California State University, the largest four-year public university system in the country, announced Tuesday it intends to go without in-person instruction for most classes in the fall term, a major signal that the coronavirus pandemic will keep some college campuses largely empty for months to come.
The plans will mean a continuation of remote teaching at all 23 campuses in the Cal State system, affecting most of its 482,000 students. Exceptions could be made for laboratory-intensive courses and certain others, officials said.
Cal State's decision contrasts with a growing movement elsewhere in the country to reopen university campuses in the fall - or at least, announce the intention to do so.
Like most colleges and universities, Cal State shifted rapidly to online instruction in March as the coronavirus spread through the United States. The health crisis has created enormous complications for schools with a mission focused on gathering people together in classrooms, residences, dining halls and other campus venues.
In recent weeks, officials at many other major public universities have proclaimed their plans to welcome students back to campus in the fall, albeit with restrictions. Some schools have been circumspect, saying they plan to make a decision in the next several weeks. Few have openly declared that they will be running mostly online.
Cal State Chancellor Timothy White disclosed the decision during a meeting of the system's Board of Trustees.
"We're going to be only using virtual instruction, with limited exceptions, for the fall 2020 term," Mike Uhlenkamp, a Cal State spokesman, said in a telephone interview. "This is giving us the most options possible right now."
Uhlenkamp said the decision was made in the "best interests of health and safety of faculty, staff and students." He emphasized that officials are still in the planning phase, and he said the system informed California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, before announcing its intentions.
Thomas Norman, a professor of management at California State University at Dominguez Hills and a faculty leader in the system, said he appreciated the flexibility built into the proposal, allowing for classes that require lab work, for example, to have some form of face-to-face instruction. "Nursing is really important to me, seeing as we need nurses to fight this pandemic," Norman said, so he was glad to see an exception could be made for them to get some training in person.
"I am optimistic that faculty will have some say in which classes have some meetings," he said, and that the health of students and faculty is being cared for.
The Cal State decision is separate from the deliberations of the University of California, which is the state's most prominent public research institution. UC has nine undergraduate campuses. Its officials are intensively reviewing various scenarios for the fall semester.
Most Cal State students live off campus, according to Uhlenkamp. The university's outposts span the length of the nation's most populous state, from San Diego State in the south to Humboldt State in the north.
Lynn Mahoney, president of San Francisco State, said in a message to the campus community that the decision was made "with a heavy heart."
"What makes universities unique and wonderful places also makes them uniquely vulnerable to the spread of disease - ask any faculty member who has faced a class full of coughing students in January or any student who has lived in a densely populated residence hall," Mahoney wrote. "We thrive on social interaction, on working huddled closely around a table, in a studio or over a microscope. Mitigating a highly contagious disease under these circumstances is near impossible and would be prohibitively expensive."
The cost barriers are especially daunting as California, like other states, faces major fiscal challenges.
“We’re glad to finally have an announcement from the chancellor,” Charles Toombs, president of the California Faculty Association and a professor of Africana studies at San Diego State. While faculty appreciate White’s push for cohesive advance planning, Toombs said, “we hope we learn from mistakes that were made during the spring term. We expect to see faculty participation every step of the way.”