Thousands Of College Students Are Moving Into SoCal Dorms. Can Campuses Curb The COVID Risk?

A student stands with his belongings while moving out of his dormitory at San Diego State University in San Diego, California, on March 18, 2020. Universities are allowing students to return to dorms for the fall semester on a limited basis. (Sandy Huffaker/AFP via Getty Images)

Our news is free on LAist. To make sure you get our coverage: Sign up for our daily coronavirus newsletter. To support our nonprofit public service journalism: Donate now.

When the current fall semester began, Cal Poly Pomona opened a small portion of its dorms to 250 students and issued the now-usual warnings about social distancing and other practices to curb the spread of COVID-19.

On the Friday after move-in, seven students held a party.

"In all honesty, I was a little disappointed," said Jestin Kiriu-Dela Cruz, a third-year student who's a resident advisor in the building where the party took place.

With news from different parts of the country about COVID outbreaks at colleges — including USC, where last week officials announced "an alarming increase" in coronavirus cases — administrators at Southern California schools are tightening protocols at dorms.

"I feel that people should be taking better responsibility of themselves, and really recognizing what's happening in the world," Kiriu-Dela Cruz said, "but at the same time I feel for them, you know, you want to have that first year college experience."

He said students were remorseful after staff talked to them and they understood that having a party during the pandemic was reckless.

Slowing the spread is proving more difficult to control in off-campus housing.

Prior to its announcement last week, USC reported an outbreak on its fraternity row that left at least 40 people infected. The Associated Press reported on Monday that Cal State Chico is asking all students to leave campus housing because nearly all on-campus residences have at least one positive case and there are concerns the numbers will increase.

Southern California university administrators say they are determined not to join the list of other universities across the nation that have experienced large outbreaks.

"We have a late start," said UC Irvine Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Willie Banks. "We can actually use all of the schools, including USC, to see what they have done and see what we can learn from their process and also from their experiences."

That's resulted in more electronic messages to students and appointments to talk to UC Irvine's fraternities.

FALL DORM POPULATIONS

  • UCLA 2020: 700* 2019: 13,600*
  • UC RIVERSIDE 2020: 3,500* 2019: 6,500*
  • UC IRVINE 2020: 5,700 2019: 13,650
  • CSU LONG BEACH 2020: 328 2019: 2,722
  • CSU NORTHRIDGE 2020: 300* 2019: 3000*
  • CSU LOS ANGELES 2020: 55 2019: 900
  • CSU DOMINGUEZ HILLS 2020: 107 2019: 645
  • CAL POLY POMONA 2020: 250 2019: 3,700

*denotes university estimate

'ZOT PODS' AND OTHER RULES

UC Irvine is opening a portion of its dorms for the beginning of its quarter on October 1. But the Orange County campus is taking a more stringent approach to rules for students in its dorms.

When students move in, they'll have to show proof that they've taken a COVID-19 test within the prior seven days and that it came back negative. Once in their dorms, they'll have to quarantine for seven days.

"We're calling it a Zot Pod," named after UCI's anteater mascot, said Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Edgar Dormitorio. "The goal here is to make sure that they are not mixing with other students, which would increase the spread of COVID."

Besides rules to wash hands regularly, wear face coverings, and keep six feet apart, UC Irvine is requiring students in the dorms and anyone else who comes to campus to fill out a daily symptom checker that asks if they have had any COVID-19 symptoms.

UCLA informed students that they'll be tested for COVID-19 when they arrive on campus to move in and will have to isolate in their dorms until they receive their results. A positive result will lead to quarantine in an "isolation unit" for two weeks.

Cal State Long Beach and other Cal State campuses are not requiring students to be tested or provide proof of testing negative for COVID-19.

THE STAKES ARE HIGH

At Cal Poly Pomona, students approved for on-campus housing must demonstrate some kind of urgent need, like lack of Internet access for online learning or having no other housing options.

"We want to make sure that housing supports them in that, and they understand that this is a support structure for them," said Megan Stang, executive director for University Housing Services.

Like the other Southern California public universities, Cal State Fullerton is banning outside visitors at campus housing.

Cal State Fullerton is restricting outside visitors in campus housing. (Stock photo by Matthew Gush/Courtesy of CSU Fullerton/Flickr Creative Commons)

"We'd have a conversation with them, ideally educational in nature, to help them follow the guidelines so they could remain in the community," said Larry Martin, the university's executive director for Housing and Residential Engagement.

"If there's a pattern of behavior where they're unable to uphold these or any other of our policies, we have to have a conversation about whether they could continue to stay in the community."

Some students are hopeful that they can complete their academic year without major disruptions due to outbreaks.

"We have to have a common goal," said UC Irvine senior Dominic Pastorelle, who lives on campus as part of his job as president of the campus housing association."Hopefully we're all focused on being here to better our lives."

Bettering their lives, he said, means staying healthy.

Correction: A previous version of this story transposed the Cal Poly Pomona dorm populations and gave an incorrect number for UCLA's dorm population in Fall, 2020. LAist regrets the error.