Jackie Espitia | Mustang News

One week into winter quarter, Cal Poly community members are petitioning for safer COVID-19 policies after what they say is university administration’s mishandling of its worst coronavirus surge yet. 

The petition garnered more than 2,960 signatures in just a few days, including university employees, students, parents, alumni and community members. It cites a main issue as Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong mandating in-person classes after the holiday omicron surge — making Cal Poly the only public university in the state to do so.

Students were required to present a negative COVID-19 test by the end of the first week of the quarter to maintain access to campus facilities. Cal Poly’s faculty union president, Lewis Call, who signed the petition, told Mustang News that this policy allowed students to attend in-person classes before they even knew their test results. 

Now in the second week of the quarter, Call said it will be more difficult to track COVID-19 spread as testing is no longer required for vaccinated students. 

Despite Armstrong telling the campus community in a Jan. 1 email that “Cal Poly will remain one of the safest places and activities you can be a part of throughout next week and all of winter quarter,” 1,089 positive COVID-19 tests were reported in just the first seven days of January, according to Cal Poly’s coronavirus dashboard, the highest surge ever at Cal Poly.

Mustang News heard from over a dozen Cal Poly community members who shared concerns about Cal Poly returning to in-person classes, the university’s isolation protocols and disruptions to the learning experience.

“There’s really been a lot of decision making that should be happening on the top administration level that’s now fallen to individual faculty members to try to figure out on their own and that’s a huge burden,” Academic Senate member and history professor Sarah Bridger said. 

Among the petition’s demands are allowing faculty to choose their course modality for the winter and spring quarters, providing and mandating N95 or KN95 masks on campus and conducting weekly COVID-19 testing for fully vaccinated students during the omicron surge.

In response to the petition, University Spokesperson Matt Lazier said Cal Poly “welcomes thoughts on its policies and procedures and appreciates all perspectives — and it is important to note that there are many differing perspectives.”

Lazier said Cal Poly’s decisions are made by consulting a group of on and off campus health advisers, including San Luis Obispo County Public Health. He notes the university’s pandemic response is subject to change based on the latest public health guidelines and their advisers’ opinions. 

Meanwhile, the coronavirus surge in the county exceeded “beyond the capacity of local contact tracers to keep up,” according to a San Luis Obispo County Public Health press release. 

“I don’t think that Cal Poly in particular is creating that [county] surge. We are not in conflict with what they are doing,” County Public Health Spokesperson Michelle Shoresman said when speaking on behalf of the County.

Faculty forced to address a problem they didn’t create

Public health professor Marilyn Tseng told Mustang News that Cal Poly’s decision to go in-person on Jan. 3 meant university officials trust that transmission within the classroom will be minimal considering a high vaccination rate amongst students and indoor mask-wearing.  

“On the other hand, I think schools are seeing this as a highly, highly transmissible variant, much more so than all the others we’ve seen — people are getting it even if they’re vaccinated,” Tseng said.

Tseng also noted that the university’s reopening policy is like a leaky ship. One notable hole on that ship: putting students in in-person classes without confirming a negative COVID-19 test, Tseng said. 

Tseng, who teaches an epidemiology class at Cal Poly, decided to go online for the first week to accommodate students who tested positive for COVID-19 or waiting to confirm a negative test result.

“There’s really been a lot of decision making that should be happening on the top administration level that’s now fallen to individual faculty members to try to figure out on their own and that’s a huge burden,” Academic Senate member and history professor Sarah Bridger said. 

Biological sciences professor Candace Winstead did the same thing: she pushed her classes online to make sure her students would have an equal learning experience.

“The disruption that’s bound to happen with people getting positive tests and having to isolate is much easier managed in one modality,” Winstead said, whose expertise is in immunology.

An Academic Senate resolution allows faculty to teach a maximum of 25% of an in-person class online during a quarter — but professors have said they’re concerned about backlash from the administration or running out of online class time later in the quarter. Call said he’s hoping the administration decides not to count the first couple weeks of the quarter in the 25%.

Winstead said she doesn’t buy that the university couldn’t have moved online for the first two weeks and mandated testing of students.

“I think that they were in charge of that. They could have made it so that people could be required to test to come back (in-person),” Winstead said. “I feel like they could have chosen to do things differently that would limit the transmission more, and they didn’t.”

On top of testing students before they get in the classroom, Winstead said she would have also preferred N95 masks to be provided and mandated, along with virtual classes for the first two weeks so that students would have more time to get their COVID-19 booster shot.

When winter quarter began, 89% of classes were scheduled to be held in person. 

Call, the faculty union president, conducted a survey and found 61% of Cal Poly faculty scheduled to teach in-person decided to move online during the first week of the quarter. 

The union gathered 514 responses from a survey sent to 1,511 faculty, including staff who didn’t have teaching assignments for the quarter. CFA reported that 6% said they were undecided about switching to online, and 33% said they started in person.

University administration isn’t tracking how many faculty members are starting their courses virtually, Lazier, the university spokesperson, said. 

In November, Cal Poly announced it would drop its testing requirement for students returning from Thanksgiving and winter breaks. 

Instead, Cal Poly’s one testing site at the University Union opened on Sunday, Jan. 2, one day before in-person classes began. The university sent a testing schedule organized by move-in date and last names in order to minimize crowded lines, however the university was not able to confirm whether students followed this schedule. 

Some University of California and California State University campuses first announced a temporary switch to online over winter break. They continue to push back their in-person start date. Meanwhile, Armstrong has sent several emails since winter break insisting on the safety of in-person classes. 

While Cal Poly says their refusal to go online until testing is completed is a way to preserve the “Learn by Doing” educational experience, their plan has instead caused an immense disruption to classes. Bridger said the Learn by Doing motto is not a compelling argument in these circumstances — especially when Cal Poly Pomona advertises the same motto yet has implemented stricter public health guidelines throughout the pandemic. 

“I think we should be very wary of using that as an excuse to justify policies — that can be kind of reckless,” Bridger said. “I don’t like the idea that we are somehow unique.”

How Cal Poly’s reopening harmed students’ experiences

Sociology freshman Taylor Brandenburg was fully prepared and excited to go back in person. Then, she got tested before moving back to campus for winter quarter.

“We thought it would be a good idea and would be respectful going back to Cal Poly even if it wasn’t required,” Brandenburg said.

All five people in her house, including her, tested positive. 

Armstrong emailed students on Saturday that they should not return to campus until at least 10 days have passed since testing positive, symptoms are resolving and when they have a negative test result. 

Her professors were understanding and provided pre-recorded lectures or hosted online classes for students exposed to COVID-19.

“Two out of three of the friends that I told said, ‘Oh, everybody here has COVID anyways, just come back to campus,’” Brandenburg said. “So I think that attitude kind of really put me off to being back in person just because I feel as if I’m caring a little more than my peers are.”

Now, Brandenburg is trying to get a booster shot at home in San Jose, which is challenging due to the high demand for appointments. 

“I was kind of relying on Cal Poly to give that to me,” Brandenburg said. “But to be completely honest, I don’t feel super comfortable being on campus until I know that the students who will be in in-person classes with me have all tested negative.”

Biology freshman Elisa Delgado is isolating with sociology freshman Carly Davis along with six other girls in a four-bedroom apartment on the sixth floor of Cerro Vista’s Morro building. 

Delgado found out she was positive for COVID-19 two days after she completed her saliva test on-campus. In the time it took for her test to be processed and to hear back from isolation personnel, Delgado had attended one in-person class.

Davis also attended in-person class between saliva testing and being notified of a positive test by isolation staff. 

“We just know we kind of like exposed people in in-person classes so it would have made a little bit more sense to be online the first week,” Davis said. 

Davis and Delgado are both having trouble keeping up with classes after being relocated to isolate. 

One of Davis’ classes has remained in-person and she said her professor does not let students Zoom into class and does not post lectures online. 

“I definitely am worried about falling behind,” Davis said. “Just being here and not being able to be there.”

Delgado said ever since she relocated for isolation, it has been very difficult to focus on classes. While she does have one professor who has not accommodated her situation, she said that’s not all professors.

“It’s definitely stressful, but I think most teachers are trying to work with us students that have been exposed or that have to isolate,” Delgado said.

Editor’s Note: An attribution to a community petition was added to the lede of this story. 

Correction: This article was updated to correct County Public Health Spokesperson Michelle Shoresman’s title.

This story comes from The Hill, a team of data analysts and reporters focused on data-driven and investigative stories at Mustang News. Click here to read more stories from The Hill.

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