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UC Classes Return In Person, With A Mix of Optimism And Concern

Masked students walk through the courtyard at a college campus, some glance down at their phones.
Part of the univerity's student center is devoted to on-site testing, which is offered 6 days per week.
(Julia Barajas
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After a temporary shift back to remote learning following winter break, the UC system’s nine undergraduate campuses resumed in-person instruction this week.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been rough on college students, requiring them to be flexible as officials alter modes of instruction in response to fluctuating infection rates.

The last few weeks of online instruction were meant to protect campus communities from the highly contagious omicron variant, allowing “for the bulk of the surge to pass and for cases to decline,” according to David Souleles, who directs the COVID-19 response team at UC Irvine.

“Throughout the entire pandemic,” he added, the campus has not seen “any evidence of significant transmission in the classroom.” Plus, about 99 percent of students have met the vaccine mandate and numbers for booster shot compliance are growing. To speed things up, the campus will be implementing vaccination clinics.

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At a courtyard outside the student center, masked students met up between classes Monday, taking in a bit of sun as food delivery robots and skateboarders whizzed by.

I just want to be here, in person, as long as possible.
— Maria Andrade, UC Irvine student

“A big group of my friends just came up to me and said ‘hi,’ and if classes weren’t in person, that wouldn't have happened,” said Maria Andrade, a third year biology major who was reveling in the scene.

Learning online is challenging for her, she added. To retain information, she’s had to study twice as hard. Still, she’s managed to stay focused and is even graduating early. But the pandemic marred her college experience, and she wants to enjoy everything she can.

“I just want to be here, in person, as long as possible,” she said.

Kiku Yoneda, also a third year biology major, nodded along as she listened to her friend. However, she emphasized that being on campus is about more than the ability to socialize.

“Not being able to get hands-on experience in the lab is really detrimental to my academic career and professional career,” she said. “When I apply to industry jobs or grad school, they’re going to want researchers who have experience.”

Out And About, But Not Quite The Same

Jennifer Maldonado, a second year biology major, was also glad to be back on campus. Her undergraduate career, she said, has felt like a series of fits and starts.

“It's just nice to come out and be on campus with other people,” Maldonado added. “I’ve been holed up in my room, and being on the computer all day gives me a headache.”

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Luis Hernandez, a fourth year chemistry major, said he didn’t mind being back on campus. But he remembers what it was like to be in college before the pandemic, “and you just can't compare it to what we have now,” he said, gazing out at all the masked students before him.

Hernandez is a first-generation college student, so walking the stage at graduation means a lot to him and his family. He worries another variant might get in the way. “I just want this to be over,” he added.

Anxiety And Frustration

At UC Irvine, parts of the student center are now devoted to on-site testing, which is offered six days per week. Vaccines, booster shots and KN-95, surgical or multiple-layer cloth masks are also mandatory.

Even so, Rayleen Fontalera, who is a third year psychology major, said she was “a little anxious.” In her view, officials “have done everything they can to keep [students] safe, but there are some things you can’t control.”

Elsewhere in Southern California, some UC students have turned to social media to protest the return to in-person learning, urging peers to skip class this week. At UCLA, dozens of students staged a weeklong sit-in, calling for the campus to provide remote-learning options for all classes. Student leaders said they had a meeting scheduled with Chancellor Gene Block on Friday to discuss their concerns.

Some students at UC Irvine are asking for similar options.

“What we’re demanding is universal access, and that means that everyone can self-determine whether they need to continue learning online — no documentation needed, no questions asked,” said Canton Winer, a fifth year doctoral student in the sociology department, at a town hall hosted by the UC Student Association.

Their demands have won support from UC Irvine's sociology and dance departments, Winer added. “That’s a really huge victory that we’re hoping to use to pressure the other departments and eventually the entire UC system.”

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