Though thousands of lockdown protestors would like to believe otherwise, the COVID-19 pandemic has so far shown no clear signs of ending anytime soon. At time of writing, there are over 1,400 coronavirus-related fatalities in Los Angeles county alone, and recent models created by the Trump administration project daily deaths to rise to 3,000 by June 1, which constitutes a 70% increase from the nation’s current average of 1,750 daily deaths.
Despite these troubling statistics, California Gov. Gavin Newsom followed through on his plan to partially reopen some retail stores across the state, citing economic strain as the primary reason behind the decision. California universities are experiencing that economic strain just as profoundly, with the University of California (UC) itself hemorrhaging $310 million due to unexpected costs, forcing them to start considering whether or not they will be able to reopen for the fall 2020 quarter. Unfortunately, the right choice is clear: unless the pandemic resolves itself completely before next fall quarter, our campuses should start preparing for another online period of instruction.
Some schools, like Cal State Fullerton, are all but committed to holding classes entirely online for the duration of fall 2020. Campus officials have already suggested faculty begin preparing for another semester of virtual instruction. Other schools, like UC San Diego (UCSD), have only confirmed that remote instruction will be offered as an option, opting for a tentative half-and-half system that will merge in-person and online instruction, though plans may change depending on the state of the pandemic by fall quarter.
In a campuswide email sent on Tuesday, April 28, UC Riverside (UCR) Chancellor Kim A. Wilcox explained that administrators are still assessing whether or not students will be able to return to campus in the fall. To further complicate matters, the Riverside City Council voted to lift several COVID-19 public health orders for the county last Friday, May 8, including restrictions preventing Riverside universities from reopening, but UCR officials have yet to release a statement regarding how this will affect decisions to reopen UC Riverside.
Regardless of the results of Wilcox’s assessment, one thing is certain: UCR was woefully unprepared for an online spring 2020 quarter and will surely need to plan better for the fall, which is perhaps the busiest quarter of all. Complaints about spring 2020 run the full gambit, from students frustrated with lackluster practical lab instruction to rampant security issues, which allowed for spiteful pranks like “Zoombombing,” a practice that involves individuals entering and disrupting Zoom lectures by interrupting instructors and projecting graphic content via the screenshare feature.
Despite attempts to make online learning accessible and equitable for the entire UCR community through programs like Loan2Learn, which rents out learning devices to students in need, problems persisted. Students with faulty Wi-Fi connections and students who moved to areas with different time zones have found it difficult to attend classes, leading many to question just what it was they were paying tuition for.
With online classes having been conducted so poorly this past term, it is easy to see why many students are eager to return to a sense of normalcy. Regrettably, this would be unwise. As mentioned before, Americans still have every reason to fear COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officials continue to warn citizens of a possible second wave, which may be worse than the first. Former director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response at the CDC, Dr. Ali Khan, explained to NPR that this second wave is highly likely, and that it will appear less like a peak on graphs and more like a mountain range, with “hundreds of different outbreaks in the U.S. going on at the same time.”
To further illustrate the risk, it should be noted that cases in Orange County jumped considerably, seeing single-day highs in positive tests, after residents turned out in droves when its beaches temporarily reopened on April 25. UCR has so far been relatively unaffected by the pandemic, but reopening campus would surely change that.
Faced with both these frightening statistics as well as an online model that leaves something to be desired, UC students and administrators alike are unsure of how to move forward. As mentioned before, UCSD has expressed interest in a half-and-half, partially online partially in-person system for fall 2020. In theory, this would allow students to interact with faculty and receive the attention they deserve while still adhering to social distancing guidelines. This would be an admirable attempt at helping students believe their tuition dollars have been well-spent, as the university has already confirmed that they will not be altering tuition or fees for the quarter.
A novel idea though it may be, however, the half-and-half system is also ill-advised. Attempts to reopen the campus for classes during the pandemic will be difficult to manage. Students could very well choose to not wear proper protective equipment and may even disregard safety standards. Without a large team of dedicated staff enforcing social distancing guidelines at each campus, infection could easily spread. Such enforcement would be impractical, and the logistics of the system are too convoluted. It is simply not worth the risk.
The best solution would be to start formulating a plan to make an online fall 2020 more effective. Spring 2020 was less than ideal, to be sure, but it could serve as a sort of practice run for the more important fall quarter. Now that we know what doesn’t work, instructors should receive better training so that they don’t repeat missteps taken during the spring. Training on how to run Zoom classes effectively should be made accessible to all faculty members and pre-recorded lectures should become the new normal so that students who are in different time zones or suffer from unstable Wi-Fi connections can watch them on their own time. Tuition is to remain the same, which is understandable, as faculty and staff need to be paid, but that money should also be allocated toward resources that ensure student success.
Students looking to apply to medical and law school must not be forgotten.Wilcox explained in a recent video update that some facilities may reopen in the fall in order to conduct research. If work spaces are properly sanitized and social distancing is adhered to, medical and law students should be allowed in these spaces so that they don’t miss out on progress. Likewise, graduate programs should find new ways to conduct their tests, perhaps by allowing students to take them online. If UC administrators put in the effort, next fall quarter could be successful in spite of it being held online.
The UC is in a precarious position. If the pandemic persists into next fall quarter they must not reopen their campuses, but if online classes continue to run poorly they will likely lose a lot of prospective students. The logical course of action, then, is to begin preparing for what seems like an inevitable online term. Daunting though this may be, online classes can and have been run effectively in the past, but administrators must start formulating these plans early. UC students will thank them for their foresight.