Four weeks ago, despite 29 countries with 78,111 people infected, coronavirus felt distant from San Luis Obispo. Nobody in the county had been tested for the virus as students prepared to take finals.
Now, after 59 confirmed cases in the county, Cal Poly is strongly encouraging students to move home with the entirety of spring quarter being taught online. Commencement is postponed and students remaining in San Luis Obispo are under a mandatory shelter-at-home order.
It was exactly two months ago when the first university-wide email regarding the coronavirus was sent.
“While there are two confirmed cases of novel coronavirus in California, there are no confirmed cases in San Luis Obispo County,” the email from Campus Health and Wellbeing read. “Despite no confirmed cases in the region, we encourage all members to actively engage in healthy habits to help prevent contracting and spreading illness.”
In an interview with Mustang News, Medical Director Dr. Aaron Baker said influenza was a greater concern at Cal Poly at the time, but the university should plan for a coronavirus outbreak.
“It is much better to have more vigorous a response, anticipating what could be happening, than to regret not having a vigorous response,” Baker said.
Cal Poly’s second university-wide email about COVID-19 was sent Feb. 27, one month after the first email.
“At this time, there are no cases in San Luis Obispo County and Cal Poly; the risk to residents in San Luis Obispo County, including Cal Poly, remains low,” the Feb. 27 email read. “We will provide prompt updates should the situation change.”
Preparing to respond
One month later, the situation had changed. Despite no confirmed cases in San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly faculty and staff discussed creating a plan to respond to coronavirus at an Academic Senate meeting March 3.
“Given our global society, it’s probably safe to assume that [COVID-19] might already be in the county somewhere,” Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs Health & Wellbeing Tina Hadaway-Mellis said at the meeting.
The same day, the Cal Poly suspended study abroad programs in Italy.
On March 5, the first county resident was tested for coronavirus after traveling to a high-risk area and showing mild symptoms. The patient tested negative.
On March 8, University President Jeffrey Armstrong sent an email with recommendations for the campus community. These included having custodians frequently sanitize common-touch surfaces, recommending that people refrain from handshakes, suggesting sick students, faculty and staff stay home and having high-risk employees seek alternative work arrangements. At the time, San Luis Obispo County advised travelers from China, South Korea, Japan, Italy and Iran to not return to Cal Poly’s campus for 14 days and advised against travel to those locations.
On March 10, the California State University suspended all international travel, and all spring study abroad programs were canceled. Armstrong asked students to cancel any plants to travel to areas with significant coronavirus cases — specifically Seattle, New York, Los Angeles and the Bay Area.
“This is, of course, your personal decision, though I hope you will consider taking this precaution,” Armstrong wrote in the email.
“We do not plan to proactively go virtual — that is not in the cards from Cal Poly’s perspective,” Armstrong said. “We are a low-risk community at this point.”
As a response, a Change.org petition titled “Get Finals Moved to Online” for Cal Poly gained nearly 7,000 signatures in one day.
By now, many California public universities were pivoting to online classes and finals. Cal Poly Pomona announced they would pause all face-to-face classes and switch to a completely digital format. Down the coast, University of California Santa Barbara also announced plans to move to virtual finals and online classes for the foreseeable future.
On March 11, Mustang News uncovered that two students had been asked to self-quarantine due to coronavirus concerns. Cal Poly had not notified the campus community.
Spring quarter delayed
The next day, Cal Poly announced that the start of spring quarter would be delayed by one week to allow faculty to train for the prospect of teaching virtually. In a video sent March 12, Armstrong said the university was still planning on conducting in-person classes.
“I want to reassure students and parents we do not currently foresee any scenario under which Cal Poly would simply close and offer no spring courses,” Armstrong said. “Unless things change very dramatically, spring classes will go forward and seniors will graduate.”
Armstrong also announced the cancellation of Open House, the Poly Royal Rodeo, PolyCultural Weekend and all campus tours. Cal Poly Athletics were put on hold the same day, as the Big West Conference suspended all sports.
The following morning, March 13, San Luis Obispo County declared a public health emergency due to the coronavirus, despite no confirmed cases in the county after testing 37 patients.
“It’s only a matter of time before our county sees a case as well, and we are prepared for that eventually,” County Health Officer Penny Borenstein said.
That evening, administration announced classes would be held online for at least the first two weeks of spring quarter. In a campus-wide email, Armstrong encouraged professors to move finals online, but did not mandate it.
First case confirmed in San Luis Obispo County
The next day, Saturday, March 14, the first coronavirus case was confirmed by the San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department. The patient was a North County resident over the age of 65.
In response, Armstrong mandated that all final exams would be held remotely. Armstrong also asked faculty to “be flexible in assigning their final grades in light of this extraordinary situation.”
The second confirmed case in the county was announced the next day, Sunday, March 15. At the time, Robert E. Kennedy Library, the Recreation Center and Julian A. McPhee University Union remained open.
Classes move online, commencement postponed
On March 16, a third person tested positive for coronavirus. The patient was a household member of the second confirmed case.
This prompted Cal Poly to move all spring classes online for the entirety of the quarter and to postpone graduation.
In addition, the university strongly encouraged all students to plan on attending spring quarter virtually from their permanent home residences.
University Housing plans to restructure the dorms, moving students in triples to double rooms to “de-densify living spaces and create a more optimal living environment.”
“If you already left campus, we ask that you limit your travel and not return until mid-May to retrieve your belongings,” the email read. “We will send you details regarding check-out procedures and when it’s clear to come back to campus.”
The news left students with more questions than answers.
“I feel like I was robbed honestly, like this is absolutely insane. The school has told us nothing for the past three days,” aerospace engineering freshman Sierra Powell said. “It feels like we have to move out and we’re never coming back.”
The following day, confirmed COVID-19 cases doubled, bringing the total to six in the county.
With many off-campus residents staying in town, San Luis Obispo County issued an executive order for all residents to shelter at home starting March 19 due to coronavirus. The order allows people to leave for “essential travel, essential activities, essential government activities, and essential business,” according to County Council Rita Neal.
Despite the order allowing for travel in and out of the county, Cal Poly administration continues to ask students to remain in town to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The first case of coronavirus in a Cal Poly student was announced by Armstrong March 24. The student lives off-campus and moved away from San Luis Obispo to their permanent home residence on March 17.
Now, less than 15 percent of residents remain in University Housing for spring quarter, according to University Spokesperson Matt Lazier.
With 59 confirmed cases, Cal Poly’s Recreation Center will start renovations to become an alternative care site for overflow coronavirus patients March 30. It is expected to be ready to treat patients April 8, according to County Public Health.