San Diego State University is quiet and nearly deserted while classes are not in session.
San Diego State University is quiet and nearly deserted while classes are not in session. Photo by Chris Stone

Classes at San Diego State University and the rest of the 23-campus CSU system will remain primarily online during the fall term, Chancellor Timothy White announced Tuesday, saying predictions of possible surges in COVID-19 cases later in the year mandate steps to protect students and faculty.

SDSU President Adela de la Torre later announced the creation of “SDSU Flex,” which she says will offer “maximum opportunities for students to remain fully engaged with their faculty, staff members, peers and SDSU alumni — no matter their physical location.”

It also provides flexibility to faculty, reducing the number of courses that may be needed to transition to fully virtual in the event of a second wave of the virus, she said in a campuswide email.

“Our model will also provide extensive time for faculty to prepare and modify their courses for the fall, in ways that differ drastically from the emergency move this spring,” de la Torre said.

Here’s what she laid out in her email:

Through the SDSU Flex model for Fall 2020, we will:

  • Expand existing, customized training for faculty members around course design and teaching, which will also address accessibility and inclusivity, to ensure quality education. A training institute was launched for faculty earlier this afternoon. Faculty can learn more or sign up by visiting the Instructional Technology Services Training & Workshops site.
  • Significantly expand online activities and student support service, and also maintain robust financial aid for our students.
  • Carefully open the campus in phases based on the guidelines shared in our campus update email last week, beginning with faculty who need to return to their research or creative work in on-campus facilities.
  • Continue to collaborate with county public health officials and to advocate the return of research and instructional faculty to campus as soon as permitted, and as we can safely increase support staffing to maintain campus safety.

Next Steps

What occurred this spring, with the rise of the first wave of this new pandemic was unprecedented. It required emergency flexibility, extraordinary adaptations to how we teach and learn, and other urgent and highly disruptive transitions, necessitated by a rapidly changing policy environment.

We now have the benefit of improved projections from global, federal, state, and county health agencies, and all warn of a significant fall resurgence. No vaccine is anticipated by August, nor is there certainty around the efficacy of any of the therapeutics currently being explored by researchers — including San Diego State Researchers — and clinicians around the country.

Ultimately, we cannot gamble that testing and treatment will be so substantially improved by August that we may return to full or majority in-person classes, and therefore position ourselves for another large and emergency move away from campus, if required by the county or state.

However, these challenges will not stop us from investing fully in the classroom, technology, testing, and health and safety infrastructure necessary to ensure we can deliver in-person courses and experiences in fall for those areas that most need it. As noted above, these areas may include our lab courses, nursing and clinical experiences, art studio, life science and engineering projects, and a number of other areas. These decisions will be made in the coming weeks in concert with our faculty, public health experts, facilities experts, and the CSU system. For the rest of fall coursework occurring in the virtual space, we now have the benefit of four months of prep time.

Last week, I shared information about our guiding principles, which are informing all levels of analysis, planning and decision-making. These principles will guide decisions about additional details of SDSU Flex and our plans.

SDSU Flex is being designed with our campus culture in mind, informed by our strengths in offering high-touch and high-interaction experiences among and between faculty and students. Our solution will retain or improve student-to-faculty ratios for in-person, improve high-touch advising, with virtual offerings that are both diverse and inclusive, meeting the specific needs of our students.

Speaking to members of the CSU Board of Trustees during an online meeting, Chancellor White said there will be “limited exceptions for in-person activities that cannot be delivered virtually, are indispensable to the university’s core mission and can be conducted within the rigorous standards of safety and welfare.”

He said such exceptions could include clinical nursing classes, life-science laboratory courses and interactive architecture or engineering programs.

“But anything done on a campus this fall won’t be as it was in the past, it will be different,” White said. “This is a new and expensive reality for us. For those limited courses where in-person instruction is indispensable and can be justified, enrollment per section will be less.”

He said social-distancing guidelines will also be mandated, along with personal protective equipment and heightened cleaning standards.

The CSU system moved to a “virtual mode” in mid-March as the coronavirus pandemic heightened.

White said planning for the fall term has focused almost exclusively on continued virtual learning, based on experts’ predictions about the virus’ continued impact. He said infections and deaths are “beginning to plateau or subside in some, but not all, regions of California.”

“The nonpartisan academic researchers and medical and public health experts forecast a second smaller wave later in summer, followed by a very significant wave coupled with influenza forecast for late fall, and another wave in the first quarter of 2021,” White told the board.

“Experts also point out that immunity in the population is now approaching the 2 to 3% range, and needs to be in the 60 to 80% percent range to begin to achieve the so-called `herd immunity.’ That won’t happen in the next 18 months, and there’s no vaccine yet. And while hope springs eternal, it is unlikely that one will become widely available during the coming academic year.”

— City News Service contributed to this report