COVID-19 creates an uncertain future for the CSU

California State University (CSU) Chancellor Joseph I. Castro has repeatedly stated that all CSU campuses will return to in person classes for the Fall 2021 semester. Although this is a possibility, it’s unlikely CSU students will return to ‘normal’ university life if the return to campuses becomes a reality.

As plans for the return to campus involve a large group of people to flock into one area, many have questions regarding COVID-19 regulations, including vaccination requirements and social distancing protocols. California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) President Eduardo Ochoa sent a campus-wide email stating vaccinations in the Chancellor’s Senior Leadership Council, which included all CSU presidents, are a “topic of active conversation” on Jan. 29. 

Ochoa’s email also stated repopulating CSUMB will heavily rely on the “near-universal” vaccinating of students and employees which “presupposes widespread community vaccination,” but the means of obtaining this goal are currently unknown. Because there is a  limited supply of the mRNA vaccine, there are currently no specific steps to vaccinate students and staff when repopulating campus. 

Ochoa also said the idea to vaccinate all individuals returning to campus in the fall “faces considerable hurdles and seems unlikely at this point” in the same email. In other words, for CSUMB to have a safe return, vaccinations would need to be bulked up significantly. 

Ochoa addressed that even though vaccines and herd immunity will play a big part in determining CSUMB’s return to campus, students and employees will still be required to wear masks in the classroom. 

“The estimates of medical experts like Dr. Fauci anticipate that with general availability of COVID vaccines by April, herd immunity could be achieved by ‘the end of the summer,’” said Ochoa in the same email. “Although this would allow for indoor gatherings like face-to-face instruction, it is anticipated that safety measures will remain necessary for a longer period of time, including wearing masks and social distancing.” 

Currently, the Monterey County vaccination distribution plan is in its beginning phase of Phase 1B, Tier 1, subcategory 1, where vaccinations are available to people aged 75 and over. CSUMB employees are included in the same tier in subcategory 3 for the vaccination as frontline educational workers. 

According to President Ochoa, “The County has collected information on the total number, headcount, of CSUMB employees as they prepare to vaccinate us. We do not yet have specific dates or sites, but we should hear shortly.”

As experts like Dr. Fauci anticipate that COVID-19 vaccines could be ready for the general public as soon as April and herd immunity can be achieved by summer, ideally CSUMB will be back to in-person instruction in fall, but before students become excited about reuniting with campus pals, President Ochoa did raise two cautionary issues for the fall semester.  

First, the end of the summer semester is technically Sept. 20, whereas CSUMB’s fall semester starts in late August. Therefore, Ochoa said starting the fall semester virtually and delaying the return-to-campus until “several weeks after” is a possibility.  

Second, it is not yet clear whether social distancing will be required in classroom settings, along with mask wearing. If social distancing is required at that time, campus will be operated at campus at a “considerably reduced capacity” where large classrooms are used to distance members of small classes and large classes will only be held virtually. Additionally, residence halls would have “rationed” access to obtain a reduced capacity. 

The outlook for CSUMB’s return is still highly conditional, where the plans for return will be based on obtaining vaccinations and waiting for proper health advice from officials. Regardless of the steps for return, the future lifestyle of CSUMB is not going to look the same as it was before the shelter-in-place started in Spring 2020. 

CSUMB has gained much insight on health protocols from working with the Monterey County Health Department. Public Information Officer of the department Karen Smith said the school has been in contact with the Monterey County Health Department for over a decade, to ensure they have proper safety information for all health concerns.

“CSUMB is a great partner … that makes a big difference when responding to a pandemic or an outbreak,” she said.

The department partnered with CSUMB in early January to open a drive-through vaccination site for essential healthcare workers. Because of their current work together, Smith said she “suspects” the Monterey County Health Department has been in touch with CSUMB about the return to school in fall and “can’t imagine that they haven’t had conversations” on the details of in-person modality. She also said when the time comes and the county is in phase 1C, it’s “a possibility” that the drive-through site in lot 59 will be open to students and staff, depending on the future of the county’s vaccine supply. 

Another key component of the return to in-person modality in fall is feeding students. Back in July CSUMB laid off their main food carrier, A’viands. A’viands was CSUMB’s food provider at the Dining Commons, Otter Express and Montes. Due to the high possibility of returning back to campus there is a need for the university to find a new food provider.

CSUMB’S Public Information Officer Walter Ryce explained in October 2020 the University Corporation conducted a solicitation process to choose the next campus dining services contract with the Dining Services Review Committee, which consisted of students and staff. The committee created a contract proposal for possible partnering companies. Three companies responded to the committee’s proposal.

“The Committee recommended that the University Corporation negotiate a contract with Chartwells to provide dining services for the campus,” said Ryce. “The negotiations are currently in process. A’viands did not respond to the proposal request.” 

A big supporter of CSUMB student nutrition and overall health and stability is the Basic Needs Program. Care Manager of the program Joanna Snawder-Manzo said Basic Needs faced hardships when A’viands was laid off five months back. 

Losing A’viands  “impacted us because we had three big programs: Feed Each Otter, Otter Eats and our Starbucks program were all partnerships,” said Snawder-Manzo, but the good news is that “Chartwells has expressed that the company did demonstrate a willingness and enthusiasm to partner with basic needs on several initiatives, including meal swipe donations and texting for leftover catering.” 

An additional component of returning to campus relates to details on housing assignments for students and employees. It is unknown whether all housing areas will open or if students will be allowed to have roommates.

“We do not yet have information regarding Fall 2021,” said Coordinator of Housing Operations Robyn DoCanto. “Once we see announcements from the university, our timeline will follow the university’s guidance.” 

On the bright side of things, Chancellor Castro spoke of Governor Gavin Newsom’s attention to the CSU system at last week’s CSU Board of Trustees meeting. Castro expressed his gratitude to Newsom for reinvesting in the CSU system and said the CSU “will not raise tuition for the academic year 2021-2022.”

“If our assumptions for state and federal support hold, I will not support a system-wide furlough program” said Castro. He later went on to say that we will do as much as he can to avoid lay-offs of permanent CSU staffers/faculty due to lack of funding.

Although the CSU is overseeing several difficult decisions to ensure a safe return to campuses, CSUMB students may find a silver lining in the various conversations being held throughout the university and CSU system, all focusing on ways to make a comeback to campus a possibility. 

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