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Reflections on Reuniting on Campus

Published June 23, 2020

Dear Faculty and Staff:

Recently, I shared a video in which I talked about planning that is underway to reunite—The Beach. Today, I'd like to share some additional reflections on the road ahead.

While our campus is open in a different and rather lonely way, faculty, staff and administrators are working harder than ever behind the scenes to ensure we remain at the forefront of public education in California and the world. Faculty deserve a special shout out as they continue to transform their classes for remote delivery. Thank you for your unfailing commitment to our educational mission!

I recognize that most of us are yearning to return to the familiarity of February 2020. Although there is significant uncertainty still about the course of the virus, we have submitted a plan to the Chancellor’s Office for fall 2020. In that plan, only about 3-4% of our fall classes will be designed for face-to-face delivery. This means that all faculty members should be ready for remote delivery. Please talk about this fall plan with your department chairs and deans.

What’s important, I think, is that we build a common framework of understanding about the forces that move us toward reunification and those that give us caution. Our north star is care and concern for the health of everyone on campus. In particular, we must be protective of staff who are on the front line of cleaning and sanitizing our buildings. They are vital to our mitigation and reunification strategy and making campus safer by ensuring we meet high standards of cleaning and disinfecting.

Clearly, we must limit the number of buildings that are in use so that thorough, daily cleanings are possible. To those ends, we have submitted a plan to open 21 buildings. We could, of course, open more buildings which would require us to expend most available resources on additional staff and cleaning supplies. To do so, however, would limit investment in faculty, instructional designers, and advisors—to name a few of the pillars of our teaching and learning enterprise—which would compromise our educational mission. We must find the right balance between access and safety.

As we begin gradual reunification, I ask that we each do an assessment of how much personal responsibility you are willing to assume to keep yourself and our students and colleagues safe. Will you commit to wearing masks or face shields all the time? Will you wipe down doorknobs, bathroom stall latches, and other frequently touched surfaces each time you use them? Will you stay away if you are feeling ill? Will you enforce physical distancing among students, staff, and faculty as a sign that you care about everyone’s health? Will you wash your hands frequently?  Only a commitment to personal agency will keep everyone safe. Please, for the foreseeable future, do not plan to come to campus if you lack this commitment.

While numbers of COVID-19 cases continue to increase, most states including California, are opening up retail establishments and government offices. These openings come with a lot of caveats related to public health. It’s reasonable to wonder, however, if restaurants, museums, the Aquarium of the Pacific, and barber shops are open, “what’s stopping The Beach?”

Here are just a few of the public health issues we are considering as we move toward reunifying our university campus. 

  • Length of stay.  The longer you are around an infected person or a contaminated surface, the more likely the virus is to be transmitted.
  • Indoor versus outdoor. Given the droplet and aerosol transmission of the virus there’s guidance that being in very well-ventilated spots (outside) is better than being inside.
  • Number of people. The larger the group, and the more densely packed, the more likely it is that someone in that group can be a carrier of the virus and infect others.
  • Composition of a group.  The safer-at-home orders asked us to stick close with our immediate family or housemates to avoid cross contamination from other groups.
  • Transmission of the virus. The virus may be most easily transmitted if people are speaking loudly, laughing, singing, or shouting in close proximity to one another.
  • Hands and faces.  Gatherings that include handshakes, hugs, and high fives may be especially dangerous if people don’t wear masks, don’t wash their hands every 30 minutes, don’t physically distance, and don’t avoid touching their faces.

As you consider each of the issues, imagine a typical university day versus having a meal in a restaurant or visiting a retail outlet. 

Restaurants, with relatively small square footage and seating for fewer than 100 people, are scrupulously wiping down tables and chairs between guests. In comparison, our staff is charged with cleaning 5 million square feet of building space across our 322-acre campus frequented by up to 40,000 community members.

Most of our students take between four and five courses. They are on campus two to five days a week. A UCLA study modeled that under normal circumstances a student has about 500 unique person-to-person contacts per university day. I don’t know the number of surfaces that are touched per day per student, but thinking of doors, desks, bathrooms, tables, chairs, handrails, and miscellaneous objects, it is a staggering amount of touching with, a least, some potential for viral spread.

Retail outlets and universities are similar, of course, in many ways and certainly in terms of following physical distancing guidance. We can make classrooms safer by increasing spacing of students, wearing masks and creating barriers between a faculty member and their students just as restaurants are reducing seating and implementing additional safety measures. The scale of our work, however, creates unique challenges not faced by typical retail establishments. Such spacing limits us to only 25% of our available classroom capacity. Bottom line, our campus is a unique community within a community. Guidelines that may promote safety in a retail establishment do not easily translate to our work.

I will provide additional updates as we continue to solidify our fall planning. Hundreds of Beach professionals are contributing to this complex effort and I am truly grateful for their expertise and commitment.

Be safe,

Jane Close Conoley, Ph.D.
California State University, Long Beach