Uncertainty is the new reality tens of thousands of students face this fall as campuses repopulate residential halls, classrooms, and other facilities while the coronavirus pandemic rages for yet another academic year. At any point, campuses could shift back to remote learning, if that’s what public health authorities recommend or if a significant outbreak of Covid-19 spreads.
Some California State University campuses have already begun fall instruction, but many start Monday. Seven of the University of California’s undergraduate campuses are on the quarter system and don’t start classes until Sept. 23.
The CSU and UC systems require students to be fully vaccinated when they return to campus in person and are mandating that masks be worn indoors regardless of vaccination status. Campuses will also routinely test students and staff who are exempt from the vaccine mandate for religious or medical reasons. Some CSU and most UC campuses will also regularly test vaccinated students.
In the UC system, campus leaders are optimistic that it won’t be necessary to fully return to remote learning.
“If we need to make adjustments, we will,” said Sarah Latham, the vice chancellor of business administrative services at UC Santa Cruz. “However, we believe that the things we have in place will allow us to stick to our initial approach of in-person instruction and a highly residential experience.”
Even with vaccine mandates, UC campus leaders acknowledge that positive cases will occur. But they also anticipate that those cases won’t be as disruptive to campus life. Last year, any student in close contact with someone with a positive Covid-19 case needed to be quarantined. This year, that won’t necessarily be the case, largely because of vaccinations, but rules vary.
At UC Berkeley, vaccinated and asymptomatic students won’t need to be quarantined if they have been in close contact with an infected individual. They will only need to monitor their symptoms for two weeks and be tested for the virus following the exposure. The only people who have had close contacts who will need to quarantine are those who are unvaccinated or who show symptoms. A close contact is defined as anyone who is within 6 feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.
In-person classes across the UC system may also be allowed to continue even if the class has been exposed to a positive case. At UC Irvine, for example, if a student tests positive and has been attending in-person classes, the only students who may need to quarantine are those who came into close contact with the infected student, said David Souleles, the director of Irvine’s Covid-19 response staff.
“Just because the case was in the room, it doesn’t mean everybody in the room automatically now has to quarantine or that the class has to be canceled,” he said. He added that those protocols could change on a case-by-case basis. If the campus notices, for example, that there are multiple positive cases from one classroom, the campus will consult the public health department in Orange County to determine the next steps.
But even before the start of classes, one campus was forced to make an adjustment to when it would return to in-person learning.
Two weekends ago, Stanislaus State University announced it would delay the start of hybrid and in-person classes from Aug. 23 to Oct. 1 in response to a “notable increase in Covid-19 cases locally due to the Delta variant.” Those classes started virtually instead.
The delay gives students and faculty more time to become fully vaccinated. Fewer than half of Stanislaus County is fully vaccinated. When Stanislaus State President Ellen Junn started to see the number of positive Covid cases rise among returning campus staff, particularly vaccinated ones, she was alarmed.
“When I wake up and look at those data from our county and get the data from our infectious disease coordinator on campus, my heart is always doing a little pitter-patter,” Junn said. “I’m hoping that more people are not getting sick, but once we hit that range where I have to make a decision, I have to decide what’s safest for our campus.”
In the Stanislaus State residential halls, the 400 students who will live on campus will occupy single rooms. And if they’re not fully vaccinated by move-in, they’ll be reimbursed for the time they’re not living on campus until they are vaccinated.
Like Humboldt State and CSU Channel Islands, other campuses will allow students to have roommates and – like many universities – have space set aside for infected students to quarantine. Students who don’t live on campus, like staff and faculty who test positive, are asked to quarantine at home and not visit their colleges.
The universities also want to be notified if they have come into contact with an infected person or think they have.
The key to minimizing disruptions to classes and other parts of campus life, Souleles said, is to have a vaccination rate as high as possible. All nine of UC’s undergraduate campuses expect at least 90% of their on-campus population to be vaccinated.
At UC Berkeley, one of two UC campuses that is on the semester schedule and begins classes Aug. 23, 93% of undergraduate students have shown proof of vaccination. That has Zaid Umar, a fourth-year student at Berkeley, feeling comfortable with the university’s plan to reopen.
Umar, a double major in economics and history, plans to live off campus in Berkeley with a group of friends and is enrolled in two in-person classes this fall. He’s also taking two lecture classes that are being held remotely. At Berkeley, classes with 200 or more students, which account for 5% of course offerings, are online only.
Umar said he thinks it’s “perfectly legitimate” for Berkeley to offer those large lecture classes online. But he’s otherwise looking forward to getting back to a regular campus experience.
“If Berkeley didn’t have a vaccine mandate, I would have some reservations. But I do feel comfortable. Alameda County is also a generally liberal area and people in the community are going to be vaccinated, too,” he added, referring to the county where Berkeley is located.
At Chico State, the university will house 1,900 residents on campus, of which 29 have received approved exemptions so far, said Connie Huyck, executive director for university housing. Chico State is one of the nine CSU campuses that won’t allow students to have guests in the dorm other than when they move in.
But there are only so many precautions a campus can take.
“Students can go to Home Depot and come back or Chipotle or the movie theater and contract the virus and bring it back,” Huyck said. “Obviously, that can happen anywhere they are.”
The universities won’t be completely closed off from their communities. And while campuses will be tracking and monitoring the vaccination status or Covid-19 test results of students, staff and faculty who physically are at the universities, there are still people who will visit daily.
“What about the person who comes on campus one time and visits the library?” said Ellen Treanor, associate vice president of strategic communication at Cal State Fullerton. “We won’t have their vaccination status at all. We’re kind of like a small city, and we can’t put up walls around our city and say you can’t come in.”
Kiana Sabugo, a fourth-year student studying psychological and brain sciences at UC Santa Barbara, said she’s not particularly concerned about her own health because she’s vaccinated, but she’s worried about the surrounding community near UC Santa Barbara’s campus, which includes senior living communities.
“If it turns out that 90% of the campus is vaccinated, I’ll feel a little more at ease,” she said.