'Bubble' college coming to Texoma

Michael Hutchins
Herald Democrat

Pottsboro mayor says it's 'courting disaster

A college "bubble" community may soon be coming to Texoma for the spring semester even though city officials do not think now is time or Pottsboro is the place for the program.  

Tanglewood Resport may become the home of a remote learning college campus this spring. The U Experience plans to use the resort to give students a taste of the traditional college experience during COVID-19

The U Experience is a college campus slated to open at Tanglewood Resort to allow students who are are learning remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic to still have the "college experience." Through the resort, representatives for the company said students will be able to have some of the college experience despite distance learning.

"This last spring, millions of college students were impacted. They were pulled from their support network and  truly were missing out on the college experience," The U Experience President Adam Bragg said.

The company plans to located 125 students at the resort from late January through mid-April.

Despite a warm welcome from Tanglewood representatives who have said they are honored to have been chosen as the site for the campus, others have expressed their concerns about the new campus. Pottsboro Mayor Frank Budra said the event may be legal, but he questioned if it was the time or place for it.

Tanglewood sits outside of Pottsboro, but it does carry a Pottsboro street address.

"My thoughts are that as a business, they are probably encouraging this as a way to generate income, and it is legal," Budra referred to Tanglewood. "Whether it is advisable is something completely different."

"Is it advisable? In my opinion, I would say it is not. It is courting disaster," he continued.

It would be easy for the bubble to be broken by a student leaving the resort, or by someone coming in from the outside, he said. With local cases, hospitalizations and deaths on the rise, this likely isn't the best time for this, he said.

Questions regarding the campus to the Grayson County Health Department were referred the county judge's office and the Grayson County Office of Emergency Management.

"Again, we recommend everyone follow CDC guidance at all times to protect not only themselves, but to think of others — your family, your friends, your neighbors," said Amanda Ortiz, Grayson County Health Department director.

County Judge Bill Magers declined to comment, adding that he does not typically comment on the decisions of private businesses. 

County Emergency Management Coordinator Sarah Somers said she was aware of the proposed campus, but did not have enough details on it to comment.

The new remote campus is poised to be a boon for Tanglewood in what has proven to be a difficult year for many hotels and resorts. Tanglewood General Manager John Schwicktenberg said he is excited to host the campus for the upcoming semester.

"We are honored that Tanglewood Resort will have the opportunity to serve as the inaugural home for The U Experience," he said in an emailed statement. "We are working closely with The U Experience on their protocols to provide a safe and healthy environment for the 150 students as well as our employees.

"The U Experience has COVID-19 testing professionals and epidemiologists who have developed a custom containment, testing and contact-tracing protocol. The students participating in the program will not be interacting with the local community and will have limited interaction with resort staff." 

Through these protocols, Schwicktenberg said the campus will be safer than it would be if it housed traditional leisure travelers.

Representatives with Tanglewood Resort said the hotel's golf course would remain open to the public while The U Experience is taking place.

Tanglewood currently has an occupancy of 220-225 rooms, but Schwicktenberg described the arrangement as a "total resort takeover." However, the golf course will remain open to the public during the spring semester, he said, barring any private events by the campus.

"We do not want to displace our social and golf customers during this, but we cannot have them within the bubble," he said.

Current costs for the semester-long program range from $8,700-$10,500. Meanwhile, meal plans range from $1,200-$3,000.

Applicants for The U Experience are asked to create a profile on the company's website.

The website for the company shows aerial shots of Lake Texoma and inside the Tanglewood Resort. Meanwhile, a video on Facebook features the tagline, "No masks. No social distancing. A real college experience."

Meanwhile, a webpage asks visitors who they would like to see at The U Experience, along with a listing of pictures of prospective students.

The company is the brainchild of Bragg and fellow Princeton alumni Chris Cook and Lane Russell, who started work on the alternative to remote learning earlier this year when many campuses shuttered in-person lectures and classes.

The company originally wanted to start its inaugural year with two other campuses during the fall semester. However, Fox Business reported that the company pivoted away from plans for campuses in Hawaii and Arkansas over the fall semester due to pushback.

By limiting outside contact, Bragg said the company intends to create a safe place where students can complete their remote courses and socialize with other students. The campus is offering meal plans, and grocery delivery will be offered, he added.

"The people with in our community will be interacting with each other and keeping interactions with the outside community to a very small bubble," Bragg said.

A four-page testing protocol document calls for  two COVID-19 antibody tests through Veritas Testing prior to a student arriving on campus. Students will be required to self-isolate for three days for three days following the first at-home test. Following a second test, the students will be required to isolate for an additional two days.

Students who produce a positive at-home test or develop symptoms prior to arrival will be asked to delay their start date by at least one week or until they produce a negative test result.

All students will receive an antigen test immediately upon arrival onsite and will self-isolate until a negative test is returned. While on campus, randomized testing will occur every three days.

Despite its enclosed nature, Bragg said the campus will offer events like those held at traditional campuses for its students. Plans call for recreational sports, guest speakers and other entertainment opportunities.