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Interview: Chico State will start their spring semester with some in-person classes

California State University, Chico
Courtesy of MARELBU at Wikimedia Commons
California State University, Chico

Winter break is just about over for the nearly 500,000 students enrolled in the California State University system, with the spring semester starting on Monday on many campuses.

With the omicron surge hitting hard in both Sacramento County and rural areas, 17 of the 23 state campuses have decided to begin with primarily or fully remote learning in the first few weeks of the semester.

However, CSU Chico isn’t one of them. Classes are starting on Monday, and school president Gayle Hutchinson believes they can safely hold primarily in-person classes. She said the school is working with the Butte County Office of Public Health “every step of the way.”

“At this time, we feel that we can go ahead with a limited in-person [semester]. So the spring 2022 [semester] will mirror that of fall 2021, which is about 60% of our classes will be offered in-person and a number of services and activities will be available on campus,” she said. “But we’re not really fully at 100%.”

Hutchinson said that since the university has a 93% vaccination rate among students and faculty, the school can attempt a repeat from last year.

Just less than a mile from campus at the Enloe Medical Center, an omicron surge that’s expected to peak late this month is ongoing, leading to some questions about the safety of returning students to campus.

Hutchinson spoke with CapRadio Insight Host Vicki Gonzalez about the school's plan for the spring semester and more.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length

Interview Highlights

On how the university decided to mostly resume in-person learning

First and foremost, you must know every CSU campus is located in its own county with its own public health or county public health department.

All of us work to follow the California guidelines, but every county may interpret things a little bit differently, and every county has an infection rate that may vary across all other counties.

So we work in very close collaboration with the Butte County Office of Public Health and make sure that they understand what our thinking is every step of the way. We really look for their support and endorsement of the plans we make …
We had a highly successful fall semester. Ninety-three percent of our campus — so our students, faculty and staff — are vaccinated. And we know today that vaccination is one of the strongest tools we have to combat the coronavirus.

With a 93% vaccination rate, and now [we’re] getting ready to make sure that all employees and students have boosters, that really is our first line of protection. … We had a very successful in-person limited 61% fall [semester], and I think we can do the exact same thing this spring.

There are exceptions, and people are encouraged to apply for exceptions, and we go through those, and if they’re religious or medical and you have verification for them, we certainly approve them.

But a 93% vaccination rate is quite good. Also, we have a masking mandate. We are encouraging testing, [and] we’ve upped the number of tests that we have available on a daily basis [with] both PCR and … antigen tests as well. So I think we’re very well positioned and very well practiced based on what happened in the fall.

On the feedback the school's plan has been getting

It's mixed. And let's remind ourselves that we are moving, we are in a pandemic, and I think if you've listened to some of the experts across the country, and even the Biden administration, they're beginning to the conversation of, we really have to come to terms with the fact that we will be living with COVID and its many variants for some time to come.

Finding ways to live with the coronavirus in ways that allow us to engage in safety practices and stay home when we're feeling poorly or test positive. But at the same time, be moving forward and trying to live our lives to the best of our ability.

So it's been mixed. But the majority of faculty [and] staff are supportive in my opinion, and in my opinion, based on all the students that I'm talking to and the excitement that I feel on campus this week, they're very excited to be back.

On what the university is doing to keep students, faculty and staff safe

Yes, we’re in a county where we have a little over 50% fully vaccinated [residents], but with the majority of our faculty, staff and students vaccinated with a mask requirement in all of our buildings, and with other COVID safety protocols, I really do feel confident, and I think a lot of people here do as well, that it’s a pretty safe place to be …

So we’re working right now with a group that’s testing up to 600 PCR tests on a daily basis. We’re also asking the county to increase that number, and even increase the number of sites they have.

Then we’ll be setting up a drive-through testing opportunity for our students, staff and faculty. We’re running a booster clinic beginning on February 1st and 2nd … If people are eligible for boosters right now, we encourage people to get them. That’s going to help with protection. I believe [the] CDC changed the requirements from six months after your Moderna or Pfizer to five months.

So if you’re eligible, please get vaccinated. Faculty, staff and students have until Feb. 28 if they’re eligible to do so. If they missed that deadline, then we will require as soon as they’re eligible to get that booster within 14 days.

On a plan if students, faculty or staff get COVID-19

We will continue to watch what’s happening in the county and what’s happening with the spread of omicron or any other variant that comes our way …

What I’m hoping for, though, is that we manage … that we work to control, and understand that we may have to engage with one another and then maybe stop out because we’re feeling poorly, or we’ve been exposed or tested positive.

So I think it’s the same mantra that we had in the fall, that we’re going to manage it, and we managed cases on campus all fall.

I do expect a little bit of an increase when people return to campus, but I’ve asked people to work with their directors, department chairs, [and] deans to really figure out how we’re going to accommodate infection when it pops up in an area on campus.

Correction: In a previous version of this story, Gayle Hutchinson's name was misspelled.