Mustang News asked readers what they wanted to know about Cal Poly’s COVID-19 plans for fall quarter. From an interview with President Jeffrey Armstrong and Campus Health and Wellbeing Director Tina Hadaway-Mellis, this is what we learned.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the Mustang News September print issue, available at newsstands around campus.
In spring, closing out a year of back-and-forth with COVID-19 regulations on campus, Cal Poly reinstated a mask mandate for the last three weeks of the quarter.
Now, after a summer with the majority of people away from campus, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong has said the campus community is in an “endemic” and the risk is low enough to return to normal.
Cal Poly decided not to implement pre-arrival testing, a weekly testing requirement for unvaccinated individuals nor a mask mandate for fall quarter. Students will continue to isolate in place if they test positive for COVID-19. The university is scrapping its own creation of a COVID-19 saliva testing lab starting after the first week of fall quarter, now only offering PCR tests in the Health Center for those with symptoms.
About 98% of classes are set to be taught in-person fall quarter compared to about 87% last fall. Through the Americans with Disabilities Act, professors can still request accommodations and teach classes online if it’s not safe for them to do so in person.
Yet the increase of in-person classes gives less control to professors and students over their working environment, according to the faculty union, the California Faculty Association San Luis Obispo Chapter (CFA SLO).
“That leaves very little choice for students to be able to take classes and also for faculty to feel safe in their workspace, especially because Cal Poly is not under a mask mandate,” CFA SLO Chapter President Lisa Kawamura told Mustang News.
Kawamura added that some faculty, including herself, have had difficulty requesting accommodations for teaching online.
The CDC defines endemic as the ongoing presence or prevalence of a disease in a given geographic area, whereas a pandemic is the increase of disease cases across multiple locations affecting large numbers of people.
“There is not a neat definition, a single metric or threshold that defines ‘endemic,’” Armstrong wrote in a follow up email to Mustang News. “We — Cal Poly, our local community, and even the broader state and nation — are moving out of the pandemic phase and into a more stable and predictable phase of our battle with COVID-19.”
Although Armstrong said the community is in an endemic stage and that health experts agree, the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department says we are still in a pandemic.
“While COVID-19 has unfortunately been with us for several years, it is not yet predictable enough to be considered endemic,” County Public Health spokesperson Tara Kennon wrote in an email to Mustang News.
A study published by Yale in July determined that COVID-19 will not be endemic until 2024, based on models of infection with animals.
A CDC senior epidemiologist, Greta Massetti, wrote in an August news release that we are still in a pandemic, but vaccinations and treatments have helped us “move to a point where COVID-19 no longer severely disrupts our daily lives.”
Out of students enrolled in the most recent term, summer quarter, 92.8% of all students are vaccinated, and 90.3% of faculty and staff — both higher than vaccination rates in the county.
Armstrong said “there’s not zero risk in anything we do,” but that risk has gone down recently. Because recent variants are more infectious but less severe, Armstrong said the campus is in a better position than it was when COVID-19 first began.
If there is a change in COVID-19 levels, the university will “revamp” protocols to fit county guidelines as needed, Armstrong said.
One regulation still in place from last year is the self-reported Daily Campus Screener pass, which has previously faced criticism for the lack of accountability and enforcement, as many professors do not check these passes. Armstrong said that not all human behavior can be changed.
Moving to an endemic stage means there is “more responsibility” on the individual, Armstrong said.
“There’s no way that we’re going to have zero cases, there’s no way that we’re going to be able to force individuals to do X, Y and Z, even when we were clearly in a pandemic,” Armstrong said. “So we want to do the best that we can.”
Last school year, 2,000 students were noncompliant with testing on the first day of fall quarter. As the year progressed, less students were completing the Daily Campus Screener, with many professors not checking the screeners in the first place.
“There’s always more we could do, but you have to do what is reasonable and in line with best practices,” Armstrong said.
The university has also stopped publicly tracking positive tests through its campus dashboard, though Armstrong said they track COVID-19 trends internally and will be using this information to help decide which measures to implement. The exact number of cases will not be provided due to a concern of accuracy, not transparency, Armstrong said.
“We don’t think that the dashboard will present a complete or accurate picture of positive cases on campus,” Armstrong said. “Isolation and quarantine numbers will no longer be applicable as both on and off campus residents will isolate in place.”
Campus Health and Wellbeing Director Tina Hadaway-Mellis said the county will have access to the data, and such information can be found via public records requests.
Instead of using a dashboard, Cal Poly will be relying on county and CDC data to inform the decisions that are made regarding public health.
In 2021, Cal Poly developed wastewater testing to detect coronavirus in on-campus housing. This was discontinued during last school year and will not operate this year either.
Armstrong said that each location is different, yielding a different response to fit what is best for each community. Cal Poly aligns with what the CDC and CSU system suggests, he explained.
However, no other CSU has removed their testing programs or coronavirus dashboards at time of publication, similar to the UC system. CSU Fullerton limited testing on campus to those who need it, though still has a dashboard for trends of positivity rates on campus.
The university will work to provide financial support to those who need to purchase an at-home COVID-19 test, Hadaway-Mellis said. Details on how finances will be distributed has not been announced as of time of publication.
The CDC updated their recommendations on Aug. 11, determining that individuals who test positive for COVID-19 can end their quarantine after their fifth day. Those with a weakened immune system are advised to consult a doctor before ending their isolation.
Immunocompromised students at higher risk of coronavirus infection raised concerns when Cal Poly lifted its mask mandate last spring. Mustang News asked Armstrong and Hadaway-Mellis how such students would be supported going into fall quarter.
“We can do our part to keep our mask on if we’re not feeling well,” Hadaway-Mellis said. “We can do our part to, you know, help those in those situations and be mindful that that not all of us are the same.”