A University of Texas at El Paso student studied on the campus last school year, when classes were conducted remotely. (Photo courtesy of UTEP)

It has been a year since Derek Hernandez, a senior at the University of Texas at El Paso, paused his studies because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and a nationwide transition to online classes.

But later this month he and thousands of others will be returning to in-person classes at UTEP and El Paso Community College.

“I have a lot of emotions about it,” Hernandez said. “I’m excited to return but at the same time, I’m a little bit wary.”

The return of in-person classes suggests some progress has been made against the COVID-19 pandemic. But many students still have concerns about masks mandates, social distancing, and COVID-19 variants.

“We have to follow what the governor recommended so masks are optional,” said Carlos Amaya, the interim vice president of student and enrollment services at EPCC. “Texans can make their own choices, so EPCC students can as well.”

Last month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced that he would not impose a mask mandate due to people having “immunity to COVID through the vaccination or through their own exposure and recovery from it.” He also has prohibited local governments from imposing mask mandates.

Students at EPCC do have the ability to choose if they want to return to in-person instruction, continue with online learning, or transition to a hybrid of both in-person and online classes. At UTEP, the school is planning for a complete transition to in-person learning.

While masks are optional, most faculty and students choose to wear them, Amaya said. He also said EPCC classrooms are structured to enforce six feet social distancing measures.

“The classes that we’re calling face-to-face classes are really a hybrid sort of class,” Amaya said. “If the enrollment is 30 and the classroom seats 15, with the appropriate social distancing, that class would meet half of the students one time, and half of the students the next time. So the instructor will be in every class meeting but not all the same students might be in class.”

As part of its transition to in-person instruction, EPCC announced that the first day of classes will be completely online.

“Because of the way that we’re going to handle our face-to-face classes, we want to give the faculty the opportunity to come in and give the students some direction as to when they’re going to be coming into class,” Amaya said.

Wesley Lawrence, a senior at EPCC, said the thought of returning to in-person classes worries him.

“I look at what’s going on here at the lower education levels at EPISD and Socorro ISD and I think at a higher institution, we’re going to see the same exact stuff,” Lawrence said. “I think it’s very egregious that anyone right now would be fighting to a full return of in-person learning.”

Socorro Independent School District reported 35 positive cases of COVID-19 among students since Aug. 2 and El Paso Independent School District reported 37 student cases, according to district spokespeople.

Wesley Lawrence is a student at El Paso Community College. (Photo courtesy of Wesley Lawrence)

Lawrence said he will continue with online learning.

“I’m very involved in the community so I’m able to juggle what I do in the community and my school work without really having to worry too much,” Lawrence said. He is an active member of the Young Democrats, vice chair of the Young Democrats Environmental Caucus, event lead for Students Demand Action, and other organizations.

For Hernandez, the transition to online classes at the start of the pandemic was a deal breaker. After failing an online class before the start of the pandemic, Hernandez said he knew virtual learning didn’t benefit him. He decided he would only return to UTEP if classes were in-person. But with a compromised immune system, Hernandez said certain conditions had to be met.

“My first requirement was that a vaccine existed and we’re well past that point,” Hernandez said. “The next requirement would be having a high vaccination rate while having a low transmission rate within the community and I think we’re getting there when it comes to the vaccination rate. But at this point, I’ve simply accepted the fact that I have to win some and I have to lose some.”

Hernandez said he began to feel reassured about returning to campus after UTEP President Heather Wilson communicated with students about vaccination efforts.

In June, Wilson emailed students stating that “approximately 90% of staff and faculty and 73% of students are fully vaccinated.”

“In accordance with Executive Orders issued by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, face coverings and vaccination are not required on the UTEP campus, though vaccination is highly encouraged,” UTEP officials said in an emailed statement to El Paso Matters. “For employees and students who have not been vaccinated, face coverings are highly recommended.”

But Hernandez still feels UTEP isn’t doing enough.

“I think UTEP is trying to do the best with what they can within the bounds of the executive order but I don’t think it’s enough,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez said he wishes that social distancing measures would be enforced.

On their “Return to Campus Guidance” site, UTEP stated for their summer 2021 classes, “Social distancing is no longer required. However, if someone is wearing a face covering, you may assume that they would prefer people to maintain six feet of social distance with them.”

Guidance about social distancing for the upcoming semester is not included.

With mask wearing optional, there is a greater focus this year on personal responsibility.

“I do believe that as soon as people do return to school, all this stuff’s gonna get thrown to the wayside because I think people are going to get complacent,” EPCC senior Lawrence said. “They’re going to say, ‘Well you know, I’m the only person in my class wearing a mask, why am I wearing it?’”

UTEP senior Isabella Candelaria agreed.

“I’m just worried (because) I feel everybody else’s normal is different,” Candelaria said.

Candelaria, who has lupus, said she fears that she may become sick if others are not taking proper precautions or getting vaccinated.

“I guess this is just the new normal of just kind of guessing and assuming,” Candelaria said.

UTEP senior Jocelyn Carrera said she must be responsible for her family’s sake. Her brother is immunocompromised and her father is an organ donor.

“It is a little bit concerning because there’s so many people and you don’t know if they’re vaccinated or not,” Carrera said.

Free COVID-19 testing and a series of vaccination clinics will be available throughout the fall semester, UTEP officials said.

In order for this school year to be successful, Lawrence believes that all higher education institutions need to be transparent and accountable about COVID outbreaks. He also said that schools need to invest in their HVAC systems to better filter airborne transmissions.

“At the end of the day, if we’re allowing people to return to campus we do have to understand that there are going to be people that don’t care if they pass this virus around,” Lawrence said. “They need to be held accountable for not asking students how they feel about returning to in-person classes because I never received an email from EPCC asking me my thoughts and I’m sure I’m not alone in that.”

Keri Moe, the associate vice president of external relations, communication and development at EPCC, said student feedback was collected about the upcoming school year.

“Feedback received from students has indicated that there are students who were ready to come back on campus in-person, as well as those who were more hesitant so we made scheduling options to meet these differences,” Moe said. “EPCC understands that students have different preferences so we want to offer them in-person, hybrid and online options so they can make the choice they are most comfortable with or best fits their schedule.”

While health precautions are a concern, many students are excited to return to campus for the first time in over a year.

UTEP officials told El Paso Matters that over 50 events are planned to welcome students back.

“We know our students are eager to participate in a more ‘normal’ school year this fall,” school officials said in an email.

“I am approaching this year with optimism,” UTEP senior Ana Rodriguez said. “I think it’s going to serve us all very good.”

Despite her health concerns due to having lupus, Candelaria said returning to campus will help her mentally and physically.

“I feel like my mental health has been really weak since isolating and I’m excited to thrive off of other people’s creativity,” she said. “I try to find a balance by remembering that we have to live a new normal, and that me being as safe as I can not only helps me but everyone around me.”

After a year-long pause on his studies, Hernandez is excited to do what he loves: learn.

“For me going back after being away for what feels like forever at this point, is (me) rising out of the ashes one final time,” Hernandez said. “Its picking up where I left off and saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to finish this, and I’m going to finish strong.’”

Daniel Perez covers higher education for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for El Paso Matters, in partnership with Open Campus.