By Brad Brooks
LUBBOCK, Texas (Reuters) - Brandon Vergel stood outside his new student dormitory at Texas Tech University, grappling with the bittersweet nature of yet another American rite of passage warped by the COVID pandemic -parents dropping their kids off at college.
Under a scorching afternoon sun, Vergel lugged his earthly belongings into the Hulen Hall residence he would now call home, nervously excited at the freedom of college life that awaited, but confronting an age-old conundrum: a mom that doesn't want to let go.
"My parents are being a little overbearing," Vergel said in a hushed voice as his father, Arturo, unloaded items from his black pick-up truck, and his mom, Nancy, stood nearby. "They don't think we can protect ourselves in a pandemic. But we do know how to take care of ourselves and we would like to start. Like, now."
How to safely and productively conduct courses is a challenge that university administrators, parents and students are trying to wrap their heads around.
Nearly a quarter of American universities will have classes either fully or primarily in person this fall, according to data collected by the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, which tracks how colleges are changing amid the pandemic.
But another quarter of universities have not yet determined what they will do, while 32% are either primarily or fully online, 15% will have a hybrid of in-person and online course work, and the rest planning some alternative form of instruction.
At Texas Tech, the course work will be primarily in person, as it will be at most universities in the state. Some freshmen students will be living in dorms - they are required to live on campus their first year - but have a majority of their classes conducted online.
Under a scorching afternoon sun outside the Texas Tech residence halls, students wore carefully chosen outfits, hoping to casually make fantastic first impressions on Friday.
They lugged suitcases stuffed with clothes, mini refrigerators and new televisions into the sand-colored brick buildings, all the while huffing under their face masks in the 104-degree heat.
In an effort to discourage crowding, families could only arrive at the Texas Tech dorms during pre-scheduled time slots and were given 90 minutes to move in. There was ample space in the parking lots that in a normal year would be scenes of joyous chaos, with hordes of students arriving all at once.
Everyone was asked to wear face masks both inside and outside the buildings, despite few other people around. Students said the masks were making communication more difficult - and chilling their ability to break the ice with their new neighbors.
Inside the residence halls it was eerily quiet. A handful of families checked in with residence hall student assistants, got room assignments, and then silently hauled belongings into rooms.
The same scene is playing out at universities across the United States this weekend, as teenagers' dreams of freedom are slamming up against the realities of college in the time of a pandemic.
Hopes that many hold out for wild keg parties have been dampened by being the first students in a century - going back to the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918 - to have been ordered to wear masks and stand apart.
Those safety precautions will be tested in places like Lubbock, a dusty west Texas town where generations of students have maintained a reputation for being the Lone Star state's hardest partying school.
"This is so weird because I cannot see anyone's face. I cannot meet them properly," said Kaitlyn Abercia, 18, from Cypress, Texas, as she moved into Gates Hall at Texas Tech. "I hope I can make a lot of friends."
Kaitlyn's mom, Denise, right then glanced at her daughter sideways and let out a chortle.
"Come on, you guys will be having parties tonight," she said. "I suspect plenty of students will be breaking rules."
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Lubbock, Texas; editing by Bill Tarrant)