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Cal State universities will stay online all year amid COVID-19 pandemic

Two women wearing masks walk on a college campus while carrying takeout boxes
Students walk back to their dorms with takeout breakfast from the Cal State Fullerton dining facility a few days before the start of classes last month.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

The nation’s largest public university system will continue with primarily online instruction for the remainder of the academic year amid the state’s ongoing coronavirus crisis, California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White announced Thursday in a letter to students, faculty and staff.

White said he had consulted extensively with campus presidents and considered the state of the pandemic in California as well as university operations.

“The disease continues to spread,” he said. “While the current mitigation factors do make a difference, in the absence of a vaccine and of sufficient, cost-effective, timely testing and contact-tracing infrastructure, we are not able to return to a normal, principally in-person schedule in January 2021.”

There will be some limited exceptions for classes that cannot be delivered remotely. On-campus housing will also be reduced.

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White said the decision would enable faculty, students and families to plan for the next term, as a previous decision on virtual learning had for the fall term. The Cal State system was among the first institutions to decide, in May, that it would resume the fall term remotely.

The chancellor also cited administrative pressures. Students will begin signing up for spring courses within a few weeks, and campuses will soon need to obtain authorization from their accrediting body in order to offer online courses.

Across the Cal State system, less than 7% of classes will be offered in person this term, with significant variability by campus. White said that he expects similar variations in the spring and that in some cases it may be possible to increase the amount of in-person instruction, whereas in others it may be necessary to pull back.

“This decision is the only responsible one available to us at this time. And it is the only one that supports our twin North Stars of safeguarding the health, safety and well-being of our faculty, staff, students and communities, as well as enabling degree progression for the largest number of students,” he said.

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Campuses will develop and communicate their commencement plans next term, the Cal State system said.

White’s announcement comes as universities including San Diego State and Cal State Chico have had to backtrack on in-person class and housing offerings because of COVID-19 outbreaks.

“It is disappointing,” Zahraa Khuraibet, president of the Cal State Student Assn., said of the news that classes will continue online. “But … we have to put the students’ health and safety first, and we understand that we’re not ready.”

Robert Keith Collins, chair of the systemwide Academic Senate, said the decision reassured faculty.

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“The idea of meeting in person during a pandemic and then possibly bringing [the virus] home was a big concern,” he said. “This puts that to rest and people can actually focus on newly acquired skills for teaching online.”

Both students and faculty faced barriers in online learning last spring, including lack of access to laptops and high-speed internet, as well as economic challenges, food insecurity and housing insecurity.

Collins said continuing remotely could exacerbate achievement gaps, but he still believed it was the right thing to do.

“It allows for that one thing that’s most important: the ability of that student to pursue their educational goals,” he said.


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