According to a Jan. 11 press statement from the Office of the President, the University of California plans to return to primarily in-person instruction across its 10 campuses beginning Fall 2021.
The press release cited rigorous research advancements and the pending availability of COVID-19 vaccines as reasons to begin planning for in-person instruction in the fall, while still closely monitoring the health and well-being of the UC community.
“As the University continues to monitor the evolution of the pandemic, we are also carefully planning a safe return to in-person classes,” President Michael V. Drake M.D. said in the press release. “Current forecasts give us hope that in the fall our students can enjoy a more normal on-campus experience.”
The news came in spite of the recent spikes of COVID-19 cases nationwide, particularly in Southern California, which includes San Diego County, where a regional stay-at-home order is still in place as ordered by Governor Gavin Newsom. The order has been in effect since Dec. 6, 2020, and was extended on Dec. 29, 2020 as the region’s ICU capacity remains at zero percent.
The regional stay-at-home order will only be lifted if the region’s ICU capacity is at or over 15 percent. As of Jan. 23, the four-week projection for the Southern California Region does not meet the threshold.
In an interview with The UCSD Guardian, Professor Robert Schooley M.D., an infectious diseases expert and one of the leaders of the Return to Learn program, said that UC San Diego will continue to base reopening policies on science in order to be an effective institution. When asked about possible mask mandates and social distancing guidelines in Fall 2021, Schooley highlighted the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We’re looking at the impact of the vaccine and whether people continue to shed the virus. We know that some people do, we don’t yet know whether or not there’s enough virus to be concerned about in terms of transmitting it to other people. The vaccine is most effective in preventing disease; people from getting sick, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Schooley said. “We don’t know as much as we need to know about whether it also prevents viral shedding and transmission, but we’ll know that soon.”
As the information on the transmission of the virus amongst vaccinated individuals is still unclear, individuals are still recommended to continue wearing masks and social distancing.
As of Jan. 23, only healthcare workers are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, in accordance with the guidelines provided by the California Department of Public Health in Phase 1A. According to Schooley, UCSD is expected to enter Phase 1B next week and start vaccinating individuals age 65 and older.
In a statement from the Office of the Chancellor, assuming sufficient vaccine allocations from state and/or local partners for Phase 1B, UCSD’s initial focus will be to vaccinate essential on-site university employees and high-risk patients of UC San Diego Health who also meet the Phase 1B criteria.
Additionally, Schooley indicated that there is a high likelihood that students will be eligible for vaccination by Fall 2021. This is due to the pending approval by the Food and Drug Administration of two other COVID-19 vaccines in the next two months. Following the approval, there will be a major influx of new vaccine supplies that will allow for vaccination of the majority of the population.
“We’re right now laboring what’s kind of a left-over chaos from the Trump administration, which developed a plan which was not really a plan, and they haven’t sent us enough vaccines to keep up with our capacity to give it,” Schooley said. “By the time we get back into the fall and school, we should be pretty well-vaccinated up, unless there’s some surprise in how these vaccines work, how well they work, or if there is a glitch in the production of the vaccines we have now.”
Schooley also added that there is a possibility the COVID-19 vaccine will be added to the immunization requirements for future students.
When asked about her thoughts on the Fall 2021 campus reopening plan, Victoria Corpuz, a John Muir College sophomore majoring in structural engineering, expressed surprise at the early decision.
“It confuses me that they’re able to say that yet, considering we’re still not really in the clear with COVID, but I’m all for it if it’s safe enough,” Corpuz said. “I just don’t know if it’s an accurate prediction that they can make. I miss going to class, I miss walking around campus for sure, but I do have to say that online class has been easier.”
For more information and resources on UCSD’s COVID-19 response, visit the Return to Learn program website. The website features a daily dashboard with statistics for COVID-19 tests and cases for students both on and off campus.
Photo courtesy of Hazel Leung for The UCSD Guardian.