UC Berkeley professors talk reopening, ‘reimagining’ post-pandemic life

People walking in Berkeley
Maya Valluru/File
During a webcast hosted by Berkeley Conversations, UC Berkeley professors discussed the campus's role in COVID-19 testing and the future of public health.

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In the wake of the news that UC Berkeley’s spring 2021 semester will consist of mostly remote instruction, Berkeley Conversations hosted a panel of professors Monday to address the factors affecting the campus’s reopening.

Sponsored by the School of Public Health and moderated by Dean Michael Lu, this conversation, titled “Reopening and Reimagining after COVID-19,” was part of a series of live webcasts that began in April to address issues related to the pandemic. During this webcast, panelists discussed topics ranging from CRISPR testing and campus’s decision for the spring semester to conditions for reopening and the future of public health as a whole.

On Wednesday, chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology professor Jennifer Doudna became the first woman at UC Berkeley to receive the Nobel Prize for her work in developing CRISPR-Cas9. According to the Innovative Genomics Institute’s Scientific Director of Technology and Translation Fyodor Urnov, this technology has uses beyond high-precision alterations to DNA, including COVID-19 testing.

Urnov added that in mid-March, the Bay Area called on the Innovative Genomics Institute with a dire need for testing, and it answered.

“We could have leaned back, but that’s not Jennifer Doudna,” Urnov said during the discussion. “Here we are, seven months into the pandemic, where a bunch of academics sitting in their ivory tower have pretty much dismantled that ivory tower and are testing daily folks across the East Bay and on campus.”

While the disease does not discriminate, Urnov added, the health care system does, so the institute’s goal is to test as many people as possible, especially more vulnerable populations.

Despite the fact that just 7 miles away from campus, 15% of those tested have COVID-19, UC Berkeley has managed to avoid an outbreak, according to Lu. This relative success prompted questions from the public about the decision to continue remote instruction in the spring semester.

In response, epidemiology professor Arthur Reingold said campus is being reasonably cautious.

“The general feeling is the only thing worse than not bringing people back is bringing them back and having to close everything down again two or three weeks later because of some massive outbreak,” Reingold said.

Reingold added that it is unlikely that the average college student or faculty member will be vaccinated by the middle of January. He also noted that there is realistically no way to return to “normal” in such a short amount of time.

Looking further into the future, however, panelists discussed the conditions that campus would need to meet before returning to “normal.” According to Reingold, campus has discussed allowing small groups of students to meet with faculty in outdoor settings.

While some classes may be offered in person, Reingold added, all will still be available online, and older faculty such as himself are encouraged to continue teaching remotely. The approach, he said, is not “one size fits all.”

“Of course, it’ll be stringently observed in terms of infection and social distancing and mask-wearing,” Reingold said. “The hope is that they will go well and allow us to expand that to larger numbers.”

Contact Veronica Roseborough at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @v_roseborough.