LA County will restrict colleges and universities from fully reopening

The sun sets over a grassy field with a paved path next to it. There are trees on either side of the field.
LA County’s announcement on Wednesday may affect Harvey Mudd College’s plans to bring students back to campus. (Michelle Lum • The Student Life)

Colleges and universities in Los Angeles County cannot fully reopen “in the near term,” the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health announced Wednesday. Institutions of higher education may only provide housing to students with no alternatives and must offer most instruction remotely.

“The very nature of the way that colleges and universities operate creates a significant risk of outbreaks of COVID-19 among students, faculty and staff. And these risks extend beyond the campus into the broader community,” LADPH Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer said during a press conference.

The advisory may affect Harvey Mudd College’s reopening plans, as HMC is the only 5C still planning for a hybrid fall semester. A Harvey Mudd spokesperson did not immediately respond to request from TSL for comment.

In an email Wednesday to Harvey Mudd students, faculty and staff, Dean of Students Anna Gonzalez wrote, “Like many of you, we have a number of questions about what this might mean for Harvey Mudd College and for our previously announced plans for fall semester.” 

According to Gonzalez’s email, Mudd officials believe the college’s plans for reopening meet current state and county guidance.

Mudd administrators are planning to meet with LADPH on Friday, Aug. 14, to “find out if, how and when we might be able to open our residence halls for students this fall.”

Harvey Mudd previously announced it would house some students in residential halls and others off campus at the Arrow Vista Village Luxury Apartments in order to reduce the density of student housing.

But that plan may be in jeopardy after LADPH’s latest announcement. 

“Colleges and universities should limit their on-campus student residency to only providing housing for students who have no alternative housing options,” an LA County press release said.

Mudd abruptly postponed its Inside Mudd webinar on health and wellness plans for the fall after the county’s announcement on Wednesday.

“We will be rescheduling the webinar for a later date after this Friday and will send an announcement sometime next week with information,” Gonzalez told families in a Wednesday afternoon email.

LA County also released new draft guidelines for the reopening of higher education on Wednesday.

According to the county’s draft guidance, colleges and universities will be allowed to continue essential operations, but most instruction must be done through distance learning. In-person training and instruction will be allowed only for students who “are or will become part of the essential workforce,” and for required activities which can’t be done virtually — mostly labs and practicums, Ferrer said in the press conference.

The county’s interim guidance also restricts on-campus housing to one student per bedroom, in addition to limiting college housing to those without any other options.

Furthermore, “on-campus events remain prohibited with the exception of events related to constitutionally protected freedoms such as public protests and in-person faith-based services conducted by places of worship,” according to the county guidelines.

County health officials cited high transmission rates of coronavirus, “driven, in part, by younger people between 18 to 30 years old who currently account for 25% to 30% of new infections” as reasoning behind the restrictions on higher education.

“I know that our decision to delay fully reopening colleges and universities is disheartening news for our students who were looking forward to life on campus,” Ferrer said. “But this postponement means that we will continue to slow the spread of COVID-19 and get to the point where we can return to campus when rates of community transmission are lower.”

HMC previously announced that, if allowed, it would hold contactless move-in days over the course of four days before classes begin on August 24, as well as “socially-distanced, in-person experiences” as part of orientation, according to an Aug. 6 Board of Trustees update.

Of the 849 HMC students enrolled for the fall semester, 553 intend to live in college housing, according to the trustee update.

If students return, all on-campus students will be required to quarantine for two weeks prior to interacting with others outside of their immediate living quarters. During the quarantine period, meals will be delivered to those on a meal plan. HMC said that it plans to perform contact tracing, but not to test students unless they are symptomatic.

Mudd announced to staff on Aug. 3 that it must furlough some employees and reduce the hours of others if students are unable to return to campus in the fall.

Citing a budget shortfall of $12.3 million if students cannot return, Assistant Vice President for Human Resources Dana Nagengast said that the college would be unable to “meet this shortfall with operating budget cuts alone, since approximately 63 percent of the budget consists of salaries and benefits.”

Although Mudd has asked for volunteers willing to have their hours reduced or to be furloughed, the college may furlough more employees or reduce the hours of other employees as needed.

LA County has seen more than 214,000 COVID-19 cases and 5,000 deaths to date, according to the press release. The county currently has a 10 percent test positivity rate.

California recently resolved data issues that may have resulted in undercounting of coronavirus cases across the state. Wednesday’s LA County press release stated that state Electronic Laboratory Reporting problems have affected COVID-19 case numbers and contact tracing efforts.

Christopher Murdy contributed reporting. 

This article was last updated August 12, 2020 at 7:00 p.m.

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