Students concerned about delta variant, possible closure discussed

COVID-19 guidelines and a sanitizing station at the DISCOVERe Hub at the Henry Madden library, a common occurrence throughout the university. (Melina Kazanjian/The Collegian)

Fresno State freshman music major Nick Vawter, 18, faced a COVID-19 scare before the start of his semester. 

His friend ended up testing positive for COVID-19, and he got tested as a precaution to keep elderly family members safe. It’s scary, Vawter said, and it keeps people alert. 

Still, he’s excited for his first semester of college – the possibility of a college experience – which starkly contrasts with his final virtual year of high school. He enjoys being able to interact with fellow students and do different activities, like playing his guitar. 

Vawter is worried about the prospect of the university transitioning to an online format due to the sharp rise of COVID-19 cases related to the delta variant, a highly transmissible strain of the disease.

Many students, like Vawter, have concerns and reservations of being on-campus due to the delta variant. University officials are taking notice too, developing plans to possibly switch to virtual instruction after Thanksgiving. 

For students, it’s about weighing the risks: To what extent do I feel comfortable risking my safety for my education? They’re concerned about the pandemic but also don’t want to go back to an unsatisfactory online experience.

“I think that it’s a real tragedy and we had to do what we had to do, and we are still feeling the effects of it… I think it’s taught us a lot and has definitely changed the trajectory of everyone’s mindset,” Vawter said. 

Vaccination rates are a key part of students feeling safe on campus. About 75.1% of students have received both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 9.72% of students are in the process of doing so, according to Fresno State public information officer Lisa Boyles Bell.

Jasmine Rymer, a senior liberal studies major, said that her anthropology professor Walter Dodd told students after class that faculty members in his department are considering transitioning to online learning. 

Rymer, like Vawter, is worried about transitioning to an online learning environment once again due to the ramifications it may have on her educational career.

“When COVID-19 started, transitioning to online learning was hard. Then the whole stay-at-home order came and caused a bad depression episode and I only passed two of my four classes in the spring of this year,” Rymer said. “When my professor said we may transition back to online learning, my heart sank.”

Even with stringent enforcement of COVID-19 regulations on the campus, the rise of cases could jeopardize the university’s plans for a mostly in-person semester.

The Office of the President reported that there have been a total of 248 confirmed COVID-19 cases amongst campus community members since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

After Aug. 9 there have been a total of 84 confirmed cases of COVID-19. There are currently 43 additional cases that the Office of the President is currently investigating, the Fresno State COVID-19 website said.

Currently, the university is discussing contingency plans to transition from in-person classes to a virtual environment after Thanksgiving break should conditions worsen on the university campus, said Honora Chapman, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities.

“On Tuesday, Aug. 24 at 9 a.m. the provost [Xuanning Fu] called a meeting of the deans and we talked at great length for an hour about everything to do about repopulating the campus… We talked about ‘Plan B,’ ” Chapman said.

Chapman described the university contingency plan as something that grew out of an initiative to prevent any potential outbreaks that may arise by simply waiting for the inevitable due to the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“In the case of Aug. 24 the provost is saying to us ‘Plan B.’ What happens if we have massive multiple breakthrough COVID infections? What if it [is] just sweeping like wildfire, and we received word advising [told] us to shut down?” said Chapman.

According to Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Xuanning Fu, the deans have met on a number of occasions to discuss a contingency plan.

“The deans have met many times too on this topic, not just on Aug. 24,” Fu said. “With the fall semester underway, we have been carefully watching the development of the pandemic and preparing for different scenarios… No decisions have been made yet. Our decision-making process will be guided by the circumstances on the university campus.”

Chapman said the current plan to transition to online education after Thanksgiving break would be a natural transition to prevent potential outbreaks on campus as a result of people mingling during the break. 

At this time, the contingency plan is only in discussion.

During the Sept. 9 virtual President’s Forum, President Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval confirmed the existence of the ongoing discussions as a method to prevent potential outbreaks on campus. 

“On the one hand, I think students [would] appreciate going to virtual after the Thanksgiving break because we only have just a few days after Thanksgiving in order to finish the semester off,” Jiménez-Sandoval said. “And then on the other hand… it’ll be good to not all return after Thanksgiving, after we have been with family and friends and spending the weekend, you know, with other people. So that in order to mitigate a little bit of the spread as well.”

He said the current contingency plan is subject to change as the situation evolves given the present conditions of the pandemic.

 “This is not set in stone right now, we are exploring the possibility. And we are constantly asking for feedback from the county, from the hospitals, from our health officials; from everyone. What COVID has taught us more than anything is that we cannot plan two months ahead… We have to go with the moment with a process with the presence that is here with us,” said Jiménez-Sandoval.

In previous discussions with state and health officials, September is slated to be a bumpy ride, Jiménez-Sandoval said. However, the university is committed to remaining in-person through the month.

“We are focused right now 100% on trying to remain face-to-face through September, because then I’m being told that once September is gone and then October comes, the situation [will] stabilize once again,” Jiménez-Sandoval said.

Although optimistic that he will be able to continue his first on campus semester in-person, Vawter holds reservations as to whether or not the current situation is viable for a prolonged period of time given the mutations of COVID-19.

“I mean looking at this scene. It looks like a somewhat normal state, right? But if things really ramp up and goes to the worse then they have to do what they have to do. I really hope that [doesn’t happen] because I love being on campus and the vibe and everything,” said Vawter.

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