Upcoming school year at SRSU to look much different amid COVID-19 pandemic 

ALPINE — If this were a normal year, Sul Ross State University students would be eagerly anticipating a return to campus where they would expect to enjoy another year filled with friends, sports, parties and, of course, the occasional studying; but 2020 has not been a normal year and the reality of what school may look like this fall will be much different than years past.

Like many other universities across the country, SRSU is moving fast to put together a return plan for the fall semester that will allow its students to both stay safe and experience an on-campus education at the university. Mike Pacheco, chief of staff at SRSU, said that the university is aiming to take all the necessary precautions, and this has included ordering large amounts of masks, sneeze guards and hand sanitizer.

As far as testing, Pacheco said that everyday testing may not be a reality for a university the size of SRSU. He did say that the university is trying to team up with county and city officials to create a testing plan that he hopes to be somewhere in between everyday testing and the two-week cycle that has been very common in counties in West Texas. This would most likely be accomplished by the university sending students to clinics in Alpine to get tested.

As far as what classrooms will look like, Pacheco said SRSU has modified classrooms to promote distancing and is planning to conduct “hybrid” classes that will be partially in-person and partially online. He did say that the extent of how much in-person schooling one gets is “dependent on their major, as some classes just require more of a hands-on experience,” while others are more equipped to go fully online.

SRSU will also see changes to the academic calendar as classes will start on August 24 — a week earlier than originally set. In addition to this, students will remain on campus until Thanksgiving break, after which they will simply remain at home for the rest of the fall semester. The idea behind this is so the university does not have to worry about students coming back to campus after having traveled home for break.

Brandy Snyder, associate dean of students at SRSU, provided more information on what things like move-in will look like. For example, each student who is living in the dorms will receive a date and time that is designated just for them to move in and is designed to limit the amount of people moving to campus at once.

Furthermore, Snyder said that SRSU is working with the tech department to design a “drive-in check-in” process that will eliminate the possibility of lines forming while students move into their dorms. Snyder also added that students will only be allowed to have a maximum of two people helping them move in.

As for once the students are moved into their dorms, Snyder said there will be restrictions set in place as far as visitation goes in the dorms. SRSU will implement a system where students may only enter the dorm they live in.

“If they (students) want to visit with friends otherwise, our recommendation is that they do so outside or at off-campus locations,” said Snyder.

Dining halls will also look different this year; they have already been modified to promote distancing. Snyder described what this looks like, saying, “They have left the furniture in its original place but have wrapped it so it cannot be used, and that way it is a physical boundary to remind people that we should not be that close.”

If a student becomes ill with COVID-19, Snyder has said that there are “prepared spaces for potential quarantine or isolation,” if needed. She has also said there has not been a decision made on what number of cases it would take to potentially compel the school to shut down the campus again.

Sonrisa Natividad, a junior at SRSU, said that she would just prefer classes to go fully online once they start this fall.

“I don’t want to go all the way to Alpine just to live a mediocre, substandard lifestyle, when I could just be living at home fine,” said Natividad.

She also suggested that it doesn’t make financial sense to pay for a dorm or for dining knowing there is a possibility she may get sent home early. It’s another reason she prefers for classes to fully go online.

As for how Natividad feels about the safety precautions, she said that she trusts herself to do the right things in regards to COVID-19, but she does find herself worried about other people not being as vigilant or mindful.

“If you are doing everything you can to keep us safe, then why are you making us go out there in the first place?” said Natividad frustratedly, adding that “the decision (to come back to campus or not) will be made regardless of what the students want.”

Natividad finished by saying that if classes, at any point, were to go online full time, she believes tuition should be lowered and housing payments should be refunded to some extent. She justified this by saying that the online experience is not the same and is not worth the same as an in-person education.

Pete Gallego, president of SRSU, said that he and his team are doing everything to keep the “Sul Ross family as safe as possible,” and admitted that a large part of the return plan is predicated upon flexibility. Gallego explained that “a virus is a virus” and when working with so many unknowns, you have to be able to adapt quickly.

Gallego said that SRSU has cut their operating budget by 5% for the upcoming school year due to COVID-19. Though it has not yet meant that layoffs have happened for staff at the university, some positions have had to go unfilled.

As far as enrollment, which Gallego says makes up a large portion of the school’s revenue, there has not yet been a noticeable hit. In fact, there has actually been a slight increase in enrollees to the university for this upcoming year.

When asked about tuition, Gallego said that SRSU has been a pioneer for online learning, and he feels that if they were to have to go fully online again, like they did last spring, the online experience they can provide will be able to justify the current price of tuition, and so it will most likely stay the same.