As the pandemic strings along, the wheels of the California State University (CSU) keep on turning. With thousands of people enrolled in classes all across the golden state, virtually every county inside of it has affected students, each of them wondering what is next to come of their learning experience.
Back in December the CSU announced Fall 2021 is anticipated to be held in-person, but details on safety rules and regulations for the return were still undeclared. To answer questions regarding specific processes for students who will attend CSU’s in the fall, CSU Chancellor Joseph Castro held a press conference on Feb. 8, answering student inquiries to the best of his ability.
The reign of COVID-19 points to an uncertain future. Depending on the number of cases or available vaccines, safety measures can fluctuate at any time. This is no different for the CSU system, Castro explaining all current plans are based on the most recent information provided by health officials, such as long-term physician Dr. Fauci. This means there were no absolutes discussed during the press conference, aside from Castro’s commitment to helping students and staff live as healthily as possible.
“First and foremost – and I think most appropriate – is to ensure the health and safety of all of our students, faculty, staff and communities, and continue to focus on ways in which we can do that and support your continued success in meeting your educational goals,” said Castro at the start of the conference. “Our plan to continue that commitment (of hosting in-person class in Fall 2021) and plan to have a majority of courses in-person in the fall if health conditions allow for that.”
He continued to note the return to campus will vary across each university in the CSU system and will be constructed according to a university’s local safety measures. It is a possibility each of the 23 campuses may have a different approach to the return.
Castro also assured if the return becomes infeasible in the future because it cannot coincide with the COVID-19 precautions of that time, he will communicate that change to students and employees. As for now, the return is scheduled for fall and Castro has heard from Dr. Fauci that “it’s appropriate to plan in this way.”
Equipped with large parking lots or open spaces, several campuses are fit to work as mass drive-through vaccination sites, Castro noting that 13 of the CSU’s are already welcoming frontline health workers to receive their first round of the mRNA vaccine. He anticipates this trend will extend to more universities within the system.
It was clear that Castro would like to make the vaccine as accessible as possible for all CSU students and employees, but did not state whether having a vaccine will be required or not when folks head back to campus in September.
“The focus right now for the CSU is to get as many vaccines as possible in our communities and to inspire our students, faculty and staff to get the opportunity to get vaccinated,” he said.
The chancellor said he’d like to work with the University of California system and California community colleges on a marketing campaign to influence folks to do so. He acknowledged that some members of the CSU community might not choose to receive a vaccine and said he is “going to respect that,” still obtaining the main goal being to “inspire participation.”
Aside from vaccines, Castro anticipates there will be social distancing and safety equipment precautions – such as mask-wearing – during in-person classes across the 23 CSU’s. He said each CSU will continue to adhere to their county’s health recommendations.
Another element of returning to campus during a pandemic is that not everyone may want to come back to the fairly-populated environment. If students or employees live with at-risk family members or simply are not comfortable jumping back into society, in-person classes could be daunting. Castro clarified individuals taking those precautions will not be reprimanded or forced to step foot on campus:
“I know that each campus is going to accommodate that interest (of staying back home.)” he said. “It’s a time to be flexible and reasonable and compassionate, and that’s how we’ll process in the fall as well.”
Another large organism in the university ecosystem is student housing. Usually, there are thousands of students residing on each CSU campus, but it is unclear that this will be the case in Fall 2021. Housing regulations, like all CSU return plans, will be based on local health concerns, meaning the system as a whole doesn’t have a single, set plan for housing arrangements.
“It’s going to depend on how the local circumstances are … each campus is going to look at the environment in which they’re working and make determinations about [housing] and do our best to keep people safe,” Castro said. “I think that we’re going to be very thoughtful about our consultation with county public health directors and their experts there as well as with the campus community before making those decisions.”
The same process of decision-making goes for CSU sports teams and clubs, with all choices on athletics participation depending on the chancellor’s conferences with each university in the system. Centralized on local health concerns, individual CSU’s will converse with Castro and other CSU officials to finalize sports precautions in the upcoming future.
Despite much of the framework for the Fall 2021 return relying on county health information, Castro anticipates at least 50% of CSU classes will be held in-person at that time. Hybrid courses will be available and more online courses will be offered in Fall 2021 than in the years before the hit of COVID-19.
Along with much discussion on the pandemic’s coexistence within the CSU system, Castro also spoke on the CSU’s ambition to fulfill it’s 2025 graduation initiative, also known as GI2025.
Castro described GI2025 as an “ambitious and bold” plan to enrich the CSU system in the next few years, which hopes to raise graduation rates by offering better resources to students. Within the plan, his main focus is to address equity and diversity concerns across the CSU to create a better environment for the entire CSU community.
To “eliminate” the “very stubborn” equity gaps that target underrepresented students, Castro said the CSU will “look at the ways that [it has] been successful already and to try to identify additional strategies that will help us to meet our graduation rate goals and to close those equity gaps, also noting he “anticipates [the CSU] will do its work quickly.”
Making GI2025 come to life requires additional state and federal funding. Castro said the CSU is “aggressively” advocating for general grants and relief funds and hopes to restore the $299 million in government funding that was cut last year by asking government officials for $365 million to fund GI2025.
“It’s a bold request and I am cautiously optimistic that we’re going to be able to inspire our legislative leaders and government to fund it,” said Castro. “We’ve received a lot of support so far, and we’re going to need to continue to be very aggressive to make our case.”