Prior to the pandemic, attending class was already a fairly stressful task for students. Running across campus between courses in order to arrive in a timely manner, all while dodging an assortment of cars, bikes, and scooters, proves to be a surprisingly daunting challenge. However, this year has seen the addition of a far more significant stressor: the looming threat of COVID-19. The pandemic itself has caused quite a bit of concern and apprehension among the UC San Diego community since the majority of the student body has returned to campus to attend normal-sized classes, sans social distancing, for the 2021–22 academic year. While UCSD has carefully implemented various preventative procedures that coincide with San Diego County COVID guidelines, there is an unfortunate lack of communication between the campus and the student body regarding these programs and policies. In addition, large class sizes and an overwhelming amount of students on campus make enforcement another point of tension.
Currently, UCSD has a multitude of different web pages and a profuse amount of lengthy emails outlining COVID-19 policies in extensive detail. The Return to Learn website also showcases different resources and links ranging from testing options to a FAQ section. This abundance of public information is a responsible choice on UCSD’s part. It creates what seems to be the perfect image of a competent and authoritative university, and this regurgitation of regulations is not the issue. Rather, the problem lies with an overall unsuccessful dissemination of this information to students and staff.
As I started interviewing students around campus about COVID-19 precautions and policies, it became obvious that many people are blatantly uninformed, misinformed, or learning through unofficial sources. This pattern was especially prevalent among students who did not attend classes in-person during the 2020–21 school year or live on campus. For example, take the Symptom Screener. This mandatory daily questionnaire is delivered via email to UCSD students, staff, and employees who work or study on campus. However, many students were unfamiliar with this requirement during the first couple weeks of class. Only one of my four classes mentioned the screener after my professor voiced concern over what she noticed was an unnerving absence of awareness surrounding this protocol.
The campus has no issues with reporting information, but, oftentimes, students and staff have to actively seek out details on their own time since there is a lack of direct communication about need-to-know information. However, the search for an answer can feel like looking for a needle in a haystack, which I quickly learned while trying to find information for this article.
Wilson Do, senior, shared a similar sentiment.
“I honestly think that UCSD doesn’t communicate policies that well. For example, I recently just learned from a friend that we’re supposed to get tested every week for the first four weeks. I didn’t know about that because the email was sent to our UCSD email but there are so many different emails sent that you don’t know which ones are most important. I feel like they have to really emphasize which ones are important when they enact policies,” Do said.
During the interviews I conducted, other students had statements regarding UCSD’s communication that resembled Do’s thoughts.
Freshman Hannah Erlandson said, “The other day, I saw on an Instagram post something about the [daily survey]. I looked it up, but I wasn’t sure where to find it. I don’t think it was super clear. I remember hearing about the green checkmark or thumb in a Town Hall meeting, but nothing official from the campus.”
UCSD could easily address this communication issue by labeling certain emails as urgent and clearly defining necessary protocols and expectations for students separately from non-urgent information.
Ideally, this process would have taken place prior to the start of Fall Quarter 2021, but it did not. The issue has also been exacerbated by the campus’s failure to enforce regulations. On the Return to Learn website, it states, “All undergraduate and graduate students living on campus or coming to campus or any UC location or property for educational, research, co-curricular, recreational or social activities, regardless of vaccination status, must conduct daily symptom and exposure screening.” However, there are no enforcement policies for students who continually fail to submit their exposure screening questionnaire before reporting to campus. The system also tends to award a green thumb, anointing testing compliance to vaccinated students, regardless of if they are actually undergoing weekly testing. Again, UCSD has developed an adequate program to monitor students that demonstrates an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19, but they are struggling to effectively carry it out.
Currently, enforcement responsibilities seem to lie primarily with professors and instructor assistants, which proves to be especially challenging with class sizes that can range up to nearly 200 students. Senior Rahulsharma Nemmani said, “When I go to one of the classes I’m a tutor for, a bunch of people come in there. It’s pretty hard to see everyone’s faces and check if everyone is [consistently] wearing their masks or not. It’s pretty challenging.” While members of the UCSD staff certainly have a role to play in maintaining a COVID-free campus, the responsibility of enforcement should not fall into their laps. Rather, it should be properly carried out by the university itself with adequate and appropriate means, possibly through the Office of Student Conduct.
Furthermore, the requirement of weekly testing seems to be falling short. According to the UCSD COVID-19 Daily Dashboard, there are a total of 42,173 students living either on or off campus. With 77 percent of classes being held in person, this translates to about 32,473 students coming to campus. Using these numbers, it is reasonable to say that about 4,639 students should be getting tested per day in order to comply with the campus mandate. The average number of students that have been testing each day since the beginning of Fall Quarter 2021 is about 2,804, meaning there are most likely a number of students who are not complying with weekly testing since the largest number of students per day never rises over 4,121 to compensate for the days where testing is on the lower side.
It is encouraging to see that UCSD has taken the time and effort to come up with extensive policies and innovative ideas, such as the COVID test vending machines; but, in a global pandemic, all it takes is one mistake to cause a massive outbreak. Luckily, only 75 students have received a positive test result since the beginning of the Fall quarter, but this number could change for the worse at any moment, especially as COVID-19 protocols become less of a priority. Ultimately, hosting classes in person is a dangerous gamble and the university should be mindful of implementing better communication and enforcement of policies in order to drastically reduce the chances of an outbreak on campus as the academic year progresses.
Art by Nicholas Regli for the UCSD Guardian.