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Opinion: Students need details, transparency about potential return to campus in fall 2021

(Catherine Xie/Daily Bruin)

By Arielle Powell

Jan. 30, 2021 2:35 p.m.

This post was updated Jan. 31 at 6:53 p.m.

Many Bruins got their first ray of hope for a normal college experience when UCLA announced its plan to return to mostly in-person classes in fall 2021.

But without a clear plan and direct communication from the university, that hope won’t amount to much.

The University of California announced Jan. 11 that all UC campuses, including UCLA, are planning a return to in-person classes in the fall. At the same time, though, they must adhere to state and local COVID-19 guidelines, which can change at any time.

The current status of LA as a COVID-19 hotspot makes the dangerous and unpredictable nature of the situation painfully clear. And that doesn’t even include the potential spikes that may arise because of reopenings and mass travel during the months ahead.

UCLA spokesperson Bill Kisliuk said in an emailed statement that it is currently too early to determine when LA County will reach the point where it is safe for UCLA students to return to campus.

Because of these uncertainties, UCLA cannot give students a definitive answer on what orientation will look like come fall 2021.

If UCLA plans on following through with its promises for a return to in-person instruction later this year, it must be prepared for all possible scenarios and communicate with students exactly what they can expect to see in the fall. Transparency is vital to protecting students’ health and facilitating such substantial change.

Because without it, Bruins won’t know what to expect.

Administrative Vice Chancellor Michael Beck announced at a Graduate Students Association forum on Jan. 20 that in-person classes will likely have COVID-19 mitigation efforts, including social distancing and wearing masks. While it is nice to see that a return to campus will still include efforts to reduce potential COVID-19 spikes, social distancing could be difficult in larger lectures.

UCLA also announced a plan to have housing open at 75% capacity. However, it did not mention options for the 25% of students who will not receive housing, nor did it specify which students would comprise the 75% offered housing.

“I think part of what makes any institution or people who are higher in power more reliable is when they come out with detailed plans,” said Natalia Pacheco, a first-year film and television student.

The specific details of UCLA’s plan to return to campus are just as crucial as its big-picture ideas. While it may have been beneficial in the short term for UCLA to get ahead of other schools announcing a return, its lack of solidified plans at the moment still leaves many students in a state of uncertainty.

This is especially true for international students in areas where COVID-19 restrictions are different than those in the U.S. and LA County. For these students, there is a possibility that travel might not be an option later this year.

At the very least, UCLA needs to make sure students still have the option to take virtual classes to accommodate for those who can’t come to campus, whether that be because of travel restrictions or personal health concerns. Students deserve to be able to rely on their school for basic information on the future of their academic careers, especially in these uncertain times.

“Definitely, the transparency is a must for me as a paying student. I want to know what’s going on (and) what to expect,” said Lauren Whipple, a third-year political science student. “Let us know in advance (and) have the right data.”

Transparency can also help students who’ve felt disconnected from their campus.

Incoming students who entered UCLA during fall 2020 have exclusively had an online college experience, which means UCLA must provide resources such as information sessions and student campus tours to help students acclimate to the brand new environment.

“My first college classes were all online, so how would they plan to reassimilate freshmen, for example, into that college life?” Pacheco said.

A college experience isn’t solely confined to the classroom. It’s also unrealistic to expect the pandemic’s adverse effects to cease once most people are vaccinated. Financial uncertainty will likely persist, and with it, the lingering difficulties of meeting basic needs.

“It’s better to take a proactive approach than a reactive one,” said Justin An, a first-year political science student.

UCLA should bear in mind all aspects of what a return to campus would look like when students are still in school. The last thing Bruins need is another empty promise from administrators.

With something as unpredictable as COVID-19, it is extremely difficult to make definite plans nine months in advance. The state’s slow vaccine rollout and potential mutations of the virus may also throw a wrench in the university’s plans. California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s decision to lift California regional stay-at-home orders earlier this week further opens the potential for infection rates to rise and intensive care unit beds to fill.

Despite the potential for extraneous factors down the line, there’s no excuse for UCLA to not develop flexible plans that can adapt to the changing circumstances. The university has the time for fine-tuning the details now – and it should take full advantage of that before it’s too late.

UCLA’s efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 if in-person classes were to happen, as well as its hopes to give Bruins a more normal college experience, do not go unnoticed.

But, if UCLA really wants to make these plans a reality, it is crucial that it considers all potential factors, now.

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