California public health officials release college reopening guidance; Mudd ‘cautiously optimistic’ students will return

The California State Capitol. It is a white building with large columns in front and a rotunda. In front of the building are bushes full of flowers
The California Department of Public Health has issued interim guidelines that allow for the reopening of colleges if local conditions allow. (Courtesy: Thomas Toolan, via Wikimedia Commons)

California college and universities may reopen for in-person class if local conditions are met, according to state guidance released Friday by the California Department of Public Health. 

The 34-page document details conditions colleges and universities in the state must meet in order to reopen for in-person instruction. The guidelines, which are interim and may be updated “as new data and practices emerge,” are “intended to help institutions of higher education and their communities plan and prepare to resume in-person instruction when appropriate based on local conditions.”

It is unclear what specific local conditions must be met in order for higher education institutions to open. Higher education, however, is listed as open statewide on California’s COVID-19 website.

Reopening will depend on local conditions, including epidemiological trends, such as new COVID-19 case and hospitalization rates consistently stable or decreasing over at least 14 days, the availability of college and community testing resources, and adequate college preparedness and public health capacity to investigate case outbreaks, according to the guidelines. 

This comes a week after the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health released draft guidelines — subject to change according to state guidance — for the reopening of institutions of higher education.

State guidance potentially affects Harvey Mudd’s reopening plans

Harvey Mudd ‘cautiously optimistic’ that students will return to campus 

Harvey Mudd College announced on July 1 that it would be pursuing a hybrid mode of instruction this fall, pending state and county approval, the state’s newly released guidance may affect those plans.

In an email to students Friday, Harvey Mudd Dean of Students Anna Gonzalez wrote that the CDPH guidance “reaffirmed” administrators’ confidence “in our ongoing plans to bring students back to campus this fall.” 

Gonzalez added that the college does “not believe the state guidance places any obstacles in the way of our opening” beside expected adjustments. 

“While LA County may still weigh in on this matter, we are cautiously optimistic that we will be able to bring back to the campus the students who have already signed up to be in residence for the fall,” Gonzalez said.

She stressed that students should purchase traveler’s insurance before buying airline tickets for travel to Mudd, as “as the pandemic has added a great deal of uncertainty to our lives and activities.” Students will receive a packing list this weekend.

HMC’s reopening plan includes housing some students off campus at the Arrow Vista Village Luxury Apartments to reduce density in on-campus student housing. The college plans to perform contact tracing, but will not test students unless they are symptomatic.

All students on campus are to quarantine for two weeks prior to interacting with others outside of their immediate living quarters. Meals will be delivered to those on a meal plan during the quarantine period.

Of the 849 HMC students enrolled for the fall semester, 553 intend to live on campus in the fall, according to an August 6 Board of Trustees update.

Pomona College, Scripps College, Pitzer College and Claremont McKenna College committed last month to completely online instruction in the fall.

Reopening criteria largely dependent on local conditions

Indoor gatherings are prohibited in counties on California’s monitoring list for three consecutive days, which means that indoor lectures are not permitted in those counties either. However, courses — like labs and studio arts — that take place in “specialized indoor settings” that allow for social distancing are permitted.

Counties not on the watchlist should limit indoor occupancy to 25 percent of the room’s capacity, or 100 people, whichever is fewer, in addition to adhering to local regulations.

Furthermore, local public health officials should be involved in making decisions following the state guidance.

The guidelines note that each institution, along with its students and staff, has different needs. So, it encourages colleges and universities to tailor the guidance to their specific needs, as well as involve students, families and staff in fall planning.

State outlines protocols for protecting health of students and staff

Colleges and universities must establish a COVID-19 prevention plan, with a designated employee for implementing the plan at each part of campus. Students, faculty and staff should be trained on COVID-19 prevention.

Daily health screenings and self-checks for symptoms including fever or chills, cough, shortness of breath, headaches and loss of taste or smell should be done on a daily basis, if possible.

In the case that a student, faculty member or staff member tests positive for COVID-19 and exposes others, colleges and universities should “conduct initial assessments” and “consult with local public health officials to determine potential follow-up actions needed including potential total or partial closure and other measures to protect the community.”

The institution should “identify close contacts” — those within six feet for at least 15 minutes — of the infected individual, and isolate that individual and their close contacts.

Students and employees who have tested positive should only return to work or class after 10 days since the onset of symptoms, if symptoms have improved and they have had no fevers for the last 24 hours.

The guidance also recommends that colleges consider “routine systematic testing” of students, faculty, and staff for COVID-19. However, citing an “equity issue” with limited testing availability, Mudd does not plan to test students or staff unless they present symptoms or come into close contact with an infected individual, according to its website.

Colleges should also have a plan in place for closing classes, groups or buildings if someone associated with that community or building becomes infected, the guidelines say. 

Furthermore, the state recommends students and staff be immunized against influenza to “reduce demands on health care facilities” and “decrease illnesses that cannot be readily distinguished from COVID-19.”

Students and staff must wear face coverings in accordance with June 18 CDPH Guidance on the Use of Face Coverings. Face coverings are required for individuals inside or in line to enter indoor public spaces, employees who might encounter another person at work and those unable to socially distance outside. Employers must provide face coverings or reimbursements for face coverings to employees.

Exceptions include those who are unable to wear face coverings due to medical conditions, mental health conditions and disabilities. Such employees should be provided with an alternative to face coverings, such as face shields with drapes. Lecturers can wear face shields with drapes, if they remain six feet away from others.

Guidelines address dormitory living, dining halls

The state guidance also encourages proper ventilation and the introduction of outdoor air into rooms by opening windows as much as possible. Colleges should install portable room air cleaners with HEPA filters, if possible.

Desks must be six feet apart, and the guidelines encourage outdoor instruction. Study spaces for individual study should have students six feet away from each other and physical barriers if possible, with a maximum occupancy of 25 percent of the room’s normal capacity, or 100 people, whichever is less.

For housing, colleges and universities should prioritize singles when possible. In doubles, beds must be six feet apart, and students should sleep in opposite directions. Institutions should establish isolation areas for on-campus housing.

Grab-and-go meals or individually plated meals should be available. Disposable utensils and dishes should be used in lieu of non-disposable items.

High-touch surfaces like door handles, switches and hand railings should be disinfected frequently, and shared equipment should be limited and disinfected between use. Custodial staff should receive personal protective equipment like gloves, eye protection and respiratory protection.

When possible, employees, especially those who may be more vulnerable to coronavirus, should work virtually, and student organizations should meet virtually.

Nonessential activity and visitors should be limited, while nonessential shared spaces like lounges should be closed. Essential shared spaces should have limits on the number of individuals inside. Social events and activities are not allowed, according to current local and state orders.

The state guidelines included the caveat that they “do not reflect the full scope of issues that institutions of higher education will need to address.”

A focus on collegiate athletics

The guidelines also specified conditions for college athletics to resume. 

Athletic practices may resume if athletes and support staff are regularly tested for COVID-19. Coaches, staff, media and players not engaged in play must wear face coverings.

Colleges must implement certain off-field protections for student athletes, “including the preservation of scholarships and prohibition of requiring players to sign waivers of liability,” according to a CDPH press release

Additionally, high-contact athletics competitions without an audience may take place only if the college can provide COVID-19 tests and results within 72 hours of competitions. Colleges must notify each other of athletes who have tested positive for COVID-19 within 48 hours after competition with each other.

Colleges and universities should also adhere to their college athletic association guidelines.

This article was last updated August 7, 2020 at 6:28 p.m.

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