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After COVID-19 outbreak, Chico State halts in-person classes and orders dorms cleared immediately

Kendall Hall on the Chico State campus.
(Christopher Reynolds / Los Angeles Times)

Chico State canceled its limited number of in-person classes Monday and told students in an urgent message to vacate campus housing by the weekend after nearly 30 people tested positive for COVID-19 days after the fall semester started.

University President Gayle Hutchinson announced in a statement Sunday that the in-person classes the college had been offering when the semester started last week would switch to online only for the duration of the fall semester. She also asked students to vacate on-campus housing by Sunday because nearly all on-campus residences had at least one positive case, and there was “concern the numbers will only increase.”

“We understand the inconvenience of vacating campus housing so quickly, but Chico State’s residence halls have experienced rapid and alarming rates of COVID-19 cases, and the well-being of students makes quick action imperative,” Hutchinson said. “Simply put, we need students out of the residence halls as quickly as possible for their own safety.

University staff will help students secure alternate housing, and students with no other housing options will be accommodated, Hutchinson said. The university will provide prorated refunds for room and meal charges.

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Chico State had about 15,000 students enrolled in 2019-20. The university’s fall semester started last week with about 10% of its 4,200 classes taking place in person. The in-person sections were deemed essential for degree progress and included “clinical and field labs, performance and studio-arts classes, and capstone courses in engineering and agriculture,” the university said.

Small gatherings, like students studying together and, in one case, playing games like Monopoly, have led to a surge in COVID-19 cases on USC lately.

The outbreak at Chico State is the latest to occur on a university campus as colleges around the country struggle to control outbreaks, prompting leaders in some college towns to raise alarms. Many campus outbreaks have been linked to parties and socializing at bars and fraternity and sorority houses.

In the past week, outbreaks have been reported at the University of Iowa and Illinois State University, which both have had more than 500 positive test results since their fall semesters started in August. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was one of the first to halt in-person learning, sending students home to complete the semester remotely after the school had an outbreak a week into classes.

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Like many campuses, Chico State was taking a variety of precautions to enable at least some students to live on campus. It limited university housing to single-room accommodations for about 750 students — roughly one-third of the typical occupancy, according to its website. Students were allowed to begin moving in on Aug. 17 ahead of the Aug. 24 start of classes.

“Just three days into the semester, the University reported a troubling number of positive COVID-19 cases on campus,” Hutchinson said in her statement. It did not specify the cause of the outbreak but said cases spread quickly.

Within days, the number of cases “ballooned to nearly 30, impacting both classrooms and a majority of on campus residence halls — with an even greater number of reported exposures that could have an exponential and devastating effect on campus.”

University officials did not immediately return calls and messages seeking more clarity on the outbreak and the order for students to move off campus within a week.

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The Cal State system of 23 campuses is the nation’s largest four-year public university system, with 480,000 students. All its campuses are conducting the vast majority of classes online, with only about 7% of courses, including labs and other hands-on classes, being taught in person, spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp said.


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