Rushed reopening: Berkeley still expected to open fall 2021 amid outbreak and unclear timetable on vaccination allocation

Photo of UC Berkeley COVID vaccinations
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In January 2021, UC Berkeley published news that the UC system plans to offer in-person instruction in fall 2021, signaling a tentative step toward normality. While Chancellor Carol Christ said in an email to the UC Berkeley community that “this is exciting and represents a light at the end of what has been a difficult and challenging time for all of us,” the light she is referring to appears farther away than the email indicates.

UC Berkeley sent out a notice detailing a surge in COVID-19 cases among students living in the dorms. UC Berkeley’s COVID-19 cases totaled 138 at the beginning of February, with a daily case number of six Feb. 7 in comparison to zero at the start of January. Two of those students who tested positive contracted the U.K. variant of the virus, which is more contagious than the previous variant and prompted campus to ask students in the residence halls to self-sequester.

In California, this surge is no surprise. COVID-19 has been on the rise in the state since the 2020 holiday season, making January the deadliest month so far across the nation in the fight against the virus. The UC system’s decision to reopen was announced in January, and we haven’t seen a follow-up since, which puts into question the ethics of reopening this fall semester.

A major factor in this decision process is vaccine allocation. The Moderna COVID-19 vaccine arrived at UC Berkeley in early January, and the Tang Center began vaccinating Phase 1a on Jan. 12. This includes UC Berkeley clinical employees and trainees working in “core medical clinics, testing sites, or COVID-19 isolation/quarantine units,” as well as clinical employees and trainees “working within other healthcare and public health settings, including specialty clinics, laboratories and other testing facilities, pharmacies, and high-risk community care settings.”

UC Berkeley will continue to follow state guidelines for vaccination tiers, starting at high-risk professions and age groups and working down the list. According to the University Health Services vaccine FAQ, the institution expects that “the timeline will depend heavily on vaccine supply. We do expect that vaccines will be more widely available by the summer, but how quickly we will be able to move through the phases is TBD.”

It’s understandable that things may not go as planned. But to set forth the plan to move ahead, business as usual, over the possibility that students may not get vaccinated in time for the fall semester is irresponsible planning on the part of the UC system at large. This announcement should have been made toward the end or even middle of the spring semester when more of the UC Berkeley community has received a vaccination and there is a better idea of when vaccinations for the general student population will be available, but there is an economic angle when it comes to in-person learning.

When the COVID-19 shutdown began in March 2020, the UC system lost $558 million in housing and dining costs from students in that month alone. In April 2020, Christ announced, “The longer that normal operations are disrupted, the more dire the situation becomes. Current estimates place the budget impact of all of this in excess of $100 million and growing.” Chancellors and senior leaders from UC campuses proposed hiking up tuition and fees at the expense of students in order to compensate for their losses, yet in early January, California Gov. Gavin Newsom rejected their proposal, and he intends to provide more aid to help the hard-hit institutions in his 2021-22 budget proposal.

The reality is that anything could happen by the time August rolls around.

The UC system needs money and students on campus, ideally this fall. It can’t do that with an unvaccinated population. The need for vaccinated faculty and students goes beyond a concern for our safety and, more opaquely, a desire for student wallets. In order to pump out more graduates and for the university system to operate as a bustling economy, it needs to get shots in the arms of as many students as it can.

There is nothing wrong with pushing for vaccinations as a result of the push to reopen campuses. Students and faculty alike desire to go back to what they initially signed up for when choosing to study or work at UC Berkeley. However, the problem lies in an unrealistic timeline, when even the amount of vaccines allocated to the UC system is ambiguous.

The reality is that anything could happen by the time August rolls around. Variants of COVID-19, including the one that has already infected two UC Berkeley students and likely more, are spreading faster than we can keep track of. Scientists aren’t even sure that variants, such as the one from South Africa, are receptive to the current COVID-19 vaccines available. We are still in a very compromising position globally when it comes to COVID-19, and there’s too much evidence to ignore.

As students, we are getting mixed messages. The news depicts a dire situation in which even with a vaccine, the fight against COVID-19 isn’t over, while the UC Office of the President states, “With robust research advancements and COVID-19 vaccines soon becoming available to students, staff and faculty, UC is preparing to welcome students back to all its campuses this fall.” We know the future is uncertain, but what we can be certain of is another online semester. It’s not ideal, but neither is telling students to plan to return to Berkeley with no certainty on when they’ll actually be able to get vaccinated. Knowing what we know, this statement is rushed, and to reopen safely, we need more information on the vaccine schedule before even thinking about returning to campus.

Contact Riley Palmer at [email protected].