Students, UC Berkeley must respond swiftly, responsibly to largest COVID-19 outbreak to date

CAMPUS AFFAIRS: A sharp uptick in cases last week reveals flawed student decisions, campus plans

Illustration of UC Berkeley's Foothill housing swelling, as if about to burst, with coronavirus particles
Rachel Lee/Staff

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Just a couple of weeks ago, it appeared UC Berkeley might escape the COVID-19 pandemic relatively unscathed compared to other college campuses.

But a dramatic spike in cases last week — a whopping 151 positive tests in the span of just five days, almost one-quarter of all positive tests reported on campus since August — has proved otherwise. To make matters worse, two students tested positive Thursday for the potentially more dangerous coronavirus variant first identified in the U.K.

More than one year into the pandemic, it seems we’re back at square one, with students recklessly ignoring public health guidelines and administration scrambling to adjust.

Demonstrating just how serious this case spike is — and also calling into question the contingency plans campus has in place — all dormitories were hastily placed under lockdown Monday. Residents were told to remain in their rooms at all times for at least one week.

This latest surge is gravely disappointing, and we must all reflect on what has gone wrong to ensure we respond accordingly.

For some unfathomable reason, UC Berkeley students — and undergraduates in particular — still seem to feel as though attending parties or spending extended periods of time in close, unmasked contact with others is acceptable. It is not.

Either due to selfishness on the part of students or lack of enforcement on the part of campus, rules put in place to deter student gatherings aren’t working. Everybody must improve. The same applies to students sequestering in residence halls: Campus must allocate enough resources and personnel to ensure residents are following orders, and students must remain safe and responsible.

Testing must also be sped up and expanded. Recently, students have reported waiting as long as five days to receive results, and delays this long can be catastrophic, particularly during an outbreak.

During the residence hall lockdown, resident assistants, or RAs, have been charged with monitoring and assisting one or more floors of self-sequestering students. This is a heavy burden to bear, as RAs have their own academic and personal obligations. RAs have become de facto front-line workers, and campus should treat them as such. According to campus spokesperson Adam Ratliff, RAs have been supplied with personal protective equipment and other health and wellness accommodations. Still, students have reported shortages. Campus must continue supplying enough resources to ensure the well-being of all student staff.

Over the summer, The Daily Californian advised students to prioritize public safety over an idealized college experience. We’ve urged students to follow public health guidelines and to not grow complacent. All the while, we’ve called on administration to prepare appropriately for worst-case scenarios.

Campus leaders were pressed in the fall about how they would respond should a serious outbreak occur on campus. Until two weeks ago, their plans had gone largely untested. Now, time is of the essence.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the spring 2021 opinion editor, Jericho Rajninger.