Texas Tech tests the waters for fall semester by bringing 350 students to campus for summer classes

The 350 students returning to the Texas Tech campus represent a small fraction of the 10,278 who are enrolled in the second round of summer courses, university President Lawrence Schovanec told The Texas Tribune. Texas Tech University

Around 350 students returned to Texas Tech University’s sprawling grounds in Lubbock on Tuesday, resuming in-person classes for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic closed the campus in March.

As one of the first major universities in the state to reopen its doors to students during the pandemic, Texas Tech is a test of what a large-scale collegiate return could look like this fall.

The 350 students returning to campus represent a small fraction of the 10,278 who are enrolled in the second round of summer courses, university President Lawrence Schovanec told The Texas Tribune. And the students will be spread across 30 classes, consisting mostly of performance-based studios, science labs and internship courses that are more challenging to deliver effectively online.

“That very small number is a safe number to see how our protocols and policies will proceed,” Schovanec said. “I would rather have this opportunity to look at how we implement these practices now, rather than doing it cold turkey on Aug. 24.”

The stakes are high: The reopening comes against a backdrop of rises in case counts across the state, a sharp increase in hospitalizations and political tension over mandatory mask enforcement.

Other universities that have pushed to reopen earlier in the summer instead of in August have backtracked on their plans. As late as July 1, Texas State University in San Marcos was set to open doors for an in-person summer session beginning earlier this week. Nearly 2,000 students were slated to be in face-to-face courses, and the school repeatedly expressed confidence in its ability to handle classes safely. The campus has the capacity for 38,000 students.

But just four days before the scheduled start date, school officials shut down reopening efforts after prolonged pushback from faculty and students, who pointed to rising COVID-19 cases among college-age individuals the university’s Hays County. People in their 20s accounted for slightly more than half of all the cases there in late June.

In a July 2 message to the Texas State community, President Denise Trauth said she had taken the advice of university health officials and sharply curtailed the number of classes reopening, with only 200 students on campus.

“The only courses that will remain face-to-face are those that require a face-to-face component for licensure or degree requirements,” Trauth said. “The courses remaining in the face-to-face mode will follow strict standard operating procedures to ensure the health, wellness, and safety of faculty and students.”

In Lubbock County, nearly 40% of COVID-19 cases have been among people ages 20-29. The next-highest group, people in their 30s, accounted for only 14% of total cases.

Despite this, Schovanec said he didn’t believe Texas Tech was compromising anyone’s safety. “I would say it’s a controlled environment,” he said.

Schovanec said Texas Tech is enforcing a range of safety measures: conducting aggressive contact tracing in case of an outbreak, discouraging students from gathering in groups larger than 10, sanitizing common spaces daily, and requiring masks and health screenings.

Garrett Casey, a rising senior at Texas Tech, said he’s viewing in-person classes with some trepidation. Casey is living near campus while he takes his two summer classes online. He has asthma and fears contracting COVID-19.

“I highly doubt they’ll be able to police that many people,” Casey said, adding that being in Lubbock has not reassured him that his fellow students are taking the virus seriously.

Still, Casey felt that peer pressure might be an effective mechanism to nudge his fellow students into wearing masks on campus and in classes. Widespread mask wearing would help him feel better about returning to campus, he said.

Texas Tech staff members like Ian Barba are also wary of students being back on campus. Barba, a librarian who has been working remotely since March, said he’s missed in-person interaction — but not nearly enough to want to return.

“It feels like we’re opening up from a sense of cabin fever and complacency,” Barba said. “I think schools are trying to open with the best of intentions, but I just don’t think we’ve heard enough from our own university and other universities across the state on how exactly that’s going to work. To me, the benefit of teaching in person is not worth the risk.”

Even in the event of confirmed COVID-19 cases from summer classes, Schovanec said he does not believe there will be a significant enough outbreak among students to warrant a rethinking of the fall.

“We’re not anticipating that something so dramatic would happen over the summer to alter our plans,” Schovanec said. “At this point, we don’t know the magic number of cases that there needs to be to go completely online. What we have to consider is, where would we send these students? Is it best to send them home to places with more cases than there are here?”

Disclosure: Texas Tech University and Texas State University 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 Tribunes journalism. Find a complete list of them here.