Photo: Leslie Bisno
An empty UC Santa Barbara campus during the coronavirus pandemic.

UC Santa Barbara will hold almost all classes remotely this fall and severely limit on-campus housing, becoming the latest campus in the University of California system to scale back its plans for the fall quarter.

Citing a spike in Covid-19 cases among students in the Isla Vista neighborhood near campus, Chancellor Henry Yang wrote in a message to the UC Santa Barbara community that the university would not be able to offer any in-person classes “except for the possibility of a few laboratories and performance courses.” Yang added that on-campus housing would only be offered to students “with special circumstances,” and he encouraged all other undergraduates to stay home. 

“We know our decision for fall may be a great disappointment for our students who had hoped to return to our beautiful campus next month, and especially for our incoming first-year and transfer students looking forward to an exciting beginning at UC Santa Barbara,” Yang wrote in the message, which he sent Friday evening.

Santa Barbara’s decision comes as some universities across the country have been forced to rethink their decisions to reopen following outbreaks of the virus, including at the University of Alabama, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Notre Dame.

UC Santa Barbara now joins at least five other UC undergraduate campuses — out of nine in total — that will conduct essentially all classes remotely this fall because of the threat of the coronavirus. UC Irvine, UCLA and UC Riverside will hold almost all classes online when classes begin at those campuses in about a month. At the two campuses on the semester schedule, UC Berkeley and UC Merced, classes are already underway and are fully remote for at least the first four weeks, though some students are living on campus 

Berkeley is evaluating whether to offer any small in-person courses later this semester, a spokesman said. Top consideration is being given to courses with lab or studio work and courses that would engage students such as freshmen and sophomore seminars. Merced could also offer some in-person courses later in the semester. But the likelihood that the campus would offer a substantial number of those classes “is extremely low,” said Andy Boyd, executive director of Merced’s Center of Institutional Effectiveness, in a recent interview.

Another campus, UC Santa Cruz, is asking students to stay home this fall because of the impact of the wildfire that has swept through the Santa Cruz Mountains. Scott Hernandez-Jason, a spokesman for that campus, said UC Santa Cruz is still planning to offer a “very small number of in-person classes.”

Earlier this summer, UC Santa Barbara was hopeful that it could return to some semblance of normalcy during the 2020-21 academic year. Pointing to a “relatively low Covid-19 infection rate in Santa Barbara,” Yang said in June that the campus was planning to “offer a range of student and campus life activities” — while acknowledging that the university needed to be “flexible and ready to adapt.” At that time, the campus was also planning to house up to two students per room and offer some face-to-face courses.

In his latest message to the campus, Yang said there have been more than 65 cases of Covid-19 among students living in the Isla Vista neighborhood, where thousands of UC Santa Barbara students typically stay. 

“This trend is likely to be exacerbated by bringing additional students to the area,” Yang said.

Yang added that by curtailing reopening plans for the fall, he hopes the campus will be able to “mitigate the spread of Covid-19 and increase the possibility” of offering in-person classes and housing during the winter and spring quarters.

Other campuses in the UC system have also recently curtailed their plans for the fall. 

At UC Riverside, only 35 courses are expected to be held in person this fall, Chancellor Kim Wilcox wrote in an Aug. 20 message. Those classes are a mix of labs, field courses and visual and performing arts courses. Wilcox said the campus is still reviewing “demand for on-campus housing” but added that “we are actively trying to limit the number of students and employees on campus this fall.”

UC Irvine is still planning to offer housing to one student per bedroom in its residence halls, but is offering fewer than 20 courses in person.

UCLA, meanwhile, said earlier this month that it will reopen with remote-only instruction except for a few classes that are “necessary to train students for essential workforce positions,” such as classes in health and medicine, social work and engineering. Additionally, on-campus housing will be limited to students who do not have a safe alternative housing option. 

Face-to-face instruction may be possible for courses with fewer than 50 students at UC Davis, according to the latest version of that university’s Campus Ready Plan. It’s not clear specifically how many classes could be held in person, but they would likely be limited to courses that are “laboratory-based, studio-based and equipment-based,” the plan states. A university spokeswoman did not immediately return a request seeking additional details about fall instruction. 

UC Davis is also planning to open its residence halls, but will limit rooms to one student and will test students for the coronavirus as they move in. Students will then be subject to weekly testing. 

At UC San Diego, plans for the fall will likely become clearer in the coming days. That campus is planning to release further details for the fall in early September. As of earlier this summer, UC San Diego was planning to hold about 30% of classes in person and promised housing to students eligible for a two-year housing guarantee. But administrators at the campus have acknowledged that those plans are subject to change.

EdSource reporter Ashley A. Smith contributed to this story.

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