Kate Karson | Mustang News Credit: Kate Karson | Mustang News

When Cal Poly reopens this month for another school year amidst a pandemic, the campus will be operating near normal, administrators have said for months.

University housing will be at maximum capacity — with about 8,000 students living on campus — and 87% of all classes will be held in-person, Cal Poly Spokesperson Matt Lazier wrote to Mustang News via email.

Of the 22,257 students at Cal Poly this fall, 21,354 students are enrolled in at least one in-person class — about 95% of all those enrolled.

The details surrounding reopening concern kinesiology junior Regina Hockert, who will be returning to campus in person this month. Hockert is immunocompromised, placing them in one of a number of vulnerable populations disproportionately harmed by COVID-19.

“On one hand, I do very much miss in-person learning,” Hockert said. “But there’s definitely a very large part of me that is concerned and scared for it.”

As the fall quarter nears, it’s unclear how or to what scale Cal Poly’s reopening will impact COVID-19 cases in San Luis Obispo County.

When K-12 school districts reopened in August in the midst of COVID-19 cases surging in San Luis Obispo County, more kids contracted the virus than ever before in the pandemic, according to San Luis Obispo County Public Health data.

Countywide, 581 kids under the age of 18 tested positive for the coronavirus in the month of August — the largest monthly case total for the age group during the entire pandemic. The second-largest monthly total was amid the winter surge of COVID-19 cases in January, when 548 kids under 18 tested positive for the virus.

In August, 856 people in the 18 to 29 age group tested positive for the coronavirus, the fourth largest monthly total for the age group since the pandemic began.

Together, residents under 29 have accounted for 41% of all coronavirus cases in the county in August.

According to Michelle Shoresman, spokesperson for the San Luis Obispo County Department of Public Health, cases within K-12 schools will inevitably contribute to the rising numbers given that many kids under 12 are ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Overall, more than 3,500 people tested positive for the coronavirus in August, five times more than July when 699 people got COVID-19, according to county public health data.

At an Aug. 31 media briefing, Director of Public Health Penny Borenstein gave a harrowing account of COVID-19 spread in the county: 67 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, 20 of whom were in intensive care.

“These numbers supersede anything that we have seen in this pandemic, including in our winter surge,” Borenstein said. “Total number of hospitalizations, total number of individuals in intensive care units are the highest they have ever been in this [COVID-19] pandemic.”

At the time, public health officials were also investigating close to 90 outbreaks connected to schools, living care facilities and businesses.

Borenstein added that unlike in January when San Luis Obispo was closed down, the county, like much of California, has reopened since June. That increases the risk of transmission as schools reopen.

Hockert, the immunocompromised student, has chronic lyme disease, meaning their immune system can be underactive at times and leave them highly susceptible to illnesses. If they were to contract COVID-19, it would likely hit them much harder than someone with a healthy immune system.

They said the vaccine mandate and mask policies do a lot to ease their mind, but they would be even more comfortable if Cal Poly also made an effort to de-densify classrooms and socially distance indoors.

Another thing they said that would make them feel safer is if Cal Poly provided a separate time for immunocompromised students to get tested, as many immunocompromised students are medically unable to receive the vaccine and having them test with the general population of unvaccinated students could put them at risk.

“[COVID-19] has highlighted the mental gymnastics that people do between convenience and protecting their fellow people and community members,” Hockert said.

The risk of spreading the delta variant is a concern for immunocompromised students. The delta variant is more contagious and harmful than other strains of COVID-19 — as universities return to normal operation in the middle of the pandemic. Vaccinated students also have the ability to still pass on the virus to others.

Three students walk around the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo campus. Credit: Shae Ashamalla | Mustang News

Historically, a vast majority of Cal Poly students are not from the local Central Coast. Last year, about 92% of students were from outside San Luis Obispo County, according to 2020 CSU enrollment data.

When thousands of students converge on the Cal Poly campus this month, it will mix households and regions in a way the county has not experienced since before the pandemic — all while the delta variant is on the rise.

At Cal Poly, 87% of all 22,257 students enrolled this fall are fully vaccinated, Lazier wrote via email. About 4% of students are either partially vaccinated or plan on getting vaccinated. Another 5% of students have approved medical or religious exemptions to the vaccine mandate. The rest of Cal Poly students, a little over 3%, have not responded to the university’s outreach regarding vaccine status.

This fall, Cal Poly will only be testing unvaccinated students on campus, just like most other universities. However, there are institutions that have opted to continue testing all students regardless of vaccination status.

At Stanford University, all students will be tested weekly “in order to monitor the prevalence of COVID-19 at Stanford and keep campus as safe as possible,” according to their website.

Several other universities across the United States have also opted for the same testing policy, including Brown University, Harvard University and Princeton University.

Cal Poly public health professor Marilyn Tseng, who specializes in epidemiology, said it would be ideal for Cal Poly to test students regardless of vaccination status.

Not testing all students regardless of vaccination status would lead to an incomplete picture in terms of understanding the spread of COVID-19 among the college community, as well as the spread of the delta variant, Tseng said.

“To get ahead of the situation and to anticipate things that might happen, we really need good data collection,” Tseng said. “I think the only way we can really get a good handle on what’s going on is if we keep monitoring.”

With so many of Cal Poly’s students coming from out of the county, Tseng said it is likely that there will be a surge in cases.

“The problem is the unknown—that we’re bringing people at different levels of risk, and we just cannot predict what’s going to happen,” she said.

Tseng, who will potentially be teaching in a classroom with no windows, said she will need to get reaccustomed to being with 40 students indoors. Despite this, she said the vaccine and mask mandate have made her feel much safer.

Tseng said she may end up teaching her course in a hybrid style — partially virtual and partially in-person.

In regards to housing and students living in communal spaces as the campus returns to normal capacity, Tseng said that people’s cooperation will determine how the experience unfolds.

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