These Private SoCal Colleges Are Trying To Figure Out How To Reopen Their Campuses In The Fall

Pepperdine University in Malibu says contact tracing and following CDC cleaning guidelines would be among measures instituted for a fall 2020 reopening. (Pepperdine University)

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While public university community college systems have announced that their campuses will remain closed this fall, a handful of small, private universities in Southern California say they're making plans to welcome back students to campus.

"Our goal is to resume in-person classes in fall and bring students, faculty and staff back to our campuses and centers," Cal Lutheran University said in an announcement posted on May 3. The university said a final decision is forthcoming.

The Thousand Oaks-based university said it's considering these measures for a return to campus:

  • Spreading out classes across days and times and moving classes into larger spaces
  • Hybrid in-person/virtual instruction
  • Changing the start of the semester
  • Reducing the number of residential students living in suites
  • Reducing the number of staff working on-site
  • Providing for safe distancing in dining areas and expanding to-go service
  • Accommodating athletics, performing arts and other extracurricular activities that can safely meet social-distancing requirements
  • Expanding Health Services' capacity for COVID-19 testing

Other universities are at different stages of planning for in-person reopenings. Pepperdine University in Malibu, Azusa Pacific University, and Chapman University in Orange all said they want students back on campus this fall, but final final decisions to reopen will depend on guidelines from state and health officials in the coming weeks.


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Chapman is calling its planning the "CU Safely Back" initiative.

"It's not going to be a semester like every other," said Chapman President Daniele Struppa. "It's going to be a kind of rebirth, so to speak, semester,"

Chapman's smaller class sizes and enrollment (about 10,000) give the university more flexibility to carry out social distancing and provide safety measures like masks and gloves to all students, Struppa said. The university plans to downsize dorm capacity to about a third of its current size, install temperature-taking stations around campus, and provide COVID-19 tests to students and employees, he said.

Students who don't feel comfortable with in-person instruction can take classes online.

It'll come at a cost. Struppa said the campus will probably spend about $3.5 million to carry out these measures. He said campus task forces are presenting him reports this week detailing several plans.

The steps these universities are taking to open stand in stark contrast to recent announcements by the heads of the California State University system and the nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District system to keep campuses closed to students and stick with online instruction.

Daniele Struppa is President of Chapman University. (Chapman University)

FACULTY ARE AT HIGHEST RISK

Some observers of higher education are skeptical of efforts to reopen in the fall.

"I appreciate optimism," said USC higher education researcher William Tierney. "I really think it is foolish and a mistake to assume that we are going to have full-scale campus like we had one year ago, with students walking all over the place."

Even with social distancing and precautionary measures, Tierney said, reopening too soon would put faculty and older staff at risk.

"We know that the highest risk group of people catching this virus are people over 55," he said. "Forty percent of tenure track faculty are over 55."

Faculty at higher education institutions are organized into faculty senates, or councils, regarding decisions related to academic matters. Faculty at Chapman and Cal Lutheran said they've been talking to their administrations about what a possible reopening would look like.

"One of my fellow senators said, 'look, I'm not willing to go back to campus and find out that one of my colleagues is dead because we went back to campus,'" said Julia Fogg, a professor of religion at Cal Lutheran and the chair of the faculty senate.

At Chapman, Struppa said parents and students have been voicing their desire for the campus to reopen.

Asked if he could guarantee the safety of students and employees if the campus reopens, he said, "There is no guarantee ever for anything."

"We will do what the best practices are at the time," he said "We will not do anything that is against the advice of health authorities."

Fogg said she'd like Cal Lutheran to make a final decision within a few weeks.

"My sense of the pressures that they're under is the pressures from the students and their parents who want the students to be back on campus in face-to-face classrooms. They're getting overwhelming mail about that and phone calls," Fogg said.

A Cal Lutheran spokeswoman declined to comment, saying that while the university's goal is to resume in-person classes, the administration is waiting for clearer guidance on restrictions before making a final decision.

Pepperdine posted details online on Friday about what the re-opening of the campus may look like. They include a contact tracing program, use of CDC-recommended cleaning chemicals and infection control practices, as well as making hand sanitizer available across campus.

"Like all of you, I eagerly anticipate our return to campus," Pepperdine President Jim Gash said in the post. "But until that day comes, my prayer is that we continue to support one another and advance our mission using the attributes that define who we are and the work we do: our collective courage, creativity, character, compassion, and conviction."