Fall semester starts next month at UC Merced. What will happen to classes amid COVID-19?

UC Merced plans to open campus for the fall semester on Aug. 26 with a hybrid mode — with some classes being offered on-campus and while others will be online.

How do to that safely, however, remains a work in progress, as coronavirus case numbers surge statewide and the central San Joaquin Valley.

Campus administrators say there will be safety guidelines in place for students, faculty and staff which include health screenings, face masks and social distancing guidelines.

The amount of students actually returning to campus in August will likely be a small percentage of the 8,847 undergraduate and graduate students who were on campus in the fall of 2019 as UC Merced officials attempt to limit the number of people physically at the school..

In a letter sent to the campus community recently, UC Merced Chief Resilience Officer Andrew Boyd explained “the goal is to minimize person-to-person contact on campus to the fullest extent possible,” as the university attempts to safely reopen.

“We believe today that a minimum number of classes — only those that by their nature are hands-on — should be delivered in person, and that campus residency should be offered to students for whom UC Merced is the best or only place to live while pursuing their education,” Boyd stated in the letter.

Questions facing UC Merced

UC Merced still has a lot of decisions to make before the start of the semester.

With about a month and a half left before the fall semester starts, it’s still unclear how many students will be expected to be on campus opening day.

Other questions loom, such as the number of students who will live on campus, classes that will be offered on-campus vs. remotely, and how students will access the library.

UC Merced officials admit they don’t have all the answers right now. “Matters are evolving daily as we continue to monitor state and county health advice – and numbers,” said UC Merced Assistant Vice Chancellor James Chiavelli in an email to the Sun-Star.

“Our intent is to communicate with constituent groups (undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff, etc.) over the coming week about specific plans.”

The university is asking managers and supervisors to use the coming weeks to reach out to staff to determine which jobs can be continued remotely this fall. Students will be notified whether their classes will be held online or on-campus.

Life on campus

Those on campus will be required to wear a mask or face covering and everyone must have a health screening, which will include temperature checks to enter campus facilities.

A health screening application can be downloaded to help facilitate the process.

UC Merced will also be able to test registered students for COVID-19.

For those living in the dorms on campus, there will be significant changes. Students will be assigned to single rooms and required to adhere to the strict guidelines set by the university, Center for Disease Control and Merced County Department of Public Health, officials say.

Residence hall buildings will be modified to include signs to promote safety and avoid the transmission of the virus.

Furnishings will be removed to ensure physical distancing in all common areas, and there will be enhanced cleaning protocols implemented by the custodial team.

There will be meal service seven days a week, and food will be for takeout services only, university officials said. There will be guidelines regarding cleaning and disinfecting personal work spaces on campus, with social distancing in mind. Departments will have to create worksite plans that meet Public Health Department guidelines.

In order to limit the amount of people on campus, all non-essential meetings, events or visits will be prohibited. Also large gatherings on campus should be avoided, other than classes or lectures, officials say.

Clubs and Sports

On-campus clubs, organizations, fraternities and sororities will still be permitted to fully operate through virtual and hybrid programming options, and will be provided support regardless of the fall 2020 plans, UC Merced officials say.

The campus bookstore will be open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on the first week of classes, and later will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. going forward.

UC Merced sports teams are planning for fall conference play with a later start, according to David Dunham, UC Merced’s director of recreation & athletics.

Dunham says the Bobcats teams will follow the guidelines from the NAIA, California Pacific Conference, the campus, county, and state.

“Together, the UC Merced community is facing unprecedented challenges; together, this community will weather them,” Boyd added in the letter.

CSU looking at online courses

According to California State University Chancellor Timothy White, CSU students could be forced to take online classes for the academic year.

White’s remarks came during a recent hearing before the U.S. House of Representatives Education and Labor subcommittee.

White told the committee that the move to a virtual fall semester, “and quite frankly, the academic year,” was driven by health and safety issues, and students progress to success.

Fresno State released its fall plans on June 26, including guidelines for housing, food, and wellness checks.

California State University, Stanislaus said it was not ready to announce its plans.

“As Chancellor White states, the health and safety of our students and their academic progress will continue to guide our discussions for plans beyond the fall,” said spokesperson Rosalee Rush.

Fresno Bee Education Lab reporter Ashleigh Panoo contributed to this story.

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