California State University classes to continue mostly online in fall

Most classes across the California State University system will continue to be held online through the fall because of the spread of the coronavirus, Chancellor Tim White said Tuesday.

Keeping classes online is necessary because of “evolving data surrounding the progression” of the virus, White said during a CSU trustee meeting, alluding to public health experts forecasting further waves of the virus later this year. He left the door open, however, to resuming some in-person classes “as circumstances might allow.”

There also will be “limited exceptions” for courses across the 23-campus system that can’t be delivered virtually, such as essential lab courses and clinical classes for nursing students, White said. Those classes will have restrictions, such as social distancing and fewer students. 

“Our university, when open without restrictions and fully in person, as is the traditional norm of the past, is a place where over 500,000 people come together in close and vibrant proximity with each other on a daily basis,” he said. “That approach, sadly, just isn’t in the cards now as I have described.”

White’s announcement came shortly after federal health officials said Tuesday that it’s possible that colleges and schools across the country could reopen in the fall if there is widespread testing, social distancing and sound hygiene.  The decision by CSU, the nation’s largest four-year public university system, will no doubt be watched by other university systems nationwide.

The state’s other four-year public university system, the 10-campus University of California, was not prepared on Tuesday to immediately follow CSU’s example, a spokeswoman said. 

“We are exploring a mixed approach with some material delivered in classroom and labs settings while other classes will continue to be online,” Claire Doan said in an email to EdSource. “Our campuses will reopen for on-site instruction when it is safe to do so – in coordination with federal, state and local health departments and authorities.”

Classes across the UC system have been online since March. The UC Board of Regents is meeting next week and is expected to discuss plans for the fall. So far, UC San Diego has announced a massive coronavirus testing plan for students, faculty and staff. UC San Diego this week is starting testing for the 5,000 students currently on campus, with plans to expand that to all 65,000 students, faculty and staff in the fall. That campus is aided by having its own medical center.

Classes across the CSU system, which enrolls about 480,000 undergraduate students, also have been conducted virtually since March in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease. 

During Tuesday’s trustee meeting, White said academic researchers and public health experts are forecasting a “second, smaller wave” of the virus this summer, “followed by a very significant wave” in the fall. At the same time, he said it is unlikely that a vaccine for the virus will become widely available during the upcoming academic year.

“Consequently, our planning approach will result in CSU courses primarily being delivered virtually for the fall 2020 term,” he said.

There will be exceptions for classes that “cannot be delivered virtually, are indispensable to the university’s core mission and can be conducted within the rigorous standards of safety and welfare,” White added. 

Those courses include science lab classes that enable degree completion; clinical classes for nursing students that keep them on track to earn licenses to enter the healthcare workforce; and hands-on learning for engineering, agriculture and architecture students. 

White added, though, that those classes won’t be the same as they were before the coronavirus pandemic. The number of students in each in-person class will decrease. Lab classes will require greater distancing between participants. And there will be more rigorous sanitizing and disinfecting of spaces and equipment. 

White said it’s possible that the system could ease restrictions on other in-person classes depending on how the public health situation evolves.

“It would be irresponsible to approach it the other way around and wait until August to only then scramble and not be prepared to provide a learning environment for our students,” he said.

With the system facing possible enrollment declines because of the virus, White on Tuesday also urged students “not to decline the opportunity to attend a CSU campus.”

“CSU faculty, staff and administrators will be well prepared to deliver an even more comprehensive and robust virtual education experience for students in fall 2020 including extensive academic and student support,” he said.

In the UC system, individual campuses are studying different plans for the fall and ways to reopen.

For example, UC Irvine is preparing for a hybrid situation, with a mixture of online and in-person classes and attempts to house as many students in dorms as safely possible, according to its chancellor Howard Gillman.

“Most classes will be offered remotely, either as the only option or a complement to in-person instruction. We are doing everything possible to prepare classrooms for in-person instruction, but it’s too early to determine which courses will be ready for traditional on-site learning,” Gillman said in an announcement. It is likely that small graduate seminars, and undergraduate lab and studio classes will be face-to-face and that large lecture courses may be more often online, he said.

Staff writer Larry Gordon contributed to this report. 

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