Even with most classes being held online, thousands of students across California will be back on campuses this week, putting months of planning to the test as universities try to reopen safely.
Classes are underway at campuses across the California State University and at two University of California campuses, Berkeley and Merced. The majority of classes will be virtual, but a select few specialized, hands-on courses will be in person. Universities are also generally opening their dorms to students, albeit at lesser capacities than a typical semester and with most dorms limited to one student per room.
Whether campuses will be able to keep those students safe remains an open question, and strategies for doing so vary on each campus. Some campuses, including Humboldt State, are offering Covid-19 tests throughout the semester to anyone who wants one — even students who are asymptomatic. Others, like UC Merced, are offering baseline testing as students move in but aren’t guaranteeing testing after that. San Francisco State asks students to use a self-reporting smartphone app every time they enter an academic building.
Regardless of their plans, all the campuses must be ready to pivot in the case of an outbreak.
“Am I ready for a pandemic? I don’t know. We’ve never had one before. I think that we’ve spent our energy preparing and really trying to come up with a responsible plan,” said Andrew Boyd, the chief resilience officer and executive director of the Center of Institutional Effectiveness at UC Merced. “All of these plans rely on student behavior. I think we’ll have a decent semester, but I don’t want to pretend that we won’t have an outbreak or a flare up. It’s a mistake to presume that you’re going to avoid this.”
In general, campuses in California prioritize housing for students who need it, such as foster youth, students who are homeless and other students who rely on campus housing for a safe environment.
UC Merced is one of the few campuses that isn’t offering any classes in person, at least for the first four weeks of the semester. Still, like other campuses where classes are primarily virtual, there will be students living in UC Merced’s dorms throughout the semester — about 400 of them, Boyd said.
Students living in Merced dorms are all living in their own rooms. Within seven days of arriving, they are required to take a Covid-19 test and must isolate for 14 days if they test positive. After that, the university will offer asymptomatic testing to about 15% of the on-campus population each month. Students will also download a mobile app created by the university and record their symptoms every day.
Shivali Yedulapuram, a second-year applied math major at UC Berkeley, said she was required to take a Covid-19 test before moving in to the dorms where students are assigned to social bubbles that limit the number of students with whom they can interact. Yedulapuram said her parents were not completely happy about her moving back to campus in the middle of a pandemic, but she feels she’ll be safe, and so will her friends, since classes will be completely virtual.
“I only have four years in college,” she said. “And if classes go back to hybrid or in-person, I’ll already be here.”
Students at Sacramento State will also use the university’s smartphone app to record any symptoms. If they are fine, they will show a green checkmark when traveling around campus. The app asks students a few Covid-19 related questions to ensure that they aren’t showing symptoms and haven’t been in close contact with another person infected by the virus.
If a student has been exposed, or can’t successfully answer the assessment, the app redirects them to student health and counseling services on campus to figure out the next steps.
The Sac State campus received approval from the chancellor’s office this year to house 1,100 students. Still, only 470 wanted to live on campus this semester, said Samuel Jones, the university’s housing director. The university typically houses about 2,100 people.
Not only have campuses significantly cut back on the number of students who will live in residence halls, but they’ve also added rules and guidelines to keep residents socially distanced and safe. Some campus residential halls won’t allow students to have visitors, including parents. Students can make laundry appointments virtually to avoid overcrowding in those spaces. Campus dining is also “grab and go” to encourage students to eat outside or in their rooms.
San Diego State officials removed soft furniture from the lounge areas of its residential halls and replaced it with hard surface furniture to make it easier to clean and discourage too many students from gathering. The campus will house about 2,600 students this year, which is down from about 7,500. Those students will be required to self-report if they’re feeling coronavirus symptoms. The campus’ student and health services office will provide Covid-19 tests at no cost, and campus nurses will assess each situation if students are exposed.
“We’re constantly asking students who go home or travel to take their temperatures and monitor any health concerns, so we can keep a healthy environment,” said Kara Bauer, director of residential education at the San Diego campus.
At Cal Poly Pomona, where some students may attend certain in-person classes, fewer than 250 students will live on campus. Usually, the university would house about 3,700 students.
“We have ample space for quarantine and isolation should someone get sick, and we have our own food provider to make and deliver three meals a day to them,” said Megan Stang, executive director of university housing at Cal Poly Pomona.
Stang said university officials anticipated more students would want to stay on campus, but she and her staff are relieved by how few will live at the university this semester because they will better be able to regularly check in on those students. Cal Poly Pomona students, even those who live off-campus but arrive for in-person classes, will answer an online health questionnaire to determine if they show coronavirus symptoms. Those results go to the university’s student health center.
“If someone isn’t filling it out, we can backtrack and work with their residential hall coordinator and resident advisor to find out what’s going on,” Stang said. “It’s hard to predict … but at the end of the day, we want to keep our students safe.”
Despite the planning and precautions by universities throughout the summer to prevent coronavirus infections on campus, David Rourke, the director of residential life at SF State, said “students will be students no matter where they are.”
Since the campus began moving in students on August 14, they’ve had two incidents of groups of four to five students gathering socially
“Those groups are not incredibly large or a party like (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill),” Rourke said, referring to UNC students’ off-campus behavior as that university saw an increase in infection rates on campus. “But it’s a little behavior to pay attention to, so we sat down and had conversations with those people that their behavior may have put them and others at risk.”
Instead, they’re encouraging students to meet outside to lower the risk of coronavirus exposure responsibly.
(USC Monday reported an alarming increase in infected students, putting more than 100 students in a 14-day quarantine due to off-campus student exposures.)
SF State will only house about 350 students this year across three residential halls, compared to the 4,300 usually housed each year.
Some students have found that there may be greater safety from the coronavirus by living on campus. Oakland native and UC Berkeley second-year, Anthony Carter, said he’s protecting himself and his family by moving into the dorms this fall, where he’s less likely to infect his grandmother, who has a heart condition.
And with a room to himself, and no roommate this year, Carter, a computer science major, said he’ll be able to better focus on his studies.
Cindy Robles, a first-year student, is one of about 480 students at Cal State Long Beach living in campus housing this fall. Living at home would have made it hard for Robles to concentrate on her classes, she said, because she lives in a small house with her mother and three brothers.
“I knew that college was going to be a totally different challenge for me. So, I understood even within the pandemic, if I could live in a dorm, I’m going to do it because in that environment I can focus on what I need to do and what I need to get done,” Robles said.
Some campuses have no choice but to hold in-person classes because they can’t replicate all their courses in a virtual setting. The Cal State Maritime Academy, for example, conducts many of its classes on ships, especially for its marine transportation program — the largest major at the campus.
About 500 students are living on campus and taking in-person classes at Cal Maritime this fall, said Graham Benton, associate provost for the academy. In a typical semester, there are about 1,000 students who physically come to campus, including up to 900 who live on campus. This semester, students were tested for the coronavirus as they moved in and must record their symptoms through a mobile app each day before leaving their dorm.
By testing students as they arrive, campuses like Cal Maritime and UC Merced will establish a baseline of Covid-19 infection rates.
Other campuses are planning to test students more frequently than that.
At Humboldt State, students were tested upon moving in and are being tested again during their second week on campus. The student health center on campus offers additional testing to any students who want it, even those who aren’t displaying symptoms. The asymptomatic testing will be available “for the foreseeable future,” said Cris Koczera, emergency coordinator for the campus.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cal State Long Beach has no plans to offer testing to students — though students are required to self-screen for virus symptoms.
At Chico State, students displaying symptoms may be able to get tested, but it’s not guaranteed, and tests won’t be available to every student, said Juanita Mottley, director of Chico State’s WellCat Health Center.
Intervention strategies, such as contact tracing and isolation, are also a mixed bag and vary from one campus to the next.
UC Merced has a team of 11 contact tracers who have all gone through training programs, either at UCLA or Johns Hopkins University. They will reach out directly to individuals who are displaying symptoms or who tested positive, Boyd said. Most other campuses, however, will be relying on their local county public health departments to handle contact tracing.
If a student tests positive for the virus, most campuses will ask those students to quarantine on campus. But some, including Fresno State, will ask students to isolate away campus, unless they don’t have anywhere to go.
It’s not clear what would compel campuses to add more restrictions to classes or even completely shut down their campuses. At Cal Maritime, “there’s no magic number” of cases that will trigger the campus to close, Benton said.
“It comes down to the logistics. When we can’t keep up, when we feel we have reached a point where the safety and health of our students exceeds the point where we can protect them, that’s when we’ll make that determination,” Benton said.
Other campuses, including Humboldt State, will make that decision in consultation with their county public health departments. Koczera, the emergency response coordinator at that campus, said that all the face-to-face courses at Humboldt were built in a way that allows them to switch to being taught online with little or no notice.
“As an emergency manager, literally my job is to make sure we have a plan for the worst case scenario,” she said. “Absolutely we’ve looked at, ‘what if this goes south?’ We all know that it’s a virus, and we can only control so much.”
Hannah Getahun, a student at Cal State Long Beach and a contributing reporter to the EdSource California Student Journalism Corps, contributed reporting.
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