Students walked across the UTEP campus in October. (Photo courtesy of UTEP)

In less than two weeks, El Paso college and university students will be returning to in-person classes despite the arrival of the COVID-19 omicron variant and an increase in cases.

This week, University of Texas at El Paso President Heather Wilson emailed students stating that the spring semester will begin Jan. 18 as planned with no delays or shifts to online learning.

Across the state, some UT System schools are delaying or asking that their classes transition to online learning. This week UT San Antonio announced it will begin the first three weeks of classes online and UT Dallas delayed the start of their semester by a week.

On Friday, the Texas Faculty Association, a non-profit organization that has supported the rights of Texas college and university faculty and staff since 1985, released a statement urging for the delay of in-person learning for the upcoming spring semester until COVID cases decline.

“For the safety of university and college employees, their students and their families, we urge all higher education institutions to limit classes to virtual instruction until we are through this immediate crisis,” TFA Vice President Cary Wintz said in the press release.

The release states that while research on omicron has found the variant to be less severe, it still is dangerous for immunocompromised students.

In her email to students, Wilson stated that “as has been the case throughout the pandemic, the levels and patterns of the disease are different in El Paso than they are in East Texas. We monitor data daily and will continue to do so.”

Students walk to and from classes at UTEP on Nov. 9. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

El Paso Community College will be returning Jan. 18 with approximately 65% of classes held in person and 35% virtual. Last year college President William Serrata told El Paso Matters that he was aiming for a 75% return of in-person classes, if it was safe to do so.

“Like the community, we are closely monitoring the data to see how omicron will impact our region. We are hopeful with the current safety protocols in place we will be able to continue the semester as planned. However, should circumstances change or health authorities give other recommendations, we are prepared to pivot as necessary to ensure students can continue on their educational path without interruption in the safest way possible,” said Keri Moe, associate vice president of external relations, communication and development at EPCC.

Classes at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso have already resumed for some students. Dr. Richard Lange, the university’s president, said while everything is operating as normal, he keeps in constant contact with Wilson and Serrata to navigate what’s best for the institutions.

“I was just on the phone with Heather (Wilson) earlier this week. William Serrata, Heather and I were emailing about what we’re doing just to coordinate things and making sure that the needs are met really across the entire community,” Lange said.

As emerging health care professionals, TTUHSC El Paso students routinely receive training in local hospitals and treat COVID patients. Lange said those students are required to be vaccinated.

“Our students all realize that actually being in the middle of the COVID crisis is actually not only a part of their training but will be part of their expectations when they complete their health care training,” he said.

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.