‘Return to Learn’: UC San Diego unveils fall reopening plans

While some safety measures will remain intact, the university expects a more traditional experience in 2021-22.
By: | April 13, 2021
Erik Jepsen/UC San Diego

Banking on a concoction of vaccines and vast knowledge from the past year, college and university leaders across the country say they are ready to reopen their campuses in the fall. However, few have released specific details for how that might happen.

So, what would a fully reopen campus look like in 2021-22?

The University of California San Diego says it has much of its “Return to Learn” plan mapped out. It includes many of the traditional elements that institutions and their students have been longing for, along with a few COVID-19 holdover strategies.

Safety remains a top priority. There will be mask wearing in public areas and there will be social distancing requirements – albeit now 3 feet instead of 6. Beyond that, things will look markedly different – or the way they used to look – if all goes according to plan.

“We’re ready to return to campus,” said Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “Our students, faculty and staff went above and beyond throughout the pandemic to keep one another safe while continuing to learn, create and conduct research. While we learned many new ways to connect and serve our students over the past year, we are ready to reconnect in person, as safely as possible, in spaces specifically designed for collaborative learning and discovery.”

UC San Diego, in fact, says its campus will be “nearly fully occupied” based on these expectations – that 90% of students and 85% of staff will have received their doses when they return. Just to be sure, everyone who does come on campus will be tested. After that, the routine weekly tests will stop for those who have received vaccines. Those who haven’t gotten them, even those in the asymptomatic category, will need to be tested. As with many institutions, UC San Diego is providing resources and information to students on the benefits and merits of vaccination.

“We will continue to have a strong set of precautionary measures in place,” said Dr. Robert Schooley, professor in the Department of Medicine at the UC San Diego School of Medicine and co-lead of the Return to Learn program. “For example, our convenient COVID-19 test kit vending machines will remain for those who still need asymptomatic weekly testing prior to vaccination and those who need symptomatic testing.”

The changes coming at UC San Diego

The state of California has seen a slight uptick in COVID-positive cases in recent days, but the numbers (3,489) pale to late December and early January, when they ballooned over 40,000. The vaccine effort has helped. Though the state has been slow in its recovery, Gov. Gavin Newsom in recent days has pressed K-12 schools and colleges be ready to reopen by June 15.

UC San Diego is confident it can do that by the fall. Its numbers throughout the pandemic have been especially low, with officials citing an infection rate of “less than one half of one percent.” That is with many of its students living on campus and with in-person learning happening.

“UC San Diego’s success mitigating COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic can, in large part, be attributed to the dedication of our students behaving in a way that is considerate for their health as well as the health of fellow Tritons,” said Alysson Satterlund, vice chancellor for Student Affairs.

The other keys have been a combination of mitigation strategies, including contact tracing and testing, updated air filtration systems and the country’s most comprehensive college wastewater testing initiative.

“Our wastewater program has been a highly sensitive tool for detecting infections and can detect a single asymptomatic individual in a building with several hundred residents,” said Return to Learn project co-lead Natasha Martin, associate professor of medicine at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. “As we experienced this school year, when we see a concerning signal in a given building, we alert the individuals living or working there to get tested.  The high response rates to these alerts enables us to detect infections earlier than our routine testing program and we will continue to use this wastewater-triggered testing for the 2021-22 academic year.”

With robust testing happening, with vaccines being dispensed and with the knowledge of how to quickly quarantine and isolate individuals who test positive or come into close contact with those who do, UC San Diego has put together its Return to Learn plan, which includes:

  • Residence halls accommodating two guests per room, but no more, with almost every room being utilized
  • Face-to-face instruction as the preferred mode of instruction, though hybrid learning options will be available for students who cannot return to campus.
  • Athletics, concerts and other on-campus events returning to near normal, with the promise of “more in-person interaction” (that is, provided there are no drastic changes in COVID numbers or mandates from public health officials).
  • Outdoor classrooms continuing to be operational, though the university says the majority of academic instruction will be done inside.
  • Telehealth and other resources being still be available for students who need assistance
  • The opening of the Student Center and other businesses
  • The removal of Plexiglass barriers the likely continued inclusion of hand sanitizer stations throughout campus.