August 2021 was an exhilarating time defined by countless new people, vibrant campus events and a familiar taste of the college experience that had been largely forgotten over a year and a half of Zoom. It appeared to mark a new beginning for UC Berkeley’s student body, with the worst of the pandemic seemingly over. The question asked by the majority of students, staff and faculty was the same: What could possibly go wrong from here?
The answer: more than most students probably think. The prospect of returning online again this semester is a serious reality the administration may follow through with — despite the fact that they shouldn’t.
A month into the fall semester, the number of COVID-19 cases across the country already began to rise exponentially. Despite the school’s 97% fully vaccinated undergraduate population, breakthrough cases consistently occurred on a weekly basis. News from other schools across the country was even more daunting. On September 9, Connecticut College moved all of its classes online after multiple students tested positive for the virus within that week. At Mount Mercy University in Iowa, a 21-year-old student died from COVID-19 Sept. 20.
Both of these events occurred within just the first month of the academic semester, making them even more daunting. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a fully vaccinated COVID-19 death rate of 0.0001% this August.
International data supports this pessimism too. Israel, a country once viewed by the rest of the world as the paradigm of vaccine success, reported that 1 out of 150 Israelis had the virus in August 2021. This was a time when more than 60% of the population was fully vaccinated. All data shows that the vaccine’s efficacy wears off over time, and the majority of the campus population received their second dose in the spring, many months ago.
UC Berkeley’s classes of 2023 and 2024 are acutely aware of how strict the campus enforced COVID-19 guidelines. Mid-March 2020 was marked by UC Berkeley moving its curriculum online almost immediately, followed by a year of an empty campus whose sparse remaining population could not access a majority of the school’s facilities. UC Berkeley seemed to be on the strictest part of the spectrum when it came to universities across the country adjusting to the pandemic.
All this data begs the question: Will UC Berkeley resort to online schooling again before 2022? The answer that the administration has given us time and time again has been something along the lines of, “The situation is fluid and we’ll adjust to new circumstances when they arise.” This is not to imply that this answer is disingenuous; the school simply cannot predict the future of the pandemic on a whim. But the upperclassmen at UC Berkeley remember distinctly that this same answer was given when students asked if spring 2021 would be online.
With all this said, there certainly is a chance that COVID-19 cases will overwhelm campus again, sending us to a remote semester before the new year. The data given makes this chance impossible to ignore. Given how strict the university has been regarding the enforcement of pandemic precautions, in tandem with rising COVID-19 cases across the nation, the campus population shouldn’t act as if the pandemic has come to an end.
However, although this is a possibility, it’s not one the administration should consider.
Although cases are perhaps poised to rise as the semester continues, the cost of yet another term of remote learning is too great. Vaccines still strongly protect against hospitalizations and death, and given all the progress we’ve made, another online semester implies that Zoom will be a permanent part of academics. While it is true that the previously mentioned evidence has shown cases may rise and severe illness may occur, the vast majority of the school and city will be strongly protected. The general risk is minimal to the point where any range of indefinite quarantine should not be an option.
The delta variant seemingly peaking in California supports this. Similarly, California has a relatively low rate of COVID-19 cases in the country, which is surprising considering the state’s mass reopening and the football games, parties and festivals that followed. In the Bay Area, the numbers are even lower, coinciding with thousands of new vaccine doses being administered on a daily basis. However, while we appear to be in an optimistic spot, nothing should be taken for granted.
UC Berkeley students shouldn’t have full faith in the administration to keep in-person classes in person. However, the administration should continue its policy of keeping that possibility as minuscule as possible.