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Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

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The University of Texas at Austin clocktower. Photo: Ilana Panich-Linsman/Washington Post via Getty Images

An internal University of Texas document obtained by Axios details professors' concerns over COVID-19 classroom logistics as the fall semester approached.

Driving the news: The document, circulated to professors via email in late July, outlines pressing faculty questions on masks, COVID-19 testing and more, with responses from a member of the university's coronavirus task force.

Why it matters: The document reveals the internal fallout at the flagship public university from the sweeping COVID-19 decisions made by the Texas governor in late May, under pressure from quarters within his own Republican Party.

State of play: UT loosened coronavirus precautions over the summer following Gov. Greg Abbott's orders, which barred the university — and other state agencies — from mandating vaccinations or masks.

  • Last academic year, UT marked building doorways as either entrances or exits, erected signs to direct the flow of foot traffic and turned off water fountains.

Now that's all out the window. And it has professors on edge.

What they're saying: "Can I tell students that I will only meet in-person in my office with vaccinated individuals?" faculty asked. "Can I poll my students anonymously about their vaccination status?"

  • The answers were no and no.
"[T]he university is not allowed to inquire about individuals' vaccination status (including faculty asking students in any way) due to prevailing state law and executive orders from the governor."
— university lawyers, per the document
  • "The Law School is not at liberty to adopt rules contrary to university policy, and the university is not at liberty to depart from state law," UT Law School Dean Ward Farnsworth told faculty in another email obtained by Axios through an open records request.

Yes, but: Faculty pushed back, begging administrators to defy the governor's order.

  • "While we all know what Governor Abbott has decreed by executive order, I'm wondering what it would take to call his bluff, and whether that is feasible," Charlie Press, a clinical professor at UT's law school, wrote to his deans and colleagues in an email provided to Axios by another faculty member.

Asher's thought bubble: The reason UT has not defied the governor — when more than 100 school districts statewide have — is due to who controls the levers of power.

  • UT is a state agency overseen by nine regents appointed by the governor — and many have been major donors to Abbott's campaign.
  • Meanwhile, school districts are overseen by locally elected school board members.

By the numbers: Since the first day of classes this semester, there are at least 320 known UT student cases of COVID-19 and more than 45 among faculty and staff. The school has 78 active cases, per a tally late last week. By contrast, there are at least 300 known active cases, at last count, at Texas A&M.

What's (not) next: With the conservative-minded Texas Legislature controlling the university's purse strings, UT officials are unlikely to test lawmakers or Abbott on COVID-19 rules, leaving anxious faculty, staff and students with little leverage.

Go deeper

Supreme Court agrees to hear challenges to Texas abortion law

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear two cases challenging Texas' abortion law, which bans the procedure as soon as six weeks into pregnancy, but left the law in place in the meantime.

Why it matters: The court is moving extraordinarily fast on the Texas cases, compressing into just a few days a process that normally takes months. And that schedule means the court will take up Texas' ban a month before it hears another major abortion case — a challenge to Mississippi's own 2018 ban on abortions after 15 weeks.

Mike Allen, author of AM
2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Fauci fires back at Rand Paul for slam on tonight's "Axios on HBO"

Responding to charges by Sen. Rand Paul on Sunday's "Axios on HBO," NIAID director Anthony Fauci told "ABC This Week" that it's "molecularly impossible" for U.S.-funded bat virus research in China to have produced COVID-19.

Why it matters: The issue 0f Wuhan research was reignited on the right last week with a National Institutes of Health letter to Congress disclosing more about the research.

Manchin, Schumer huddle with Biden in Delaware to discuss spending bill

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (L) and Sen. Joe Manchin (R) at the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 13, 2014. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) will meet with President Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Sunday morning in Delaware as Democrats look to reach an agreement on the massive spending measure.

Driving the news: Democrats are still negotiating what to keep in the bill and how to pay for it, with Biden saying on Thursday that the party does not have the votes to raise the corporate tax rate.

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