Facing virus surge, some LA-area colleges reconsider in-person classes for the fall

As cases and hospitalizations of COVID-19 continue to reach record highs in Los Angeles County, some colleges and universities in the area have begun to reconsider their plans to reopen campuses in the fall. 

While other schools have continued to say they are planning a return to in-person instruction their plans often contain a caveat that the ultimate decision lies with county and state public health officials. 

LA Mayor Eric Garcetti implored residents in a July 13 address to take the necessary distancing precautions and noted the city’s precarious position on the Threat Level Indicator, a color-coded meter of measuring the present risk of COVID-19 in the area. 

The city is “on the border of going [from orange] to red,” he explained, a level which would signal the “highest and extreme risk.” In an interview on Sunday, Garcetti noted that the area was “on the brink” of another stay-at-home order. 

With the beginning of the fall semester at many colleges about a month away, some have begun to reverse their earlier decisions to reopen their campuses to most students. 

In early July, the University of Southern California backtracked from its original plan and announced that 80 to 90 percent of its classes will take place online during the fall semester. On Wednesday, Occidental College reversed its earlier decision to reopen and moved all of its fall 2020 courses from a hybrid to fully online format, saying it would only bring about 200 students with housing difficulties to live on campus. 

Still, of 45 colleges and universities in the LA area, about three in four still plan to welcome students back to campus for the fall and offer some degree of in-person instruction, according to a TSL analysis.

Nine colleges and universities in the area say they will operate entirely online. Two others have yet to announce their plans.

In the last three weeks, hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in LA County have risen 31 percent, and the county reached a record of more than 2,200 total hospitalized patients on Friday. If this trend continues, a Department of Public Health memo from earlier in the month warns, the “number of hospital beds are projected to become inadequate in the next 2-3 weeks.”

Citing this resurgence, Pomona College President G. Gabrielle Starr, Scripps College President Lara Tiedens and Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver announced that their respective colleges would offer all of its courses for the fall semester in an online format.

Claremont McKenna College released a detailed outline for a return to campus but has delayed a final decision until July 24, pending approval from state and local health officials. Harvey Mudd College plans to return to campus and offer up to 30% of its classes in hybrid or in-person formats, pending approval.

Harvey Mudd President Maria Klawe acknowledged that the college “could be forced to move to an online-only fall semester … if the spread of COVID-19 does not slow down in Southern California.” 

In a recent update posted to Mudd’s website, the college notes that government approval for on-campus instruction will be on a county-wide basis, rather than by individual institution.

CMC also notes in its plan that “[COVID-19] tests may be required upon students’ initial return to campus as well as throughout the semester.” On Tuesday, however, updated state guidelines no longer ensure that anyone in the state can receive a test. 

Instead, the guidance implemented a tiered approach that focuses on first administering tests to those at greatest risk. Harvey Mudd only plans to test students on arrival to campus “depend[ing] on access to tests.”

LA County Department of Health Services director Christina Ghaly said in an interview with LAist that “our obligation first and foremost is to meet the needs of those who need a test before those who want one.” 

Certain areas of LA County, including Pomona, have become “hotspots … suffering disproportionately from COVID-19,” Ghaly added, and are in need of greater testing capacity.

Although LA County remains in stage three of its five-stage reopening process, the Department of Public Health has since rolled back many of the initial reopening provisions included in that stage. Specific guidance from the LA Department of Health for college and universities is now blank with only an “update in progress” message posted. 

The LA Unified and San Diego Unified School Districts announced last week that their students would not return to in-person classes at the beginning of the fall, and the school district in San Francisco, and now Claremont, have followed suit. Under new guidance from Governor Gavin Newsom, school districts located in counties being monitored by the state for COVID-19 spread must not reopen. As of Monday, that includes 33 counties. A county’s school districts may only begin in-person instruction after 14 consecutive days of the county not being on the state monitoring list.

The decisions pose a further challenge to faculty and staff working at California colleges and universities with children in these school districts. If their institutions continue with plans to reopen, many will face the added burden of finding child care.

This article was updated July 21 at 2:30 p.m.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the American Film Institute Conservatory intends to offer exclusively in-person courses. Per a spokesperson, the school plans to offer both in-person and online instruction. TSL regrets this error.
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