The death of a 20-year-old Texas A&M University student from COVID-19 last week spurred fear, frustration and sadness on the College Station campus. In the days since the biomedical science major died, those same feelings have galvanized some students and faculty members to demand more stringent coronavirus precautions from university officials — even if that means defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on such mandates.
“How many Aggies must die before Texas A&M University mandates vaccinations and masks for its students and faculty?” physics professor Peter McIntyre said this week at a virtual faculty senate meeting.
School leaders, though, have said Abbott’s bans on state agencies requiring mask-wearing or vaccinations have left them with few options.
“The death of a student is always tragic,” Texas A&M President M. Katherine Banks said at the faculty senate meeting. “COVID remains a problem on our campus. But let me assure you, we’re doing all we can within state guidelines to allow us to be given the opportunity to protect as many students, faculty and staff as possible.”
Although Abbott has forbidden state universities from mandating masks or vaccines, Banks encouraged people to wear them during her remarks at the faculty senate meeting.
All A&M faculty members, staff and students were required to be tested at least once in the three-week period that ended Saturday. According to the school’s COVID-19 dashboard, there were 1,498 positive coronavirus tests detected during the week that ended Saturday. That was a dramatic increase from the 774 people who tested positive two weeks earlier.
Across Texas, university and college students and faculty members worried about returning to campus without school leaders being able to mandate masks or vaccines even as the Centers for Disease Control advised fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors to prevent the spread of the virus. In Texas, the number of infections and people hospitalized with the virus surged this summer as the school year approached.
Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Several universities offered students prizes to entice them to get vaccinated. At Texas A&M, getting the vaccine came with the possibility of winning free tuition and fees.
But after the 20-year-old student died and cases rose during the initial weeks of the fall semester, about 60 A&M students gathered Tuesday at Academic Plaza to protest for more mandatory COVID-19 precautions, chanting, “Wear your mask,” and “Mask mandates are a must, and A&M is unjust.”
The Texas Tribune could not reach relatives of the student and is not naming the student.
Neo Koite, a junior studying wildlife and fisheries sciences, helped organize the protest. Koite said she has classes with almost 300 students and said only 20 of them typically wear masks.
“No more people should have to die because of COVID. No student should have to seriously consider if they are next,” Koite said. “We should never have to sacrifice immunocompromised, vulnerable Aggies who give their time and energy into making this community into what it is.”
Noor Mohamed, a freshman engineering student who also attended Tuesday’s protest, feels the same way. Mohamed said she heard of students who tested positive for COVID-19 and still attended class, which worried her and spurred her to participate in the protest.
“There was a sense of urgency as we chanted, ‘Not another Aggie,’ but togetherness as we mourned a fellow student and shared our worries for our own future amidst the pandemic,” Mohamed said. “They [Texas A&M] emphasize returning to normal, but that is impossible if certain measures are not taken, such as a mask mandate.”
Texas A&M University has not publicly acknowledged the student’s death on its website or on social media. When asked for a comment, a spokesperson said in a statement that the university mourns the student’s death.
“Her desire to become a psychiatric nurse was a true calling to serve those in greatest need,” the statement read. “We ask all Aggies to come forward and honor this Aggie ….”
According to KBTX-TV, university leaders said they’re doing everything they can and are highly encouraging people to wear masks and get vaccinated.
“We’re doing all we can and a little bit more,” A&M Chief Operations Officer Greg Hartman told the station. “People want to make sure their voices are heard. We’re listening, and we’ll continue to do everything we can.”
Although some students and faculty members don’t want any new protocols in place, other students like Koite and Mohamed would like to see online classes offered and more promotion of mask usage and the vaccine.
“We are the people who must carry the torch for our loved ones who lost graduating college, watching their children grow old and milestones that they should have had a chance of experiencing,” Koite said. “I can’t stomach thinking of who is next. I can’t stomach the thought of ever getting used to death.”
Disclosure: Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.
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