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Cal Poly continues with in-person classes despite omicron, criticism 

Despite nearly 800 students testing positive for COVID-19 in the first week of the winter quarter, Cal Poly has no plans to move its classes online, according to university President Jeffrey Armstrong.

At a Jan. 11 meeting of the Cal Poly faculty senate, Armstrong defended his administration's decision to start the winter quarter in-person—telling faculty that he faces "an orchestra of ugly choices" but believes the classroom remains the best setting for instruction.

click to enlarge PRESIDENT SPEAKS Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong addressed the rise in COVID-19 cases on campus and criticism of his policies at a Jan. 11 meeting of the Faculty Senate. - FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF CAL POLY
  • File Photo Courtesy Of Cal Poly
  • PRESIDENT SPEAKS Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong addressed the rise in COVID-19 cases on campus and criticism of his policies at a Jan. 11 meeting of the Faculty Senate.

"We do know this omicron is more contagious, but it is also milder," Armstrong said. "I also believe our deans and department chairs ... we have accommodated faculty who have vulnerabilities. Vaccinated individuals without vulnerabilities—the risk is extremely low."

Cal Poly stands out among California's public universities in continuing with in-person instruction despite the omicron wave. A majority of the University of California campuses and at least 11 Cal State University campuses have delayed their in-person classes to start the quarter, according to Los Angeles Times reporting.

Armstrong noted that Cal Poly's omicron plan was endorsed by SLO County Public Health Officer Penny Borenstein, and claimed that those other campuses are also facing surges in COVID-19 cases.

"Being virtual is not a cure-all solution," Armstrong said. "Virtual courses are not stopping the spread of omicron at other universities. ... We also have significant negative consequences of virtual learning for our students."

In his comments, Armstrong rejected the recommendations of a Cal Poly faculty-led petition, signed by 3,500-plus campus community members, which demanded changes to the school's omicron policies, including giving faculty more flexibility to hold virtual classes at their discretion.

"We're sticking with our plan," Armstrong said. "I can't make decisions based on petitions or anxiety."

Under current policy, Cal Poly faculty may teach up to 25 percent of their classes via Zoom without official permission. Many faculty have already used up that quota, though, as a recent faculty survey found that 60 percent have opted to teach the first two weeks of the quarter remotely, due to the COVID-19 surge.

In response to that issue, Armstrong said that any concerned faculty can talk to their department heads to negotiate future accommodations on a case-by-case basis.

"It's a complicated situation. It's hard to have a one-size-fits-all [solution]," Armstrong said.

Armstrong also rejected another specific petition demand asking the school to mandate the use of N-95 or KN-95 masks in classrooms and provide those masks to campus community members. Armstrong said that he would commit to providing the masks to faculty who wanted them.

"N-95, KN-95 [masks are] not necessary for our situation," Armstrong said, citing guidance from county Public Health to use surgical masks.

Faculty senate members took turns on Jan. 11 peppering Armstrong with questions and critiques about the school's reopening—with one describing the past two weeks as "a mess." Students infected with COVID-19 are falling behind on their work, one member said, and there isn't clear communication from administrators about how to accommodate them.

Students are also struggling to navigate the quarter. On Jan. 6, Mustang News reported that Cal Poly had run out of on-campus isolation beds for infected students and began housing them in SLO hotel rooms, even offering $400 University Store gift cards to students who moved home to isolate. There's frustration and confusion among students about the outbreak protocols, according to Cal Poly ASI President Tess Loarie.

"Students just missing large amounts of coursework and not being provided clear instructions from anybody—that's definitely the biggest student complaint we've been getting," Loarie told the faculty senate on Jan. 11.

As the quarter moves forward, Cal Poly will continue to regularly test unvaccinated students for COVID-19, and it has set a Jan. 20 deadline for students to get their booster shots. Armstrong concluded the meeting by saying his administration remains "open" and is listening to the campus community.

"It's easy to second-guess or criticize—and it's appropriate and I welcome it," Armstrong said. "However it's an inescapable reality that we are in the midst still of a pandemic and there are no perfect solutions." Δ

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