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Amid SLO County's worst COVID-19 surge yet, higher education is returning to the classroom with mask, vaccine, and quarantine mandates

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Higher education in SLO County is returning to classroom instruction, albeit with restrictions and safety protocols to counteract ever-rising COVID-19 cases.

At Cuesta College, which is already back in session, students are required to be vaccinated by Oct. 15. But students also have the option of being tested frequently instead, Cuesta President and Superintendent Dr. Jill Stearns said. College spokesperson Ritchie Bermudez said details on frequency, verification, and on-site testing are still being planned. In alignment with the Sept. 1 county Public Health Department mandate, all students and professors at Cuesta are required to mask up indoors regardless of vaccination status.

MASKS REQUIRED As Cuesta College and Cal Poly return to campus, everyone is required to mask up, regardless of vaccination status. - PHOTO COURTESY OF CUESTA COLLEGE
  • Photo Courtesy Of Cuesta College
  • MASKS REQUIRED As Cuesta College and Cal Poly return to campus, everyone is required to mask up, regardless of vaccination status.

"Everyone seems to feel safe," chemistry faculty member and Cuesta College Federation of Teachers union President Greg Baxley told New Times. "[Students] do seem really excited to be on campus. One of the days I was there last week, I had announced to the students an optional meeting, and all but two of them showed up."

The restrictions are in line with what Baxley was hoping for, though he wishes it had been implemented even sooner.

"But the ability to do that just wasn't there," Baxley continued. "Some of the community pushback on doing things like mandates to protect public health—this is a political issue in some areas, more than others, and our administrative staff are aware of those pressures."

With mask and vaccine mandates now in place, Stearns said that if someone is not compliant, there's an addendum to Cuesta's student code of conduct that addresses COVID-19 protocols.

"If a student fails to adhere, they are referred to the student conduct process," she said. "It starts with a warning, and it's a formal process."

So far though, Stearns said the college is seeing exceptional compliance.

If someone does catch COVID-19 at Cuesta, they'll be asked to quarantine at home following county Public Health recommendations, Stearns said. Any other unvaccinated students they had contact with will also have to quarantine and get tested.

"We are absolutely doing contact tracing, spending a tremendous amount of time right now [on it] as the case counts are high in the county," Stearns said. "We are doing our best to inform anyone who may have been exposed."

For many freshmen and sophomores, it's the first time being on campus. But as was the case before COVID-19, Cuesta isn't entirely back in person.

"Roughly 40 percent of our courses have an in-person component, so the majority of our instruction remains online at this time," Stearns said. "Twenty-six percent of our instruction was online prior to the pandemic, so the notion that we would ever be 100 percent face-to-face is unlikely."

For professors who do have students back on campus, there are ways to get creative with the classroom setting.

"I am teaching outside this semester," professor Baxley said. "I was able to schedule my class to meet under the tents one day a week."

Cal Poly Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Professor Charlotte Decock is also opting for outdoors.

"I did teach a lab in person during the pandemic, so I actually ended up modifying my class so the lab could be fully outdoors," Decock said. "I actually will keep many of the components from that modified course as we're going back to in-person education."

Fall term classes for Cal Poly don't begin until Sept. 20, and students and professors alike are excited at the thought of being back on campus, though some already had labs on campus over the past year.

"Each quarter I had at least one in-person class, so I have been going to campus, but I didn't see anyone else on campus except people in my classes," architectural engineering major and fifth-year student Emily Taylor said. "I'm excited. I think the whole buzz of other people being back is much more exciting and fun."

With the recent surge in Delta variant cases, Taylor said being back is also nerve-wracking.

"I definitely feel more cautious now, because honestly in the last two weeks I've seen it affect a lot of people I know," she said.

But, she added, knowing that almost everyone is vaccinated helps.

Cal Poly is following the vaccine mandate established by the California State University system, which requires any student or employee accessing campus in any way to be fully vaccinated, Media Relations Director Matt Lazier said via email. On-campus resident students must be fully vaccinated by Sept. 14, and all other students and employees must be by Sept. 20, the first day of classes.

Religious and medical exemptions to getting vaccinated are offered, and about 5 percent of students have requested these so far. These students will be required to get tested for COVID-19 twice a week.

Another 85 percent are fully vaccinated, and the remaining 5 percent haven't responded to the university yet.

"We are continuing to communicate with them to ensure that they comply with the mandate," Lazier said. "Those students who do not vaccinate or receive an exemption risk disenrollment and eviction from university housing and could endanger their financial aid and ability to enroll in the future."

Like at Cuesta, masking is required at all times indoors at Cal Poly, regardless of vaccination status. Cal Poly students must also take a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of their first arrival on campus, regardless of vaccination.

Anyone who tests positive is required to isolate, Lazier said.

He added that, in the case of a positive test, the university follows the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal OSHA) guidelines for exposure investigation and workplace notification. Lazier also confirmed that the university was recently contacted by Cal OSHA about an investigation into Cal Poly's notification system. A COVID-19 positive student allegedly attended a class during the summer quarter, and employees were not informed of the exposure for two days, according to reporting from The Tribune. By law, notification is required within one day.

"Cal Poly is providing all appropriate information and assistance in regard to that inquiry," Lazier said. "If the university learns of a confirmed positive case, we are required to tell all employees who were within the impacted area of the case or who were in close contact with the individual who tested positive."

Cuesta President Stearns said the sudden rise in cases countywide has certainly felt like a curveball—but she's confident local schools can handle it.

"The rise in our local case count really shifted right before the term began. A month ago we thought we'd have a very different fall than what we are seeing," she said. "It was disappointing to be at that place.

"But from the beginning we have worked hard to maintain our protocols in alignment with county Public Health." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at mmartin@newtimesslo.com.

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