpectedly, I was really looking for a positive start in college. One thing in particular was joining a sorority and getting involved on campus. With COVID, it will definitely be strange to be wearing [a] mask all the time and having many rules/procedures to follow.”

Bokanyi is another incoming freshman from Montgomery, TX, a small town far northwest of Houston on the edge of Lake Conroe. She was also attracted to UT Tyler for its nursing program.

Nicole Bokanyi
Photo courtesy of Nicole Bokanyi

“I am nervous for housing to be at 100% occupancy because of being in a double room at O-Hall,” Bokanyi said.

In UT Tyler’s reopening guidelines designed by the Reboot UT Tyler Task Force and in multiple emails sent to returning students, it was announced that UT Tyler’s on-campus housing would be at or exceeding 100% capacity. Meanwhile, according to a July 29 report by The Tyler Morning Telegraph and NET Health, Smith County has added almost 1,600 new cases of COVID-19, including that of United States House Representative Louie Gohmert.

“UT Tyler housing facilities will operate at full housing occupancy, with each suite/apartment at maximum occupancy,” reads the Procedures for Fall 2020 Return to Normal Operations report. “Due to likely higher demand than supply, temporary off-campus housing will be provided at the start of the semester.”

Most students were not consulted on the discussions or actions taken by the Reboot UT Tyler Task Force, and, according to Chief Communications Officer Lucas Roebuck and Senior Director of Media Relations Beverley Golden, the task force’s meetings are private. Housing at full capacity was one of the decisions the task force made, according to the document.

“Wow, I find that shocking,” Tobin said. “I thought the occupancy would be lower due to COVID. But I’m excited to come.”

The fear of another localized wave of the virus is still in the backs of minds of students like Bokanyi and Tobin.

“My main concern for starting in the fall is the cases to start to rise and having to move all online and back home,” Bokanyi said. “I would be frustrated because I have a hard time focusing online. I learn better and I’m more motivated when attending in person class. With also being at home, I just know I will be distracted easily.”

Her concern mirrors that of Tobin and her family.

“[Moving back home] would be unfortunate, but if that’s how it can keep everyone safe while still being able to be on campus, then I’ll make peace with that,” Tobin said. “I think they can still update the incoming freshman more often.”

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