Welcome to 2021! This past year has been one of the most challenging periods that most of us have ever experienced, for reasons that you all know well and that I don’t need to repeat. Yet there are many reasons to believe that 2021 will be a year of healing, of hope, and of progress.
One of those reasons is visible here on campus: as we did in the fall, we are hosting a bit more than 4,000 students in on-campus housing, and are offering approximately 12% of our courses face-to-face. We are doing this because we believe it is the safest approach to educating our students — those living on or coming to campus, or living with students coming to campus, must all be tested for coronavirus exposure twice per week. Given how many asymptomatic cases there are among college-age populations, and the very low likelihood that students who are not obviously ill would seek testing on their own, being able to require mass-scale testing means that we can identify infections early, and isolate or quarantine students as appropriate.
The other side of the equation is that if we did not have activity on campus, we would have little ability to test students living off campus. And yes, they would have returned to San Luis Obispo even if we had opted for a 100% virtual approach. The vast majority of students followed public health guidelines during the fall, and we expect that the vast majority will again act responsibly during this winter quarter.
This high rate of testing has been made possible in part through the creation of a saliva testing lab here on campus, developed by Cal Poly faculty and staff. It is no exaggeration to say that Cal Poly is a national leader on saliva testing. It is a point of tremendous pride for me that, even under pandemic conditions, our outstanding staff and faculty are coming up with cutting edge solutions to society’s most pressing problems!
Cal Poly hopes to become a Point of Distribution for COVID vaccines, which themselves represent one of the best reasons to be optimistic for 2021. It is my hope as well as my belief that Cal Poly will return to mostly face-to-face instruction, and something much closer to full capacity in on-campus housing, for the fall 2021 quarter, though of course we will use our newly honed capacity for virtual instruction to accommodate members of the community who cannot safely return to the New Normal by then. Since all such plans depend on the public health situation, we will be prepared to pivot to all virtual on short notice if necessary.
Another reason to be hopeful, though admittedly more tentative, is recent developments in both Sacramento and Washington, D.C. Governor Newsom’s January budget proposal contains better news for the CSU (and the state as a whole) than we had feared, though of course his proposal is the start of the budget process, not the end. The Biden administration seems likely to be supportive of state government and higher education, which would be good news for Cal Poly and our students.
Finally, I am hopeful that the new year will usher in a new spirit of comity and mutual respect, despite our many differences and disagreements. Principled disagreement and evidence-based debate are the lifeblood of a university, and of a diverse, pluralistic nation like the United States. Let’s all recommit ourselves to seeing everyone’s humanity, to treating each other as we would want to be treated, and to achieving a fair and just world.
Jeffrey D. Armstrong