A Shot in the Arm

By Jim Tranquada Photos by Marc Campos

As California takes major strides in the fight against the pandemic, the College makes plans to bring students, faculty, and staff back to campus this fall

A dramatic improvement in conditions made possible by the availability of vaccines and the decline in COVID-19 cases in California this spring has optimism breaking out all over the place, reflected in a series of increasingly positive campus messages sent by President Harry J. Elam, Jr. The most recent, sent on May 3, announced that the College is planning on bringing students back to campus this fall, reopening classrooms and residence halls, and returning to something resembling normal.

Signage on the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center.
“Throughout the pandemic, the flexibility and creativity of faculty, students, and staff have kept Oxy’s intellectual life buzzing and campus clubs and organizations active and engaged,” Elam wrote to the Oxy community. “But … we are a residential school, and the ultimate goal is to be back on campus, back in the classroom, back on the playing fields, and back in the Quad.”

One of the most immediate—and welcome—results of the improved conditions was the College’s ability to hold an in-person Commencement ceremony for the Class of 2021 on May 16. Moving the event from Remsen Bird Hillside Theater to Jack Kemp Stadium made possible a socially distanced event where graduating seniors were able to bring two guests each to see them walk across the stage to receive their diplomas (visit oxy.edu/commencement for full coverage). A similar in-person ceremony for the Class of 2020—which graduated virtually last year—will be held on June 12, fulfilling a pledge made to the class last spring.

Having parents at graduation was just part of the joy for seniors who, with a small number of exceptions, spent the entire academic year learning remotely. Reuniting with friends “will be the most exciting part,” Ryu Frank ’21, an economics and Japanese studies double major from Menlo Park, told The Occidental. “Just being able to have this big moment and share it with a lot of these people who I haven’t really been able to hang out with during the pandemic.”

The College wanted to provide families with an in-person Commencement—it’s just been a question of whether it would be possible under constantly evolving county, state, and federal guidelines, notes Marty Sharkey, vice president for communications and institutional initiatives and co-chair of Oxy’s COVID-19 Operational Group, which is coordinating the College’s pandemic response.

“Throughout the course of the pandemic, the health and safety of the Oxy community has been our top priority,” Sharkey says. “Commencement planning was guided by the same considerations, and we’re thrilled to be able to offer the kind of in-person event we know students and families have always wanted.”

Oxy’s emphasis on health and safety is reflected in the results of the mandatory testing program that applies to the roughly 200 students living in residence halls and hundreds more living off campus, essential employees working on campus, and all staff and faculty who regularly come to campus. As of May 15, Emmons Wellness Center has conducted more than 18,000 tests since January with just 18 positives, a 0.10 percent positivity rate well below county and state rates. Emmons began offering vaccinations to community members in mid-March.

Some parts of the Oxy campus have been slowly reopening as conditions have improved, starting with athletic facilities such as the McKinnon Family Tennis Center, Kemp Stadium, and the De Mandel Aquatic Center, which opened on March 29 for the first time ever since its completion last year. The Marketplace is now open for distanced indoor dining and the Library offered reservation-based access for individual quiet study for the last six weeks of the semester.

That gradual approach will continue over the summer, as Oxy’s Summer Research Program, Multicultural Summer Institute, and Upward Bound return to in-person sessions. “Campus Closed” signs are expected to come down soon, allowing dog walkers and other neighbors to return to campus. (Building access will continue to be strictly limited to students, faculty, and staff.)

This fall Oxy expects to bring all students back to campus, which will require providing an Orientation not only for the new first-year class but for sophomores—who have never set foot on campus—as well. (Sophomores will also be getting help in pairing up with roommates.) Consistent with the College’s current policy for other infectious diseases, Oxy will require all students to show proof of vaccination for COVID-19. A similar requirement for faculty and staff has been instituted as well.

Testing will continue this summer and possibly in some form this fall, says Sara Semal, senior director of student wellness.

Many of the details as to exactly what life on campus will look like this fall must still be worked out in collaboration with students, faculty, and staff. “It’s a very complex process,” Sharkey says. “It’s not a matter of simply picking up where we left off.”

Given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, the College’s plans have to remain flexible. “Yet there is good reason to feel a real sense of optimism as we look ahead to the fall,” Elam says. ”We’re confident in our community’s ability to successfully navigate any remaining challenges.”