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The first week of winter quarter looked different for all students at Cal Poly this time around.
As some students scrambled to make it to class on time after waiting in hour-long testing lines, other students emailed their professors informing them of their inability to attend the first week of classes in person since they had to quarantine due to exposure, or isolate after testing positive for COVID-19.
Mechanical engineering sophomore Max Jorgenson was one of these students, isolating at his home in Pleasanton during the first week of instruction.
“A great way to start off 2022,” Jorgenson said sarcastically after receiving a positive test on New Year’s Day.
However, Jorgenson was not alone in experiencing disruption of his first week back from winter break because of the Omicron variant.
While students returned to campus for the first week of classes on Jan. 3, Cal Poly experienced its largest surge of COVID-19 cases and students say they are feeling the major impact of the Omicron variant on campus.
In just the first week of winter quarter, more than 1,000 positive COVID-19 tests have been reported at Cal Poly, according to the Cal Poly Campus Dashboard.
Regardless of the rising numbers, Cal Poly is still holding classes in person.
In a campus-wide email sent on Jan. 1, Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong said 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.”
Despite these claims from the administration, some students are not feeling safe and protected at this time.
Students say they don’t feel supported by the university
Business freshman Rhyen Werner lives in the yakʔitʸutʸu residence halls and said she is frustrated with the lack of concern there is across campus regarding the spread of Omicron.
On the fourth floor of tiłhini, where Werner lives, she has witnessed an “outbreak” of COVID-19 cases.
“It’s kind of been frustrating because there’s been people who have not really been taking it seriously, like no precautions from people who’ve been testing positive, them not wearing masks around, still hanging out in the conference rooms, not even trying to quarantine whatsoever,” Werner said.
After discovering her next-door neighbor in the residence hall tested positive for COVID-19, and that other students living on her floor were experiencing symptoms, Werner and her two roommates took at-home antigen tests as a precaution on Jan. 5.
Werner and one of her roommates received a negative result. However, Werner’s third roommate came back positive.
After testing positive, Werner’s roommate contacted the university and was advised to stay in her room until the isolation team contacted her with further instructions.
Fearing exposure, Werner said that she and her other roommate who tested negative took it upon themselves to check into a hotel until their positive roommate could be relocated.
Werner spent two nights and two days in a hotel until her roommate was finally taken to another facility.
“That’s not really fair to us so we’re just not feeling very supported by the school obviously,” Werner said.
Other students, who are living off-campus with roommates that have tested positive are also dealing with isolation in different ways.
Biological sciences sophomore Liz Mandziara lives off-campus in Mustang Village Apartments and has been quarantining since her roommate tested positive after New Year’s Eve.
“We’ve been going crazy with sanitation, wearing masks around the apartment, which is kind of weird,” Mandziara said. “We also have been wearing gloves too, to make sure that we are as safe as possible.”
Liberal studies sophomore Amanda Richardson also lives off-campus with four roommates. Richardson tested positive for COVID-19 on Jan 4. at the Cal Poly Health Center. However, due to a high density of cases, she said that health center appointments have been backed-up and Richardson’s roommates were unable to get tests immediately.
“I’m honestly lucky to be positive and know that I’m positive at this point because with my roommates, we’re all exposed to each other and it’s hard for them to get a PCR to know if they’re positive or negative,” Richardson said.
Richardson and her roommates have decided to isolate themselves together, despite not having direct confirmation that they have all contracted the virus through a test.
After taking her test, Richardson attended her Tuesday classes, as directed by the school, before receiving a call informing her of the positive result. Richardson informed the Health Center of her class attendance on the call.
This quarter’s new testing protocol had students test throughout the entire first week, instead of being required to show proof of a negative result before coming to campus and attending classes.
Although Armstrong stated in a campus email on Jan. 6 that, “our classrooms to date have remained safe with no known transmission of the virus,” this new testing protocol meant students, like Richardson, were put in a position where they could unknowingly spread the virus throughout their classes.
Faculty are being forced into unsafe circumstances
Whilst students have faced issues of exposure due to the testing protocols, faculty, too, are susceptible to exposure in these high-risk situations within classrooms and campus facilities.
“Faculty are finding out that they may have had covid positive students in their classes, but they weren’t aware of that, so that’s causing some concern,” Lewis Call said, who is a history professor and the Chapter President of the California Faculty Association (CFA) at Cal Poly.
With regard to the concerns about transmission in classes, many faculty members have taken it upon themselves to speak up on behalf of campus safety.
According to Call, faculty members have petitioned for the use of N-95 and KN-95 surgical masks throughout the classroom– a recommendation that President Armstrong recently sent out to the campus as of Jan. 6.
Additionally, the petition calls for the resumption of the wastewater testing program to detect possible outbreaks in the dorms, the continuance of ongoing surveillance testing, adequate space provided for social distancing and the freedom for faculty to choose the modality of their course for the rest of the quarter.
According to Brian Bates, a professor with a split appointment in the English and Interdisciplinary Studies Departments, the choice that many professors have made to hold the first two weeks of their instruction virtually comes from an agreement made by the Academic Senate early in the pandemic, which allowed professors to have up to 25% of their course online.
“This was not an option that was sent out by anyone,” Bates said, “So in that sense, it was individual faculty making the choice to do this. There was no email from the administration inviting us or telling us we can do this.”
In a press release sent out by the CFA on Jan. 5, Call said they conducted a survey before the first week of school in which 514 faculty responded. Of those 514 responses, 60.7% of Cal Poly faculty that were scheduled to teach in-person reported that they decided to meet virtually the first week of the quarter.
The effect on extracurriculars
Mandziara and Werner, who are both members of the Cal Poly cheer team, said that their practices had been canceled due to the spread of Omicron, and said that it has been setting them back both in individual skills and as a team.
“It causes us to go back on practices and we’re not progressing,” Werner said. “We’re having to relearn and rework stuff because it’s hard to do things where you need all of the team and they’re not all there.”
For Mandziara, she said that changes due to Omicron have been impacting her mental health.
“Cheer has usually been like a stress-relief outlet for me, and so not having that is kind of sad. It’s just honestly harder to like do every day,” Mandziara said. “Then, with every update, it’s just getting harder and harder to find the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Student motivation on the decline
Students who were in isolation with COVID-19 during the first week of school expressed difficulty finding the motivation to complete their coursework.
History sophomore William Hultgren tested positive with Omicron on Jan. 1 and was isolating from his home in Menlo Atherton for the first week of school.
He described having mild cold symptoms, including congestion and a headache.
“Now it’s a little bit harder to do work, especially with like an annoying headache,” Hultgren said. “Yesterday I should have done work but I just had to go sleep. Now, the only thing is [I] just feel behind.”
Jorgenson expressed a similar feeling of falling behind in coursework.
“I like being in [San Luis Obispo] while everyone’s working because that gives me the motivation to work,” Jorgenson said.
Most students have conveyed gratitude for professors’ understanding and willingness to accommodate their situations while they are quarantining or isolating. Likewise, faculty members have taken note of the additional pressure that Omicron is adding to students’ first week back.
“I guess I’m really feeling for you all right now,” Bates said. “It seems to me like there is a lot for you to do on the ground in-person, and the idea of having classes in-person right now as the numbers continue to rise. That strikes me as pretty stressful for you all.”
Physical health is not the only thing taking a hit
Not only has the health center been overwhelmed with testing, but counseling services have seen the impact of Omicron on students as well, according to Call.
“I’m sure it’s an added stressor,” Call said. “CFA also represents the counselors who work at the counseling center, they are also faculty. So I know that my colleagues on the counselor faculty are very very busy, understandably, because students have so much anxiety about Omicron and about getting their work done.”
As students reflect back on their first week of Winter Quarter 2022, many have said it is characterized by the impact the Omicron variant has had on the campus and community.
“It is really depressing when you step back and think about it, and look at how long the lines are for testing and just the whole situation,” Mandziara said. “When you really think about it, it’s crazy. Even though it’s been so long, I still can’t believe that this is our world.”