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600 UC San Diego students and faculty ask university to drop plans to reopen campus

UC San Diego plans to place about 7,500 undergraduates in dorms over a 10-day period later this month.
UC San Diego plans to place about 7,500 undergraduates in dorms over a 10-day period later this month. Each of the students would be tested for the coronavirus upon arrival, then retested roughly two weeks later.
(K.C. Alfred / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The letter notes that many universities have experienced coronavirus outbreaks when they opened dorms.

Nearly 600 UC San Diego students, faculty and staff have signed an open letter asking the university to drop plans to place thousands of undergraduates in dorms and resume some in-person classes, citing the threat posed by the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The letter notes that many universities, including Notre Dame and the University of Alabama, experienced coronavirus outbreaks when they opened dorms and that “to imagine that UCSD will be an exception to this rule is both arrogant and negligent.”

The plea came during the Labor Day holiday weekend, in which 2,600 students were confined to their dorms at San Diego State University, where nearly 300 students have tested positive for the virus.

Nearly 600 students and faculty of UC San Diego signed a letter asking the university to roll back its Return to Learn plan for the fall semester.

The UCSD letter was co-authored by Danny Heinz, a doctoral student who told The San Diego Union-Tribune, “I am concerned that there will be an outbreak that could spread beyond campus to the community and that it could sacrifice the education of children, shut down business and affect the public’s health.”

The letter — whose signatories include UCSD neuroscientists Nick Spitzer and Ralph Greenspan — targets Return to Learn, a plan that’s meant to restore a degree of normalcy to one of the country’s fastest-growing research schools.

Among other things, the plan calls for placing about 7,500 undergraduates in dorms over a 10-day period later this month. Each of the students would be tested for the virus upon arrival, then retested roughly two weeks later.

The plan further requires that UCSD students and employees who visit the campus or any other UCSD location to conduct daily self-screening for symptoms of COVID-19.

The letter cited a Union-Tribune story that said 252 UCSD students, staff and health care workers have tested positive for the virus even though in-person classes are not yet underway. The letter also cited a different U-T story that said the university had been unwilling to share details of its safety programs in recent weeks.

UCSD officials defended their plan Sept. 7, telling the Union-Tribune in a statement that Return to Learn “is a multifaceted, proactive strategy to detect SARS CoV-2 (which causes COVID-19) in our campus community so that we can reduce transmission of the virus to the greatest extent possible.”

“This past Friday, a system developed by campus experts enabled us to detect trace amounts of virus in wastewater. This program allows us to detect the virus before symptoms appear. We were able to alert those who may potentially have been affected that they should be tested as soon as possible out of an abundance of caution.

“Courses will be delivered predominantly online, with about 12 percent offered in person or in a hybrid format. Students have the choice to live on campus, off campus or remain at home, as well as enroll in all remote, hybrid or in-person courses.”

The open letter challenges the plan, saying: “When it comes to public health, we do not believe a top-down approach can effectively control the behavior of individuals within the community.

“Rather, the university’s refusal to acknowledge fears about Return to Learn, as well as the release of recent data on the university’s budget and finances, suggests that the university is being run as a business rather than as a community and that financial incentives are being prioritized at the expense of community well-being.”

Many of the nation’s top research universities have tried to prevent coronavirus outbreaks, only to fail. They include the University of Illinois, which last week announced that about 700 students have tested positive for the virus.

UCSD says it is likely that some of the 7,500 incoming undergraduates will be infected.

Maybe it will be 30, maybe it will be 20, maybe it will be 40,said Dr. Angela Scioscia, interim executive director of student health and well-being at UCSD. “I don’t expect 100. That would be a bit of a surprise.

“We think a two-week surveillance plan has a very high likelihood of picking up an outbreak very early.”

Scioscia also said that quickly isolating and, if necessary, treating infected students will greatly reduce the chances that the virus would spread widely.

Cathy Gere, a UCSD history professor who signed the open letter, doesn’t share that view.

“I appreciate the fact that the administration is having to make difficult choices under difficult timelines,” Gere said. “But the idea that we can dictate student behavior and roll out technical solutions has been shown again and again to be demonstrably untrue.” ◆