5Cs will not bring students back to campus in January

A group of students lounge on the grass next to a building.
Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver announced at a Pitzer College Council meeting Thursday that none of the Claremont Colleges will bring students back at the start of the spring semester.
(Zoe Cowan • The Student Life)

Update: Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver confirmed that Pitzer will begin the spring 2021 semester online “along with the other undergraduate Claremont Colleges” in an email to students Dec. 10.

If students are able to return pending approval from state and county guidance, the 5Cs will not return students to campus until after the conclusion of spring break on March 12, according to the email.

None of the Claremont Colleges will bring students back to campus at the start of the spring 2021 semester, Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver announced at a Pitzer College Council meeting Thursday.

The announcement follows updated Dec. 2 guidance from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, which requires higher education institutions to remain closed. The guidance was hotly anticipated by the 5Cs, who said they were waiting for the announcement to solidify their spring plans. 

The 5Cs previously said they would announce in December and January whether students could return for the spring semester, following updated guidance from the county. Now that the guidance has arrived, it remains unclear when the other colleges will formally announce their plans.

Oliver, though, said Pitzer students can expect two emails next week with information from the meeting: one about the spring calendar and one with details on a new waiver program, which may allow some students to return to the 5Cs later in the semester.

Each of the colleges are in the process of applying separately for waivers; under the program, up to 10 colleges in LA County could receive permission from the LACDPH to bring back up to 50 percent of their student bodies or 500 students each to campus, whichever number is lower, according to Oliver. 

However, the waiver program would only be allowed if the daily COVID-19 cases fall below 10 per 100,000 county residents for two weeks. As of Friday, LA County is reporting 55 cases per 100,000 residents per day.

Students who come back to campus would live in a “quasi-bubble” and would only be permitted to leave campus for limited circumstances, such as seeking medical care or picking up a prescription, Oliver said.

Oliver did not say whether the decision not to bring students back also applied to students seeking emergency housing in January; however, current LACDPH guidance states that colleges “may continue to provide housing for students who have no alternative housing options.”

Because students will be online for at least part of the semester, the academic deans of the college have approved a week-long spring break, Oliver said. The week-long break was initially replaced by three non-consecutive break days spread throughout the semester to minimize travel and the spread of COVID-19.

5C registrars are “assessing the logistics” of the changes to the spring calendar, Oliver said. 

“That spring break will probably occur the second week March 8 through 15, and if we’re able to bring back students after that date or reasonably close to that date, then we should look carefully at that possibility,” he said. 

However, he was also realistic about what next semester may bring.

“Now I wish I could say I’m hopeful that we will see some students on campus in the spring, but I think the numbers are going to have to go down significantly for that to happen,” he said. “I’m not very optimistic about that.”

Still, he said the Claremont Colleges will apply to the waiver program — and that with potential modifications for how the county measures coronavirus cases, the possibility the daily rate may fall below 10 could be within reach.

And although the county is currently proposing only granting the waiver to 10 schools, Oliver said the 5C presidents are lobbying for the county to open the waiver program to all schools that meet certain standards. 

“If there are just 10 campuses, it will be very difficult politically for [the] LA County Department of Public Health to choose five of those from the Claremont Colleges,” Oliver said. “There are just far too many campuses across LA County and to choose five from the Claremont Colleges would be unlikely.”

The other option, Oliver said, is to ask the county to consider the Claremont Colleges as one school instead of five.

In the meantime, all 5Cs will submit individual waivers and “work collectively” to “indicate the context of the Claremont Colleges for the reviewers,”, according to Oliver. 

If students are brought back, all in-person classes must be held outside and at 25 percent of their usual capacity, according to Oliver. Students would only be permitted to eat outdoors or in their rooms.

The 5Cs have contracted T3, an University of Illinois lab, for COVID-19 testing with a six-hour turnaround. Oliver said a lab would be built on campus and students would be tested at least twice a week, with those who test positive being immediately isolated and their close contacts quarantined.

The colleges have not decided which students they will bring back if allowed, Oliver said. 

“As you look around the country, there are multiple ways in which campuses have done it, campuses that have opened up in the fall or have students on campus in the fall, they’ve managed to have the whole campus at sometime on campus,” he said. “We probably are not going to do that. We probably are going to have a couple classes on campus as opposed to dividing it up for everyone.”

If COVID-19 cases get too high after students come back via the waiver program, LA County would not close the campus again, Oliver said. Instead, the campus would be expected to go into lockdown with “limited mobility.” 

Currently, cases in Los Angeles County, like those across the United States, continue to rise. The “peak” of new cases is expected to hit some time in mid-January, according to Oliver.

With recent news of successful COVID-19 vaccines, Oliver said he is optimistic about a fall 2021 return.

“The fall looks like a winner. It looks like the time we can return at full capacity,” he said.

This article was last updated Dec. 10, 2020 at 1:18 a.m.

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