The University of Texas at El Paso UT-El Paso shifted the lion’s share of instruction online this fall and restricted in-person student functions with the hope that strict precautions would ultimately lead to a faster return to normal life. | Photo by Joel Angel Juarez for The Texas Tribune
This fall, two Texas universities found themselves in regions of the state engulfed in some of the worst coronavirus surges seen across the nation: the University of Texas at El Paso and Texas Tech University in Lubbock.
The two largest West Texas public universities ended up on opposite ends of the spectrum in how they approached the fall semester, facing the unprecedented educational and safety challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At Texas Tech, administrators strived for as normal a semester as possible, at the request of parents and students who wanted a traditional college experience. They offered more in-person learning options than other universities, and the school was one of the only major football programs in Texas that allowed tailgating on game days.
Meanwhile, UT-El Paso veered dramatically in the opposite direction, shifting the lion’s share of instruction online and restricting in-person student functions with the hope that strict precautions would ultimately lead to a faster return to normal life.
“The message [was]: Let’s get through this semester,” said Guillermina Gina Núñez-Mchiri, women’s studies professor and faculty senate president at UT-El Paso. “You’re not going to miss out on your entire university experience. We’re just going to get through this period right now that is really impacting our community quite badly.”
So far, UT-El Paso has mostly kept the virus off campus while its community has been hammered. Students and staff accounted for 2% of all new cases in the county between Aug. 24 and Nov. 22, according to a Texas Tribune analysis. University President Heather Wilson credited the school’s proactive testing of asymptomatic students and minimal on-campus activity.
At Texas Tech — a more populous school where students make up a larger percentage of the county population — 13% of new cases reported in the county were from students and staff between the start of school and Nov. 20. Administrators said contact tracing showed none of that transmission has been traced back to the classroom, which they believe shows their plan was a success, too. They said large off-campus gatherings, where the university had less control over student behavior, contributed to the spread among students.
While both universities offered free on-campus testing to students and staff, neither campus required testing, which experts say makes it difficult to truly determine spread of the virus among the student body.
Heading into the spring, with a semester of pandemic data and experience behind them, presidents at both universities plan to stay the course, saying they’re largely satisfied with the results of the safety precautions employed at their respective universities.
At the same time, health experts warn the worst is yet to come as case numbers and hospitalizations nationwide are expected to intensify as a result of holiday gatherings, deepening pandemic fatigue and as school sports and extracurriculars are pushed inside because of cold weather.
“I think this semester has not been perfect,” said Texas Tech President Lawrence Schovanec. “But students have still had the opportunity to continue their education with some of the traditional experiences they truly value. … We’re in a situation if you strive for perfection, you may just be paralyzed.”
Texas Tech stays open
From the beginning of the fall semester, Texas Tech set itself apart from other major state universities, charging ahead with fewer restrictions on in-person activities than its peers.
Texas Tech offered 70% of classes partially or fully in person, much more than other public universities like the University of Texas at Austin, where only 25% of classes were in person or a hybrid. Texas Tech also bucked national trends and allowed tailgating to continue before football games, which had fewer spectators. This weekend, the school will host in-person commencement ceremonies at its indoor arena.
It was during the early weeks of the semester that Texas Tech saw the largest spike of new cases as students returned and immediately started socializing off campus.
Katherine Wells, director of public health for the city of Lubbock, saw one of those gatherings down the street from her house, with 60 to 70 young adults gathered at a party. Few were social distancing or wearing masks. She called the police to break it up.
“But I wondered, did I scatter the virus to 10 more parties?” she said.
The early surge in local cases was mostly among 18- to 24-year-olds, Wells said, but it spread to other age groups in subsequent weeks.
“There was a lot more activity in that age group of getting together that let the virus replicate, and it really spread throughout the rest of the community,” Wells said.
At its peak, 415 Texas Tech students tested positive for the virus in one week in late August. Other schools across the country have responded to smaller outbreaks with more drastic action. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill shut down campus for the entire semester after 130 students tested positive. The University of Notre Dame went entirely remote for two weeks when 147 people tested positive.
“I kept waiting for that checklist of things, that if one of these things happens we’re shutting it down,” said Elissa Zellinger, a Texas Tech English professor who taught online this semester but went to campus to work from her office. “That may have been a fantasy on my part. But that never happened.”
Instead, she said, administrators announced at the first faculty senate meeting of the semester that it would take an “extraordinary number” of cases to shut down the university.
Administrators at Texas Tech insist the school is meeting the demands of students and parents who want a regular campus experience. But some employees at the university felt like more could have been done to prioritize safety.
“I feel there was hope and belief that students would be responsible, but I think we’re expecting too much of people,” said Ian Barba, a librarian at Texas Tech. “We’re trying to sell them on the concept of the college experience, that undergraduate experience. That’s incompatible with the reality of where we are at right now with how prevalent COVID-19 is.”
Critics say university officials are dodging responsibility by not acknowledging that reopening campus led to other off-campus activities that have contributed directly to spread of the virus.
“If your plan for keeping kids safe on campus hinged on them never going to a frat house, then it wasn’t very much of a plan,” said A. David Paltiel, a professor at Yale School of Public Health.
Texas Tech journalism professor Lyombe Eko said he was initially skeptical about teaching in person but quickly realized how much the first-year students, who had barely left home since March and missed major milestones like high school graduation, needed human interaction.
“They have just come away from home, where they’ve been on lockdown, and a lot of them … were disoriented, “ he said.
He held class outside while the weather was warm. When students met with him individually, they all wore masks and stayed 6 feet apart. None of his students in the in-person class tested positive, while a few in his large online lecture class reported they had contracted the disease. They all recovered, he said.
“Without the students, universities don’t exist,” Eko said. “Despite the bad news, Tech can say that it can be proud that it was able to give its students a little bit of the human touch in the middle of this pandemic.”
UT-El Paso stays remote
Four hundred miles away, UT-El Paso administrators were asking similar questions as the county was exploding with coronavirus cases.
But those administrators went a different route. In a message to the campus community in July, Wilson, the university president, said surveys showed most students and faculty wanted to stay home.
As a result, administrators decided just 5% of classes would be fully in person this fall.
Administrators also moved most social activities and big events online, like the annual back-to-school celebration called Minerpalooza. While football continued, tailgating was prohibited. December’s commencement will be virtual.
The calculation was different at UT-El Paso, where the student makeup is unlike that of Texas Tech, which has a population that is 55% white and where many students live on campus. With a student body just shy of 25,000, UT-El Paso doesn’t have Greek life with rush events and fraternity parties like Texas Tech does. The school population is 85% Hispanic and nearly 60% low income, and the vast majority of students live in the county, many at home and sometimes with multiple generations of family members. Data shows COVID-19 has also disproportionately affected brown and Black communities.
In the early weeks of the semester, cases numbers remained low, with fewer than 20 cases reported weekly. At its height, UT-El Paso recorded 222 cases in one week, but university officials say just a sliver of those who tested positive had been on campus two weeks prior to their diagnoses. Most of their numbers reflected students and staff who were at home and contracted the virus through family, work or socializing off campus, but utilized the free campus testing center.
As cases rose in El Paso in mid-October, the UT-El Paso COVID-19 task force further restricted campus activities on an already desolate campus.
“We are not in a fishbowl. We are not isolated from the rest of the community,” Nunez-Mchiri said she told the task force members at an October meeting. “We need to act.”
On Oct. 29, UT-El Paso closed the Student Recreation Center and suspended on-campus dining for two weeks. Faculty members were given the option to shift any remaining in-person classes online.
“[Students] miss face-to-face classes, but at the same time they know the seriousness of the situation and don’t want to push for it,” said Nakul Karle, president of the Graduate Student Assembly.
The move to a more virtual campus has taken a toll on some students.
Administrators and students at UT-El Paso acknowledge a remote fall meant much of the university experience was lost, which officials worried further contributed to student mental health issues.
Student Government President Jessica Martinez said she misses the in-person instruction and doesn’t think she’s learning as much with virtual classes. Her brother is a freshman at her school and has struggled to make friends. She said she’s concerned about students’ mental health as they remain isolated from their professors and classmates. Administrators are worried, too.
“You can look at the website and see how many students have tested positive, but you can’t tell how many are more anxious or depressed or lonely,” Wilson said.
Spring stays the same
As of early December, UT-El Paso officials said the university will continue to limit activities and classes on campus this spring. There are plans to increase online interactions between faculty and students, as students expressed that it’s challenging to learn remotely. They also plan to expand online mental health services.
Texas Tech will not back down on the number of fully in-person classes offered this spring. But officials are delaying the spring semester by a week, giving Lubbock extra time to get the current surge under control before most students return.
The university also shortened spring break to one day, which administrators said was an unpopular decision among students. Student Government President Hunter Heck said she and other student leaders are pushing for additional wellness days next spring to make up for the change. UT-El Paso has kept its spring break because most classes will continue to be offered remotely.
Universities are also shifting to basketball season, which will have similar safety requirements as the football season but brings additional risk with indoor games. Texas Tech officials said they are going to be stricter about enforcing mask policies throughout the games than they were during the football season. At least two colleges have canceled games against Tech’s men’s and women’s teams this season due to Lubbock’s alarming coronavirus rates.
Meanwhile, UT-El Paso will decide whether to have fans at basketball games on a weekly basis. The basketball program already canceled two games and stopped practice for six days after a program member tested positive. There were no fans at the first home game.
Heck said she hopes Texas Tech students will take safety precautions seriously and understand that attending large gatherings, like basketball games, is a privilege that isn’t guaranteed if cases increase.
She said some students in the conservative West Texas area see mask mandates and social distancing rules as government overreach, which has made her role as student leader difficult. She said some students wouldn’t report they were sick, which complicated contact tracing efforts.
“The few among our students and those in our community that didn’t do their part ended up harming the community as a whole,” Heck said.
Disclosure: Texas Tech University, the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas at El Paso have been financial supporters 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.