Students must choose online fall semester

CAMPUS AFFAIRS: Students opting for online semester will be essential for health, resolve campus’s ambiguity

Illustration of UC Berkeley's Campanile, as seen through a Zoom window
Emily Bi/Senior Staff

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When UC Berkeley announced June 17 it would conduct a hybrid semester for fall 2020, many of its plans and promises appeared unfeasible or unwise. Campus intends to house up to 6,500 students, for instance, staggering move-in times and reserving residential space for quarantine purposes. Even per-room occupant limitations, however, won’t ensure such a plan keeps students healthy.

Making instruction online-only after the Thanksgiving break also reveals a core tension in the hybrid plan: If students’ Thanksgiving travel plans impose greater risks on campus safety upon their return, why would students’ arrival en masse in August be any safer? Thousands of students converging on a city already fighting the disease could pose real risks to community residents, businesses and other students. Again, even capping in-person classes at 25 students won’t assure the community’s health. 

These challenges underline an essential truth: UC Berkeley cannot ensure its students’ health and safety, nor should it be expected to. For the well-being of their peers, staff, faculty and the Berkeley community, students should treat fall 2020 as an online-only semester. Students, after all, can be remote more readily than instructors and staff can.

Nationally, “hybrid” conditions — where states gradually reopened and relaxed public health protocols — produced a second surge of COVID-19. As case levels across the country break records day after day, students cannot and should not expect UC Berkeley to deliver a normal college experience. 

Nonacademic activities are rich parts of students’ college years, and many classes are fundamentally compromised by distance learning. Yet the value of such experiences pales in comparison to the risks of even a few thousand students visiting campus each day. 

The considerable resources required to keep campus facilities sufficiently sanitary could be spent instead on the tremendous task of transitioning all courses online — bolstering Disabled Students’ Program services and expanding software available to students. Campus plans for strengthening online courses leave much to be desired, and an online semester offers no excuse for subpar resources.

Amid tremendous uncertainty facing both UC Berkeley and its students, therefore, flexibility of all kinds will be vital. Extending Phase 1 enrollment was a strong first step, demonstrating how administrators can accommodate students’ needs. Suspending add/drop fees and defaulting again to pass/no pass grading could further honor students’ situations.

Ultimately, despite the profound uncertainty, UC Berkeley should seek to provide students as much predictability as possible. And at present, its only bulletproof option is a semester online, one where no lives are risked and students shelter in place as they weather the pandemic’s ongoing horror. Barring a change in campus plans, however, students themselves will need to take responsibility for their own health — and the health of the Berkeley community.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the summer 2020 opinion editor, Aidan Bassett.