Cal Poly is housing more students than any other Cal State with about 4,500 students living on campus this month, according to a Mustang News review of university housing plans within the California State University (CSU) system.

While every Cal State varies in the maximum number of students they can have living on campus, Cal Poly is also using more of its total housing capacity — 57.4% — than any other Cal State.

Cal Poly allowing thousands of students on campus amid the coronavirus pandemic has drawn scrutiny from the campus community. A group of faculty members penned a December letter to Cal Poly’s administration — which now has over 300 signatures from parents, faculty, staff, students and alumni — calling on Cal Poly to delay in-person instruction, de-densify on-campus housing and guarantee biweekly testing to students.

Having a much smaller number of students on campus would lower the risk of transmission within the Cal Poly community, said Candace Winstead, a biological sciences professor at Cal Poly whose research focuses on public health disease prevention. Winstead is also one of the executive writers of the December letter to the Cal Poly administration.

College towns like San Luis Obispo have seen spikes in the 18 to 29-year-old age category that will then spread into older folks who have a much higher risk of severe disease, Winstead said.

“So just because you don’t have any current college students hospitalized doesn’t mean that their contribution hasn’t been to the hospitalizations,” Winstead said.

Cal Poly’s housing plans dwarf the rest of the Cal State system

The CSU comprises 23 universities across California — 18 of which are housing less than 600 students on campus starting in January. Only two CSUs — Cal Poly and San Diego State University — are housing students on campus in the thousands.

Cal Poly’s normal housing capacity of 7,839 students is similar to San Diego State University’s of 7,500 students. However, Cal Poly is housing 2.5 times more students on campus than San Diego State.

Cal Poly Pomona, the only other polytechnic university in the CSU, is also dwarfed by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with just 240 students living on campus during its spring semester.

On top of using more of its total housing capacity than any other Cal State, Cal Poly is also one of only two CSUs that are currently housing more than 55% of its total housing capacity.

Of the 23 Cal States, 20 are using less than 25% of their total housing capacity.

To live on campus at Cal Poly, each student pays University Housing between $8,000 and $12,000 a year, according to university housing contracts on the Cal Poly website.

During the fall 2020 quarter, University Housing accrued $13.3 million in revenue after housing approximately 4,200 students on campus, Cal Poly spokesperson Matt Lazier confirmed over email.

Also during the fall quarter, Mustang News reported a November spike in students testing positive for the coronavirus during the weeks following Halloween, mirroring a trend seen at the county level.

The 18 to 29-year-old age range is the second largest age demographic infected with COVID-19 in SLO County, comprising 29% of all its cases, according to the San Luis Obispo County Department of Public Health. From October until the new year, the 18 to 29-year-old age category had more positive tests than any other age demographic.

While Cal Poly is in consultation with SLO County Public Health regarding its university housing procedures and received approval from the CSU Chancellor’s Office in December, former Chancellor Timothy White and Chancellor Joseph Castro wrote a December memo to all 23 CSU presidents which included a recommendation that they delay in-person instruction to late January or February to mitigate potential COVID-19 spread.

“The guidance was provided to campuses to help limit interactions and reduce the number of people on a given campus at a given time,” CSU Chancellor’s Office spokesperson Mike Uhlenkamp wrote to Mustang News.

Cal Poly has not delayed in-person classes and students who planned to live on campus moved in by Saturday, Jan. 9.

One Cal State that has taken on-campus housing precautions even further than the recommendation by the CSU Chancellor’s Office is Humboldt State University — where the spring semester starts in January but students will move on campus in February and in-person instruction will start in March.

Officials at Humboldt State University were already strongly considering postponing move-in and in-person classes before receiving the Chancellor’s Office recommendation because of Humboldt County’s fragile health care system and limited ICU bed availability, said Kristina Koczera, Humboldt State’s interim director of Risk Management and Safety Services.

“We recognized we’re going to continue to see a [COVID-19] spike until late January, early February-ish,” Koczera told Mustang News. “So we wanted to put as much time for that downhill trajectory of numbers statewide before we start to attempt face to face instruction.”

That approach was to prevent overwhelming ICU beds in the county, Koczera added.

Since the fall, Humboldt State University had 54 cases among its campus community after housing 800 students on campus and delaying move-in and in-person instruction back in August as well.

It’s easy to gather in the apartments

As the winter quarter progresses, concerns remain over some students on campus continuing to congregate despite COVID-19 safety guidelines. Housing arrangements comprise single-occupancy apartments and residential dorms at Cal Poly’s eight residential communities.

In a university-wide email, President Armstrong wrote how students in Poly Canyon Village continued to hold social gatherings, noting how it was one of three factors that led to an increase in infections of Cal Poly students in November.

Two-thirds of the 30 alcohol violations cited during the fall quarter occurred at the Cerro Vista Apartments and Poly Canyon Village, according to Cal Poly Police Department activity logs. Mustang News talked with Cal Poly RAs, who are being kept anonymous since they could face repercussions for speaking with Mustang News.

“I’m not at all shocked that’s what the numbers looked like,” one RA told Mustang News in regards to the volume of gatherings in Cerro Vista and Poly Canyon Village. “I think the main reason would be how much easier it is to gather [in the apartments]. You can have more people in a room and there’s a lot of space outside.”

RAs confirmed how they’ve had to address alcohol violations and social gatherings. With the way things are on campus, the university makes it easy to get away with having low-key gatherings, one RA said.

“I think the amount of students that came back reduced the perceived danger a lot of students may have had around gathering,” one RA said. “Being back at school with a lot of people and having a mindset of, ‘if it’s safe to come back to school, why isn’t it safe to gather,’ really contributed.”

Continued concerns over transparency

Another concern that continues to surface among faculty and students revolves around Cal Poly being transparent with the campus community about COVID-19.

One week after President Armstrong’s email in November about increased COVID-19 infections among students, Cal Poly surpassed its on-campus isolation and quarantine bed capacity and had to isolate students off campus at the Lamplighter Inn, as reported by Mustang News in November.

However, Cal Poly’s COVID-19 dashboard didn’t reflect this as the university indicated it had at least 103 isolation and quarantine beds available for students who tested positive for the coronavirus.

Cal Poly spokesperson Matt Lazier clarified in an email to Mustang News that COVID-19 at Cal Poly has been a fluid situation and “there are times when the number of students in isolation might not match up to the number of available beds.”

Instances of data lags or the cleaning of rooms for isolation and quarantine can lead to the mismatch, Lazier said.

Missing information from the dashboard concerns some faculty, including history professor Sarah Bridger.

For example, Cal Poly does not display how many coronavirus cases detected on campus over time. Tracking cases over time helps the public understand trends — like whether there’s a spike, drop or no change in the number of daily-reported COVID-19 cases, Bridger said.

“That chart that tells the narrative of what’s happening should be provided by Cal Poly,” Bridger said. “There is no way for somebody to know that information, to know those trends unless they’ve literally taken a screenshot of every daily dashboard.”

Typically displayed via a line graph, that information is commonly found on county public health department websites across California including SLO County.

“That’s all useful [data] in terms of guiding future policy,” Bridger said. “If there’s a huge, steep outbreak that suggests that whatever the existing policy is isn’t sufficient and maybe some change should be made.”

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

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