On the first day of the spring semester, UTEP student Veronica Camacho returned home from class, removed her clothes and placed them in a plastic bag. She showered and systematically sprayed down her belongings with Lysol. Then she went into her mother’s room and helped her out of bed.
Camacho has kept up this hour-and-a-half routine since the University of Texas at El Paso returned to a mix of online and in-person classes last fall.
“I went from class to coming home, worrying ‘Did I bring something home? Did I make her sick?’” said Camacho, the sole caregiver for her mother, Debbie Camacho, who has Type II diabetes and is considered at high risk of severe illness or death from COVID-19.
For student caregivers like Camacho, the return of in-person classes amid the surging omicron variant has meant renewed stress and uncertainty.
On the morning of Jan. 18, the first day of UTEP’s spring semester, President Heather Wilson sent an email welcoming employees back to campus. “We value in-person education,” she wrote, “and we’re starting the semester as planned.”
In a departure from other schools in the University of Texas system, UTEP announced it would not delay holding classes in person despite a rise in omicron infections throughout El Paso — a new strain of COVID-19 that Wilson described in the email as “more contagious” and “also less serious” than earlier variants.
While evidence is mounting that omicron is less likely to cause hospitalizations among people who are fully vaccinated, it can still cause severe illness and death.
“At UTEP there’s an attitude of ‘oh well, if you’re healthy, then yeah you’ll get sick, but you’ll get better within a couple of weeks, so you’ll be fine,’” Camacho said.
“What about those teachers and students and employees that don’t have that? Who aren’t that strong immune wise?,” she asked. Camacho uses a cane to walk as a result of a knee injury, and her asthma and high blood pressure put her in at-risk categories under federal guidelines. “It’s just really dismissive, ableist culture here.”
Students who are disabled or at risk are “scared,” Camacho said. “We’re really scared.”
When asked to comment on the concerns of caregivers, UTEP officials on Monday sent a statement that was similar to Wilson’s earlier email to staff and said “we have asked the faculty to be flexible and work with students who are sick or who are staying home because someone in their household is sick, so that those students can keep up with their classes.”
In her email to the campus community, Wilson acknowledged challenges for these students. “Pretty much everyone knows someone who has been impacted by this disease,” Wilson wrote, “and a lot of Miners have vulnerable family members whom they are trying to protect.”
For Camacho, 43, the university’s return to in-person classes signals a lack of cultural sensitivity toward its students, many of whom live with family members who, like Camacho’s mother, could be at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19.
“Let’s face it, it’s El Paso,” Camacho said. “We’re a predominantly Hispanic community, where that’s part of our culture: We take care of our elderly.”
“And,” she added, “it’s mostly the daughters.”
Nationally, 14% of undergraduate students are caregivers to adults, according to a 2020 Gallup poll.
That number is even higher for Black and Latino students, about one-third of whom care for another adult. Nearly seven in 10 of those students, including Camacho, hold part- or full-time jobs in addition to school.
Caregivers are disproportionately women. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that two out of every three caregivers are women, while 56% of student caregivers are women, according to the AARP, a national nonprofit that advocates for the rights of older Americans.
UTEP humanities instructor Diana Martinez said she saw many of her students, whether caregivers or not, struggle with the return to in-person classes last semester, and has observed that struggle reflected in the enrollment breakdown of her own classes and those of her colleagues: While her online course is full, with 35 students, her in-person class is just half that number.
“I think that’s mainly because a lot of students are not feeling safe coming back to school,” Martinez said.
“What teacher doesn’t want to see their students and talk in class, to have that human connection?” she said. But, she added, “I really want the students to feel safe.”
On the second day of the semester, Camacho left her creative writing classroom and soon found herself pressed against the wall, fighting off claustrophobia as students, masked and unmasked, crowded the narrow hallway of the Business Administration Building “like a swarm of bees,” she said.
At that moment, it wasn’t just COVID-19 that concerned her. She worried a student could accidentally kick her cane out from underneath her and send her sprawling, prolonging her knee or back injuries.
Camacho’s limited mobility and the demands of caring for her mother have allowed her to register with UTEP’s Center for Accommodations and Support Services, she said. CASS pairs qualifying students with advocates to help them obtain certain academic and testing accommodations, depending on their needs.
Camacho’s greatest need has been additional excused absences. If it were up to her, she would take only online courses to help avoid catching COVID-19 and transmitting it to her mother. But that hasn’t been possible with her coursework requirements, and in both the fall and spring semesters, she registered for two online and two in-person courses.
Though Camacho’s CASS advocate was able to help raise her allowed absences from UTEP’s standard three to six absences per semester, this didn’t prove to be enough. With the return to in-person classes last fall, her GPA dropped from 3.5 to 3.0. Professors were supportive and flexible, she said, but one still took off points when her absences exceeded the allotted six.
It was Camacho’s mother who encouraged her to return to college after two decades away.
“She said, “‘Look, I want you to go back to school and I can afford to take care of us right now,’” recalled Camacho, who dreams of writing novels centered around queer characters.
To protect her mother from COVID-19, Camacho has considered taking this semester off. Though she’s been unable to formally switch to all online classes, she’s in the process of asking professors to allow her to attend class remotely on an informal basis.
“But I’m torn because I really want to finish my degree. And if I’m being really honest, I want to try to get my degree before something happens and I lose my mother. I want her to be able to see me graduate, and it terrifies me that she won’t be around.”
René Kladzyk contributed to this story.
This story was updated with a statement from UTEP officials.
Cover photo: Veronica Camacho, a creative writing major at UTEP, is back on campus for the spring semester. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)