Cal Lutheran’s spring reopening plans put the community at risk

Christer Schmidt, Reporter

As the pandemic continues to keep us physically separated, many want to return to campus and be part of the California Lutheran University community, in person. 

On Oct. 6, Ventura County transitioned to the red tier of California’s COVID-19 Blueprint for a Safer Economy.

The school, however, has taken this as a cue to begin implementing reopening plans for the spring semester. 

Staff are already returning to campus, and faculty will likely teach in-person classes in the spring

According to a Sept. 30 article by CBS News, an effective COVID-19 vaccine is not estimated to be distributed until the third quarter of 2021.

Knowing this, I feel that Cal Lutheran’s reopening plans have been rushed by university leadership. 

I love spending time on campus and would rather be back there than spending yet another day trapped in my small condominium down the street from the school.

I understand that the campus needs to reopen to make up for lost revenue.

I also understand that most students would rather be doing in-person classes than online instruction.

However, it seems like Cal Lutheran is rushing to reopen without accounting for all possible risks that come with having a higher number of people on campus.

In a Zoom interview, Leanne Neilson, Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs, said some programs will remain primarily online, such as graduate degree programs.

All traditional undergraduate students in the spring will be allowed to choose either virtual classes or hybrid courses that mix online work with in-person instruction. 

“All of this depends on the state and county guidelines… we were planning to come back and have some face-to-face classes in the fall, but then in August the state said no, higher education cannot,” Neilson said. “Right now we are allowed to. If this changes we’ll have to go back to fully virtual.”

Neilson also said students who choose to remain off campus will be able to use Zoom to attend classes, which will be broadcast live from classrooms using 360-degree cameras.  

Students will be enrolled in split in-person/virtual class formats where they will be placed in different class sections on Blackboard, which will determine the days they come into school.

According to Neilson, classes will be at 25% capacity with an expectation of six-foot social distancing, and some in-person classes will take place in fully-equipped outdoor classrooms. 

While students will be given the option to return to campus, staff will be required to return unless a doctor’s note is provided.

According to an Oct. 30 email to faculty and staff from Human Resources, “staff members who believe they cannot return to campus because of health concerns are asked to discuss the issues with their medical provider and provide us with a physician’s certification… the documentation will be reviewed, and accommodations will be considered.”

The language of this email suggests accommodations aren’t guaranteed.

The university has pushed to bring staff back on campus by the first week of November–regardless of whether or not their job can be completed from home.

“It would be the case… that for staff that have the opportunity to return, but feel they cannot return for health reasons, that they would be able to provide a doctor’s note and consider an alternate arrangement for them,” Melinda Roper, Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students, said in a phone interview.

According to the Oct. 30 email from Human Resources, “President [Lori] Varlotta’s campus email of October 29 [called for] the Thousand Oaks campus and Oxnard Center to increase onsite staffing levels to about 50%.”

“We are an in-person campus, and we have students living on campus, and we want to have an on-campus community,” Neilson said.

Neilson said that having staff on campus, alongside better Wi-Fi and the ability to connect with others, will lead to better quality of work and community spirit. 

She also said staff will be required to socially distance, wash hands regularly and wear a mask at all times unless in a private office. Staff will also have the option to put plexiglass between office spaces. 

According to an Oct. 14 article by CNN, Wafaa El-Sadr, professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University said “there have not been any studies that examined how effective plexiglass barriers are at blocking large droplets.”

Much of the reopening plans are based on how the campus is currently handling COVID-19.

When a residential student tests positive, the school will perform contact tracing so others they were exposed to can get tested. Roper said this process happens in a matter of hours.

While these seem to be effective right now, I worry about how effective these will be when the capacity of students on campus is much higher. 

An Oct. 29 email from President Lori Varlotta to the Cal Lutheran community said that 661 students have already signed housing contracts compared to the 338 currently living on campus, and this doesn’t even include the number of commuter students who will be attending classes in person in the spring.

With less people currently on campus, it is much easier currently to perform contact tracing than it will be if more return. 

Melinda Roper said there has been no known community spread on campus. However, there have been staff members who contracted the virus and were unable to identify where they were exposed.

One concern I have pertains to those students and staff who commute between home and school. 

Many staff members who are expected to return will have to go back and forth from home, and their families could be immunocompromised or infected themselves. There is no assurance that they won’t catch it on campus, nor bring the virus from home to campus.

With a higher percentage of people on campus, the university will have to rigorously test to ensure that COVID-19 transmission isn’t occurring on campus. 

I can’t help but wonder if waiting to return in the summer or until we’re in a lower tier would be a safer idea.

This feels like an attempt to make the campus look like things have gone back to normal when truthfully, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic.

Just this past Friday, there were another 71 cases in Ventura County and after Halloween weekend Ventura County Public Health reported 180 new cases. In two weeks, we will really know how Halloween gatherings affect our caseload.

While Roper said the spring semester is expected to start on Jan. 20, with a staggered move-in beginning Jan. 15, I hope the university considers all of the factors at play in bringing people back onto campus while a pandemic still ravages the country, and makes good decision to keep not only students and faculty, but staff safe as well.