“Current forecasts give us hope that in the fall our students can enjoy a more normal on-campus experience,” stated University of California President Michael V. Drake, M.D. on Jan. 11, after the UC announced that it is planning for a return to primarily in-person instruction systemwide starting fall 2021.
The responsibility of specific plans for resumption of fall classes, including additional safety measures and starting dates, were placed on individual UC campuses as they continue to coordinate closely with local public health agencies and follow all local and state health guidelines.
In early February, UCR faculty and students were surveyed to better understand their preferences for fall quarter instruction. In a campus press release, Interim Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Thomas Smith stated that overall, respondents were strongly split on their instructional mode preferences. “Written comments expressed both support for returning to in-person instruction as well as concerns about the health risks, and emphasized the importance of vaccinations, the challenges of ‘dual mode’ instruction, and the need for all members of the campus community to follow public health guidelines as a condition for returning to campus,” stated Smith.
Smith stated that as vaccination rates have continued to rise, case counts and test positivity rates have fallen substantially. Local elementary schools announced they are targeting March 8 for a return to hybrid instruction, and the Centers for Disease Control has issued new guidance for K-12 schools that Smith said is encouraging news. There still remains uncertainty regarding how fast infection rates will fall in the region and how many people will be vaccinated by the start of fall quarter, he also stated.
Despite these uncertainties, Smith stated that since fall quarter scheduling begins in February to accommodate registration in May, UCR must make decisions now, far in advance of decisions about research and other campus operations in order to start the process. “With consideration of the preceding factors, and after consultation with campus leadership, the Academic Senate, the Instructional Continuity Workgroup, and the COVID Management Workgroup, I am announcing an instructional plan for fall that aims for a return to primarily in-person instruction and allows for adjustments to be made in the coming months as new information arrives, uncertainty is resolved, and new guidance is issued,” said Smith.
The plan is responsive to the announcements made by President Drake and Chancellor Wilcox on Jan. 11 and Feb. 23, respectively. Additionally, the plan is taking into consideration faculty and student sentiment expressed through the surveys, faculty need to balance instructional workloads with research and service obligations and the benefits students will receive by participating in on-campus learning and co-curricular activities.
There are five key elements for the plan to return to primarily in-person courses in the fall. The first is a strict adherence to health and safety standards. Personal and institutional health and safety standards for on-campus activities including instruction will be developed by the COVID Management Committee to be consistent with applicable public health guidelines, stated Smith. He added, “This likely will include universal and correct use of masks, physically distanced classroom seating, and regular testing of anyone participating in on-campus activities.” All in-person instruction activities, and anyone participating in these activities, will be required to strictly adhere to these standards.
Smith stated in an interview with The Highlander that UCR is going to emphasize that mask wearing protects the entire community and positively message the benefits. “If someone refuses to wear a mask, they can be asked to leave a building or even the campus. People will forget to wear their masks at times and we want to create a culture where others respectfully remind those not wearing masks of the mask requirement,” stated Smith.
Smith also announced that 75-80% of all instruction will be held in-person with varying enrollment densities. Courses will be assigned to larger-than-normal rooms. UCR’s largest courses will continue to be delivered remotely in fall. Classes with enrollments above 80 students will allow for 50% of room capacity. Classes with enrollments between 35 and 80 students will allow a maximum of 67% of room capacity. Full room capacity will be permitted for courses with less than 35 students.
If social distancing and reduced density are still mandated by Riverside County Public Health in the fall, UCR will have signs reminding everyone on campus of the need to maintain social distance, markings on the floor of buildings that show the distance people should stand apart while waiting in line and seats in classrooms will be arranged, removed, or marked to signal where people should sit to maintain social distance, stated Smith.
Smith stated that progressively higher densities for smaller classes “reflects the reduced risk associated with having fewer people sharing an indoor space, as well as the significant benefit to students of participating in higher quality in-person experiences in labs, studios, learning communities, and other intimate settings.” According to Smith, preliminary modeling illustrates that densities should allow 75-80% of all primary credit-bearing activities such as lectures and seminars to be scheduled in-person. Secondary non-credit-bearing activities such as discussion sections are more likely to be moved online due to space constraints and lower priority in the scheduling process, stated Smith.
He noted that all of these guidelines assume that high vaccination rates and falling infection rates will lead to new public health guidelines that allow these classroom densities. If new public health guidelines do not permit these classroom densities, UCR will scale back in-person instruction accordingly.
Another key element to UCR’s reopening plan for fall is flexibility at the department and program level to determine delivery modes. What this means is that chairs and directors will work with their faculty to determine a mix of 75-80% in-person courses and 20-25% remote courses for each department or program. “Consideration should be given to both instructor and student circumstances, with the goal to serve as many students as possible with a reasonable menu of accessible courses,” stated Smith. Remote options will not be required for in-person instruction; however, they may be used to extend access to more students when circumstances warrant.
UCR will also implement modifications to emergency remote teaching as part of its reopening plan. Emergency remote teaching will be extended to fall quarter but with new limitations that will be implemented. In order to teach remotely, an instructor’s course must be included on the list of remote courses submitted by a chair or director. An instructor could also submit an exception request to be approved for remote instruction. The Academic Senate will discuss establishing minimum standards for continuing remote instruction and ensure these are consistent with pending guidelines from our regional accreditor.
The last key element of UCR’s fall 2021 instructional plan is its commitment to not switch remote classes to in person on short notice. Smith added that courses that are initially scheduled for remote instruction in fall will not be shifted to in person if public health conditions improve more than expected. He stated that if UCR were to switch remote courses to in-person on short notice, it could create untenable situations for students who have already registered and established living arrangements away from campus. If conditions do not improve as expected, Smith stated that classes initially scheduled for in person instruction may be shifted to online courses.
In an interview with The Highlander, Smith stated that while there is some debate, it appears that federal law does not allow employers and others to require vaccination with a COVID-19 vaccine distributed under an Emergency Use Authorization (EAU). “If EAU is lifted in the coming months, I would expect discussion of mandates to begin,” stated Smith.
In the coming weeks and months, additional details of the fall instructional plan will be finalized. Smith concluded stating, that as an institution that places great value on equity and inclusion, UCR also will continue to think carefully about how their planning affects each member of the community and their diverse and sometimes disparate needs and desires. He stated, “A successful return to campus will require of everyone the same empathy, generosity, and teamwork that made UCR a special place to teach and learn before the pandemic. I encourage everyone to think about what they can do personally to help us navigate the next phase of this challenge.”