California State University to keep teaching online into spring

Nation’s biggest four-year system giving half-million students time to prepare

September 11, 2020
Mihaylo Hall at California State University Fullerton
Source: iStock

The 23-campus California State University, the largest four-year college system in the US, has announced that it will stick with online instruction for most of its classes in the spring semester.

CSU’s chancellor, Timothy White, said that he was acting well ahead of the rest of US higher education because of the persistent health threat and the need to give CSU and its nearly 500,000 students sufficient time to prepare.

“This decision is the only responsible one available to us at this time,” Professor White said in a statement.

CSU is setting out its intentions as US higher education remains divided and conflicted about how to handle the current autumn semester while the nation leads the world in coronavirus cases and deaths.

Most US institutions – including CSU – have allowed students to return to their campuses, even as most courses are offered in online formats. That in turn has led to more than 60,000 new on-campus infections nationwide, and several institutions cancelling in-person teaching and evicting students from their campuses.

The Trump administration, however, is only amplifying the political pressures facing US health experts and US colleges as they cope with the pandemic. During a visit this week to Michigan – a critical state in this year’s election – President Trump pleaded with major universities in the state to relent on their decisions not to play football this autumn. Mr Trump has for months pressured colleges and other US businesses to reopen, despite medical advice to the contrary.

CSU acted just after one of its largest campuses, San Diego State University, confined its on-campus students to their residence halls. San Diego State’s infection count moved past 400 within the first three weeks of the semester.

The CSU system largely serves students in their local communities, with only about 15 per cent of its students living in dormitories. Only about half that many are living on campus this autumn, with only about 7 per cent of all courses being offered in-person, a CSU spokesman said.

The decision to remain online for the coming spring semester was made easier, the CSU spokesman said, by the public university system’s relative inability to afford the Covid testing and tracing operations seen at some other US institutions.

The early notice of that decision, CSU said in its announcement, was given largely to help students and their families start making plans, and to help the campuses obtain the necessary accreditation approvals for online instruction.

The US Education Department temporarily waived the need for online-specific accreditation adjustments in the initial months of the pandemic, but it has made clear it will not extend such waivers beyond this semester. US colleges need the approval of a federally recognised accreditor to keep their students eligible for government aid.

CSU also moved ahead of most of US higher education back in May, when it announced that its autumn semester would be held mostly online. It is also among many US institutions that have faced lawsuits from students who argue that tuition should be lowered in an online environment. Few have complied.

Professor White and the heads of two CSU campuses – Northridge and East Bay – had been scheduled to retire this summer but remained on the job into the autumn to help manage their responses to the coronavirus outbreak.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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