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SAN MARCOS — Omar Cruz, a 19-year-old sophomore, stocked up on bottles of disinfectant for himself and his roommate in anticipation of the first day back on campus at Texas State University. He wore two face masks — as “an extra precautionary measure” — to his in-person precalculus class.
But Cruz said he’s not too worried about catching the new coronavirus from classmates on campus.
“Of course with COVID, you’d expect people to be nervous, but I’m not super nervous,” Cruz said.
At 9:45 a.m. Monday, Texas State University looked like a ghost town. The first day of school at the campus, which had more than 38,000 students last fall, is typically bustling with energy and activity, with first-time students walking shoulder to shoulder in search of their new classes and friends reuniting after being separated over the summer.
But Monday was the first day of in-person instruction at the San Marcos campus since the coronavirus pandemic raged across Texas, forcing school officials to reinvent the college experience in an attempt to keep students — who would otherwise live, eat and learn together — safe and socially distanced.
In interviews with The Texas Tribune, over two dozen students and teachers expressed a range of emotions about the first day back, including nervousness about the pandemic and excitement about the new school year. Some students were unfazed about the possibility of falling ill.
Others expressed doubt that the school would continue face-to-face classes for the duration of the semester.
“I feel like all of the school reopening plans are based on models of idealized human behavior as opposed to real human behavior,” said Nicole Taylor, associate professor of anthropology. “They’re predicated on the assumption that people will follow the rules.”
But nationwide, as other schools have reopened for in-person classes, officials are seeing that college students are partying and gathering in large groups off campus. Already, the University of North Carolina and the University of Notre Dame, after attempting to meet in person, have gone fully virtual because of outbreaks among students.
In Texas, most major public and private universities, including the University of Texas at Austin, Sam Houston State University and Texas A&M university, are charging ahead with in-person returns, opting for a mix of in-person and remote classes, opening campus and dormitories to throngs of people.
By lunchtime at Texas State, campus was still quiet. In a student center, standing 6 feet apart, several students — all of whom were wearing masks — piled into a Starbucks. Others retreated to a nearby Chick-fil-A, which had markings on the floor to indicate how much distance people in line should keep between one another.
After his seminars wrapped up Monday, Grant Tran, a senior, said that it appeared only a few hundred students at any given time — instead of the thousands he’s used to — were milling about school property.
“Campus is 100% more empty,” he said.
Approximately 42% of classes are being offered online and 58% are face to face, said Jayme Blaschke, a Texas State spokesperson. A majority of face-to-face classes will include an online or remote component in an effort to reduce classroom density. Enrollment data won’t be available until later.
“Texas State takes the health and safety of students, faculty and staff very seriously, and making the fall 2020 semester as safe as possible has been the primary concern at the university,” Blaschke said.
But the coronavirus has disrupted nearly every facet of the campus experience. Students at Texas State are required to wear face masks, and some in-person instruction is divided up so half of a class section will meet one day a week and the other half will meet a different day. The recreation center, nestled in the northwestern part of campus, is open, but only by reservation.
Outside the LBJ Student Center, a university employee thanked those wearing masks; he offered everyone a sticker with the phrase, “WEARING IS CARING.” On the perimeter of the nearby Alkek Library, two staff members handed out refillable sanitizer bottles and stickers with the phrase, “RESPECT & PROTECT. WEAR A MASK.”
A notice taped to the inside of a bus that drove around campus read “limited seating available” accompanied with a photo of how much space patrons needed to leave between one another.
Outside of a science class, a sign read, “Max Occupancy 30. 50% Occupancy 15.”
“I never imagined my first year of college would be over a computer,” said Mia Velez, a first-year business marketing student. “We never expected this, and we’d rather be learning in person, but we have to adapt to everything.” She went to a music class Monday morning donning a maroon and gold face mask.
At Texas State, almost half of the student population identifies as Hispanic or Black, groups that are disproportionately affected by the coronavirus nationwide and in Texas.
San Marcos in Hays County, where the school is located, has become a statewide hot spot; last week the county reported more than 2,500 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic started. One reason for the rapid spread, experts say, is that the city has a large working-class population that does not have the luxury of living in isolation. There’s also a high number of people without health insurance in addition to the city’s bustling tourism industry. Over the summer, Hays County saw surging cases among people in their 20s, who accounted for more than half of all the cases in late June.
Still, there’s been a hankering by the university for an in-person return, with the school previously scheduling on-campus summer classes set to begin as early as July 1. Nearly 2,000 students were slated to be in face-to-face courses, but as cases skyrocketed over the summer, the school abruptly changed gears and pushed summer school online.
Eric Schneider, the Hays County epidemiologist, said the start of school is bound to increase the risk of infection. But this time, he said he was more optimistic that the school could keep outbreaks manageable.
“It’s a concern. Face-to-face classes are a big risk, in my opinion,” Schneider said. “But as long as proper precautions are taken, with masks and social distancing, it should keep things down to a minimum.”
But in some cases Monday, students had a hard time maintaining recommended distance from others.
Twenty minutes before the start of a physical chemistry course, 22 students sat outside a classroom, waiting for the door to open. All were masked, though distancing was tough in the dimly lit hallway.
Tran shook his head as he thought about physically going into classes to take tests or quizzes. He recounted seeing fellow students over the summer in San Marcos wandering around and looking for fraternity parties despite the pandemic.
“I get that people in college want to live their best lives, but this is maybe not the best time to do that,” he said.
Some faculty members and students said they expect classes to eventually be moved completely online.
“I suspect we won’t stay face to face very long,” said an untenured biology lecturer at the university, who asked not to be named out of fear she could lose her job. “There are already pictures circulating around of people having parties with no one wearing masks, and not everyone has moved to campus yet. It will only get more dangerous.
“How many of our students, staff and faculty will have their lives forever altered by an extreme case, or may even die?” she questioned.
Abbigail Solis, a sophomore, said she felt safe throughout most of the morning, but during a chemistry class, students were, at first, piled on top of each other as they struggled to find their assigned seats. They later spread out and “were fine,” Solis said.
Solis said she was being extra precautious Monday. Her two brothers — ages 21 and 23 — previously tested positive for the virus, so she’s aware of the dangers that the contagion poses.
“It makes me nervous, but I’m going to try and stay safe,” she said.
Another student preparing for his first day back also vented his frustration.
“When you go completely online, that’s the perfect time for your computer to act up,” 19-year-old Gabriel Polman said behind a tie-dye face mask. “I’m glad we’re back in kindergarten and having seating charts.”
But a return to attempted normalcy didn’t faze all students.
Ian Remmele, a freshman from north of Dallas, wrapped up his university seminar via Zoom on Monday morning and sat by the main entrance to the student center wearing a thin, blue surgical mask. He hadn’t met any of his classmates in-person, he said, but was already preparing for an introductory fine arts class he had later in the day.
“I’m not worried at all,” Remmele, 23, said. “I mean, it’s just the flu. Yeah, I’m not worried about it.”
Jessica Pliley, an associate professor of the history of women, genders and sexualities at the university, received permission to conduct her classes completely virtually. Although her first class wasn’t until Tuesday, she worried about how overworked and underpaid fellow faculty members were while having to adjust to new technology that’s been unfamiliar — until now — in a classroom setting.
“The learning curve this summer has been profound for professors,” she said. “But patience, kindness and compassion will be my mantra even when I’m cursing at the technology. Worst-case scenario? Everything crashes.”
On Monday morning, Zoom experienced a worldwide outage, thwarting virtual learning plans for many educators, parents and students.
Pliley texted, “This has been my most immediate fear; beyond the risk of COVID cases spiking.”
Raga Justin contributed to this report.
Disclosure: Texas State University, Sam Houston State University, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin 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.