Dear Southwestern community,

As we prepare for the start of our 181st academic year, I am reminded of how we started and ended last year. We started with the implementation of strict health and safety policies, and we ended with a successful year, holding 70% of classes in-person and finding no evidence of classroom spread of COVID-19. This was accomplished without the benefit of the vaccine and through our ongoing commitment to keep one another safe.

We must renew that commitment again this year.

To that end, I want to update you on the latest local information about COVID-19 and changes to the University’s health and safety policies.

Williamson County has seen a significant increase in new COVID-19 cases since mid-July, the majority of which are the delta variant of the coronavirus. The delta variant is more contagious than earlier variants, produces a substantially higher viral load in the nasopharynx of infected individuals, and may lead to more severe illness in the unvaccinated. According to the Williamson County and Cities Health District (WCCHD), the infection rate has risen faster than the previous spikes in July 2020 and January 2021. WCCHD also reports the 18–30 age bracket remains the group with the highest number of infections. Approximately 95% of cases since March 1 are in people who are not fully vaccinated.

Based on this data and the fact that we have not yet reached our campus goal of a 90% vaccination rate, effective immediately, the University is requiring face masks to be worn indoors by all students, faculty, staff, and visitors on our campus. Masks are not required in outdoor settings. Masks may be removed in private areas such as residence hall rooms and offices and while dining or drinking. Additionally, I urge all members of our community to wear masks, practice physical distancing, and avoid gathering in large crowds while they are off campus.

Unlike last year, we have an important tool available to prevent the spread of COVID-19:  vaccines. Getting vaccinated helps protect not only you, but those around you. We have set a vaccination rate target of 90% for our campus. While we have made great strides toward this goal over the last week, I want to remind you that all students are required to get a vaccination or submit an exemption form. To provide proof of vaccination, students may email photos or scans of their vaccination cards to or upload them to the patient portal at

The University strongly recommends staff and faculty get vaccinated as well. Staff and faculty may submit proof of vaccination or a completed COVID-19 Vaccine: Self-Attestation Form to Peggy Freitas, retirement plan coordinator and human resources generalist, in Human Resources by interoffice mail or via email at

To monitor our collective progress toward achieving our 90% vaccination goal, please view our COVID-19 Dashboard.

Until we reach our 90% vaccination goal, those who remain unvaccinated will be tested for COVID-19 on a weekly basis. The University will pay for on-site testing through September 1. After that date, unvaccinated individuals will be responsible for paying for their own weekly testing. The University has contracted with Community Labs for on-site PCR testing, and the charge for each test is $35. Testing charges will be waived as soon as an individual submits proof of the first round of vaccination. Failure to comply with this testing requirement may result in disciplinary action.

As previously announced, indoor gatherings are limited to a maximum of 100 people. Dining in the Commons or the Cove will be limited based on space availability in order to provide for physical distancing. Diners are required to wear masks unless they are eating or drinking. Some events have been canceled or will take place virtually. Please visit our COVID website for the most current updates.

I have been in constant discussions with our two athletic conferences regarding sporting events. The NCAA is requiring weekly testing of unvaccinated athletes. Competitions will go on as scheduled. We are not limiting spectators at outdoor sports venues. However, for indoor events, capacity will be limited based on available space to accommodate physical distancing. I ask all Pirate fans to exercise caution by wearing masks at all indoor sporting events and to practice physical distancing. 

I want to thank the students, faculty, staff, and parents who have raised questions and submitted ideas for how we can all keep one another safe. Your ongoing input is invaluable. I am especially grateful to the members of our Health and Safety Committee for their counsel and willingness to continue meeting and reviewing pandemic conditions on a weekly basis. The committee is composed of faculty (Maha Zewail-Foote, Martin Gonzales, and Scott McLean), staff (Jennifer Spiller, Rick Martinez, and Jason Bonick), and senior administrators (Jaime Woody, Dean Alisa Gaunder, Brenda Thompson, and myself).

I understand the frustration many of you feel as our policies shift. Please keep in mind that because the pandemic landscape is constantly changing, our policies must continue to change in response. Our goal is to protect the health and safety of our students, faculty, and staff, and we will not waver. 

I ask faculty and staff members to forward their questions or comments to Elma Benavides in the HR office at as she coordinates the development of an FAQ document for distribution to the listserves as quickly as possible.

Despite the ongoing challenges, I am looking forward to seeing all of you on campus and some of you in my First Year Seminar! Here’s to another successful academic year.


Laura Skandera Trombley

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