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OC Colleges Adapt, See Students Return

Orange County’s largest universities have been waiting all summer to find out: will students return—either in-person or virtually—amid the ongoing pandemic?

The answer appears to be yes, based on early returns this semester.

Cal State University-Fullerton, Chapman University and University of California-Irvine said they all neared or met their targets for new undergraduate and graduate students this fall.

“Continued interest and enrollment at Cal State Fullerton represents our rising status as a public institution. We’ve become a first-choice college for many of our students,” President Fram Virjee told the Business Journal late last month.

Enrollment levels held or ticked up at OC’s two state schools, while privately held Chapman saw about a 4% decline in its total student population, well below its projection 15% decline.

Nevertheless, university leaders say they are thrilled to see students returning to kick off or continue their educational journeys.

“Our goal is to create an experience that is as enriching and comfortable as possible, with appropriate and reasonable caution, while maintaining the high quality standards that have made our university one of the best in the world,” UCI Chancellor Howard Gillman told the Business Journal.

Below, a closer look into the reopening strategies of the three universities, and their goals going forward.

UCI: ZotPods, Pledges

OC’s top research institution, which is nearing $1 billion raised for its $2 billion capital campaign, welcomed students back with the promise of “UCI Forward,” a commitment to the betterment and safety of the community as it moves ahead.

Some 6,600 students (about 43% less than a normal year) were offered a first glimpse of UCI’s planning as they moved in this last month.

After taking a COVID-19 test, students were asked to quarantine with their “ZotPod” for seven days.

The idea behind the ZotPod—a group of 6 to 10 students—was to allow students to mingle with a small group of peers, often sharing the same study area, to build community and create a sense of togetherness, UCI officials said.

At the same time, officials are hopeful ZotPods will discourage students from attending larger gatherings, which have spurred COVID-19 outbreaks at other college campuses in the U.S.

Furthermore, all campus members were asked to sign the “Anteater Pledge,” which requests individuals to act as “an active participant in reducing my risk” via symptom checkers, contact tracing and other safety programs the university has rolled out. A flu shot is mandatory as well.

Much of the university’s efforts this year have focused on battling the pandemic—including fueling medical research and treating patients through its academic health system.

“Great research universities with a public mission were made for moments when you need tremendously talented clinicians who can provide the best care,” Gillman said.

Likewise, they were made for “a time when we’re looking out for everyone, privileged or not,” he said.

The university’s focus on inclusive education has also accelerated amid current national events, spurring the systemwide “Black Thriving Initiative” that recognizes anti-Blackness as a threat to the community and includes specific provisions to support Black faculty and students on campus.

CSUF: Virtual Focus

The largest university in OC said it has adopted a proactive and cautious approach to reengaging its community.

Cal State Fullerton told its 41,017 students that the upcoming spring semester would see little change from the fall: it’s already committed, as part of a CSU systemwide decision, to virtual instruction for the remainder of the 2020-21 year.

While the easiest and safest option for the campus, it’s also a heartbreaking decision, Virjee said.

“We miss our campus. We miss each other,” he said. “We miss the peace of mind that is not possible when you are worried about loved ones, acting as home schoolers, caring for sick family members, or working around the clock to adjust to virtual teaching and learning.”

Nevertheless, the institution has promised to provide a similar level of service to students both “in the classroom and outside the classroom” throughout.

While the majority of students will live and learn outside the campus grounds, about 237 students are in residence halls and some 168 classes such as labs and visual arts courses have resumed in classrooms.

Outdoor areas have been designated for classes and study spaces; HVAC filters have been replaced; and a number of signs and hand sanitizers adorn the campus.

It’s also putting an increased focused on its inclusion, equity and diversity initiatives.

For example, the institution launched a “One Book, One CSUF” program that aims to stir conversations about different ideas and cultures. Its first choice is “The Book of Unknown Americans” by Kristina Enriquez.

While some unknowns remain for the university’s future, with a 10% reduction from the state in its annual budget, it continues to raise about $200 million to create what it hopes to be a robust and connected, on-campus community—parting from its once-held status as a commuter campus, Virjee said.

Chapman: Open Again

After months of planning on its “CU Safely Back” initiative, Chapman opened its doors to graduate students last Monday. Undergraduates are expected to return beginning Oct. 19.

“The safety of the Chapman community is paramount but we also recognize that many value the experience of in-person learning and teaching,” President Daniele Struppa said.

“As we work through the transition of students back to campus, we will monitor the health of the community closely as well as the situation in Orange County.”

The return process, for those who opt in, includes taking a 20-minute online training course and a COVID-19 PCR at-home test. Additional daily tasks include a self-health assessment, a no-contact temperature check, and, of course, adherence to policies such as mask-wearing and social distancing.

While in-use classrooms will be open throughout the day, conference rooms, labs and other shared areas will be locked on the main campus; outdoor, tented areas have been created for studying.

Law students can use their Chapman ID card to swipe and open the sliding glass doors to the Fowler Law School entrance, while health sciences students must have QR codes to enter the buildings at the Rinker Campus in Irvine.

Chapman has paused travel, most new hires and rescheduled some projects, though it continues to fundraise for its $500 million campaign and invest in its health science and engineering programs.

The programs are excepted to round out the university’s study offerings, and see the biggest gains in enrollment increases over the next few years.

Chapman recently received a $5 million gift from the Swenson Family Foundation to support the Hall of Engineering at its Keck Center for Science and Engineering.

Like other area universities, the private school—which provides financial aid to 80% of students—is putting more attention and financial resources behind its programs that support inclusion.

Last month, Chapman appointed Vice Provost Lawrence Brown as presidential advisor on faculty diversity, with an additional $500,000 budgeted for such efforts.

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