Making the Tough Call

How rising COVID-19 cases convinced the Stanislaus State president to shift classes online just a week before the start of the semester.

August 18, 2021
Ellen Junn

Ellen Junn, president of California State University, Stanislaus, has been tracking COVID-19 in her county with mounting dread.

“Every morning, I have a pitter-patter in my heart when I open the data to look at caseloads and deaths,” she said. “I have never seen such a rapid rise.”

Since Aug. 1, the test positivity rate in Stanislaus County has climbed from 8 percent to nearly 13 percent. On Aug. 16, 740 new COVID cases were reported in the county, which has a population of roughly 550,000. And on the campus of Stanislaus State, part of the California State University system, nine positive cases prompted contact tracing to 88 people who then had to be monitored.

“We have not seen this number of COVID cases for the last 17 months,” said Junn. “As soon as we opened up, I couldn’t believe it happened so quickly -- before the week was over.”

Faced with no good options, last weekend Junn took what she considered the most prudent course of action: she moved all classes online until Oct. 1. She reached that decision after consulting closely with state and local health authorities. Classes will resume Aug. 23 as planned, but the 42 percent that were scheduled to be taught in person will now be remote for the first six weeks.

That gives students enough time to get both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine before resuming learning in person, Junn said, and puts them in compliance with the Cal State system requirement.

“It’s just heartbreaking, because our students want to come back to campus,” she said. “But because we’re a minority-majority institution, and individuals from many underrepresented minority groups have a much higher incidence of severe consequences and a higher death rate from COVID, I feel it is my responsibility to further safeguard vulnerable students and their families.”

She also weighed the concerns of faculty and staff, who were “getting shaky” because of the rising case counts, she said. “I think faculty and staff are relieved now that we’ll spend a little more time safeguarding. Students are disappointed, but they know we will resume as soon as we have greater assurance that they’re vaccinated.”

Stanislaus County, which is largely agricultural and home to many poor communities, has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the state; as of Aug. 16, less than half the eligible population had been fully vaccinated. Among Stan State students -- of which 74 percent are the first in their families to attend college -- “by and large, there is trepidation,” Junn said. “But now that students know they need to get vaccinated before coming, many of them are saying, ‘If that’s what the university wants, I guess I’ll do it.’ We have higher compliance perhaps than other campuses.”

The dorms, reconfigured to accommodate just one student per room, are open -- and there is a waiting list, Junn said. Students may seek official medical exemptions from vaccination but then must submit to weekly testing; for exempted athletes and students living in the dorms, where they are in closer contact with other students, testing will be twice weekly, Junn said. Those who fail to comply will face disciplinary action. (Note: This article was amended to clarify that the campus is open to students.)

Will the other 22 Cal State campuses follow suit and return to an online or hybrid model of instruction?

“If we do see the continued spread taking place across the state, then there could be a systemwide decision on this,” said Mike Uhlenkamp, the senior director of public affairs for the Cal State system. “But for the most part we’ve delegated the decision making to each individual campus.”

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Junn, who has worked at five other Cal State institutions, said Stan State is in a different place from the other campuses, where masking, social distancing and vaccinations are standard.

“Whether it’s personal, political or fearfulness, we have not yet gotten to that point,” she said. But when she broke the news of the online shift to the chancellor and her fellow presidents last Friday, she immediately felt supported. “They started texting and phoning and saying, ‘Gee, I’m sorry this is happening; is there anything we can do?’” she recalled. “It just goes to show you: cases are very variable, and one size does not fit all.”

 

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Susan H. Greenberg

Susan H. Greenberg is a senior editor at Inside Higher Ed. A career journalist and educator, she joined the publication in August 2021 after eight years in Vermont, where she freelanced and taught writing at Middlebury College and Champlain College. Prior to that, she spent 22 years writing and editing for Newsweek magazine, where she covered everything from international affairs to arts and culture. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic, and River Teeth, among others. She has taught English and journalism at Phillips Academy, where she served as an advisor to the student newspaper. She holds a B.A. in English from Brown University and an M.S. in journalism from Columbia. The mother of three nearly adult children, she is very much enjoying her newly empty nest.

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