Orange County’s college and K-12 school students have largely come back to campus over the last two weeks while educators make in-person learning the norm again — and in many cases, an unwavering requirement.
At major local colleges like Chapman University, Cal State Fullerton (CSUF) and the University of California, Irvine (UCI), which has yet to start classes, students numbering in the tens of thousands are being told to come into class physically — with some varying remote learning accommodations — while differing Covid-19 data from each university gives differing pictures of student safety.
Much of the attention, however, has been on Chapman, amid a disproportionately large number of Covid-19 infections and outbreaks at the school and serious safety concerns voiced by students and teachers.
The private university located in Orange reported 274 people sick with Covid-19, on and off campus as of Sept. 6, according to Chapman’s latest available data published online.
Before the Labor Day weekend, the number was at 259 on Sept. 2.
The upsurge in cases came after an orientation period which some students say was marked by in-person gatherings and parties off campus.
The rising numbers and spiking concern also came just as a major street fair came to the Orange Circle over the long weekend.
The outbreaks exposed university officials to scrutiny over the last few days about their in-person learning requirements and a refusal to give some students the option of remote, online study.
The university administration has largely doubled down on its commitment to ensuring as many people are present for classes in person as possible.
Yet, most recently, university president Daniele Struppa — facing questions about a lack of contact tracers on campus — announced on Sept. 6 the school would expand staffing for such contact tracing services to inform students of potential exposure in a more timely manner.
Chapman administrators argue they’re giving students back their typical college experience, and during a virtual town hall with parents convened last Friday, Sept. 3, Chapman Provost Norma Bouchard said the school’s decision “distinguishes” the university in terms of academic success.
It’s currently distinguishing the private college in another way.
Some concerned students have embarked on an internet campaign amid Chapman’s explosion of cases, fighting back in an online Change.org petition against what they call “a breakdown of information between students, faculty, and administration.”
“They want us to have a normal year, but their actions have resulted in the opposite of that,” said Davis Dubose-Marler, a screenwriting major who graduates this year, who has been part of recent calls to enhance Chapman’s campus safety measures.
On Aug. 30, the first day of classes, there were 22 reported Coronavirus cases at the school, according to an excel spreadsheet kept by a Chapman professor that was shared with Voice of OC and confirmed by the university.
“Nothing could have prepared us for the second day,” Dubose-Marler said in a Friday interview.
On Aug. 31, the same spreadsheet showed 87 cases.
The next day, there were 163.
By Sept. 2, the case count had swelled to 259.
Cal State Fullerton — a public university with a rough estimate of 40,000 students — records its Covid-19 outbreak data differently, reporting new cases every week.
Between Aug. 17 and Aug. 24, there were 55 new cases both on and off of that school’s campus.
At the University of California, Irvine (UCI) — a public university with a rough estimate of 33,000 students — classes haven’t started yet, beginning on Sept. 30.
There were 21 active Covid-19 cases on campus as of Sept. 3, according to the latest data available and updated daily on the school’s virus information dashboard.
On one hand, Chapman’s move was welcomed by some parents during a Friday town hall last week for ensuring that students get the college experience they signed up for, and even students in the Change.org petition acknowledge the return to campus has been “incredibly rewarding.”
Yet, Dubose-Marler said in a Tuesday interview, “some students want the option of remote learning so it’s more of a personal choice rather than something enforced across the board, by people who shouldn’t be in charge of our safety.”
The Change.org petition calls for the university to “provide a hybrid model for students to use at their own discretion. If the University will not make classes safe, it should be in the hands of students to decide if going to class is in their best interest.”
County of Orange public health officials, asked about the situation during a Friday call with reporters, refused to say anything in specific about what may be driving the school’s case spike or what the county was doing to help the school address it.
The County of Orange’s own Coronavirus tracking dashboard doesn’t give a full picture of risk and Covid-19 prevalence at the county’s college campuses.
The County of Orange’s Coronavirus dashboard, while including numbers for many institutions, doesn’t include any updated numbers for colleges over the last week.
Just as classes opened up.
That means the only numbers students and parents have to work with are those put by those specific universities like Chapman and CSUF.
And because the universities collect data in different ways, it makes their virus counts tougher to compare or to contextualize.
Chapman university officials believe the spike “is likely a mix of asymptomatic individuals returning to campus and other beginning of the year activities that played a role in the current case count,” said university spokesperson Jamie Ceman in response to questions Friday.
University officials say nearly 90% of the school’s student body is vaccinated. Unvaccinated students are currently required to get tested twice a week.
Students who are vaccinated and may be carrying the virus don’t have to prove they don’t have it, though “anyone is welcome to test if they have concerns,” Ceman said.
Yet some students say that the protections Chapman officials note just don’t always translate into the classroom.
“Classes are packed, students are sitting so close to one another that chairs are touching, inches away from one another,” said one faculty member who spoke to Voice of OC on the condition of anonymity Friday, fearing retaliation by the university administration.
Ceman, in another email, said “faculty have been given full authority in how they teach, including the flexibility to provide Zoom, recorded lectures or classroom materials in whatever way they see fit to keep students who are either in isolation or quarantine current with their classes. All classrooms are equipped with the technology needed to support this.”
The professor who spoke to Voice of OC anonymously said that comes with its own concerns:
“Yesterday (Thursday last week), in my class, I allowed two students to attend online via Zoom … they told me I’m their only professor who’s done that for them,” the professor said.
“Students sit shoulder to shoulder in packed classes and are penalized for absences with no online alternative. Those who live with COVID positive roommates are told they are not a safety hazard, and that they should attend class if they’ve tested negative,” reads the student Change.org petition.
“There are a growing number of students who have had to personally petition teachers to stay home, as they know that their COVID exposure makes them a risk to students and faculty,” it adds.
Both the professor and Dubose-Marler said on Friday there were few contact tracers on campus. And those that are there are overworked and may not be notifying students of potential exposures in time for them to take action to adequately protect their health.
A few days later, in a Sept. 6 message, Chapman President Daniele Struppa announced that the school “enhanced the internal contract tracing staff with additional, external support.”
“Effectively immediately, Rapid-Trace, a leader in contact tracing with specific expertise in working with higher education institutions, will begin working with Chapman under the supervision of Student Health Services,” Struppa wrote.
“The protocols in place for slowing the spread are just broken — the system is buckling under the amount of cases,” the professor said on Friday, adding there needs to be an option for all students to learn remotely:
“Faculty feel afraid to come into class. We’re getting emails from students who say they’ve tested positive. Nobody wants to teach in an environment like that.”
Bouchard during Friday’s town hall with parents said there are no plans to implement a university-wide remote learning option, saying students’ academic success rests on “high-impact practices, co-curricular experience and of course face-to-face experience in the classroom.”
Bouchard said “there was a loss to the advancement of academic excellence” in online learning when Chapman and other universities made the pivot in the initial throes of the pandemic.
“At this time, there are no plans for a return to remote learning,” she said.
“Remember, we are not a place that doesn’t care if you come to class or not, we care if you come to class,” said Chapman Dean of Students Jerry Price during the town hall, after saying the school has been following all public health guidelines.
There were some parents — only able to speak during the forum through submitted comments in the chat section — who commended the university’s decision to allow what some called “giving our students so many opportunities for a normal college experience.”
“We have tried to be guided by science and not just winging it,” said Price, noting that the university had consulted the latest practices from the CDC and the California Department of Public Health.
“If you had a close contact with someone but are not symptomatic and you’re vaccinated, you should be able to go on with your life,” Price said. “But you should go get tested if you become symptomatic, and we have been following that.”
Brandon Pho is a Voice of OC staff writer and corps member at Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @photherecord.
Chapman University spokesperson Jamie Ceman’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this story. It has since been corrected.
This story was updated for clarity to reflect the fact that the University of California, Irvine (UCI) has not started Fall semester classes yet, and will start on Sept. 30.