UC Riverside, other Inland universities return after omicron surge sent classes online – San Bernardino Sun

UC Riverside and other Inland Empire universities brought back in-person lectures Monday, Jan. 31, after spending most of January online now that there are signs the surging omnicron coronavirus variant has peaked.

Associated Students of UCR President Will Wang said students were mostly happy to return to campus.

“It is one of those positive energy things,” Wang said. “You can just feel it in the air.”

UCR spokesperson John Warren also sensed that energy.

“The chatter I heard today in the new Student Success Center and in the long coffee line reflected excitement about being back,” Warren wrote in an email. “Students want the full college experience when they enroll at a university. Walking around a green campus quad, meeting up and collaborating with friends and colleagues is a big part of that.”

La Sierra University across town, Pomona College and Claremont McKenna College also came back in person Monday.

Still, the latest assault from the unpredictable pandemic was in the back of some students’ minds.

“I’m hesitant coming back on campus given that the threat of omicron is still looming,” said Preeti Juturu, 21, a fourth-year UCR student from the San Joaquin Valley town of Mountain House who is seeking two degrees — one in public policy and another in economics.

At the same time, Juturu said, “I appreciate physically being able to be in a classroom.”

The return caught some by surprise.

“The way omicron was going, a lot of people just assumed that we were going to stay online (through the winter quarter),” said UCR Ethnic Studies Professor Gerald Clarke Jr. “And they were surprised to hear that we were going back.”

Students returned to the classroom at the group of Claremont Colleges, including Pomona College and Claremont McKenna College.

“We’re thrilled to have our students back on campus,” wrote Pomona College spokesperson Patricia Zurita Vest. “All our classes are being held in-person except for a very small number of classes.” The college also is offering outdoor classes at 14 locations on campus, Vest said.

Claremont McKenna College brought back in-classroom teaching after introducing an option earlier this month for faculty members to teach in person outside, spokesperson Gilien Silsby said.

Students also returned to the classroom at La Sierra University in Riverside, where slightly fewer than 10 undergraduate classes were still offered online, university spokesperson Darla Martin Tucker said.

“We are excited to finally be back to in-person instruction,” La Sierra University Provost April Summitt said in an email. “Faculty, staff and especially students are thrilled for the opportunity to interact and connect. We are all working hard to follow pandemic protocols toward helping keep each other and our broader community safe.”

Officials at the colleges and universities said they didn’t yet have precise numbers, but that compliance with mandates to get COVID-19 vaccines and boosters appeared to be high.

In-person teaching returned earlier in the month at the University of Redlands and Riverside’s California Baptist University.

At UCR, the provost’s office received about a dozen calls from students questioning the decision to resume in-person instruction, which applied across the UC system, Warren said. UC schools — and many others — had earlier decided to start winter sessions online amid the omnicron spike over the holidays after returning to campus in the fall.

“There have been no reports of walkouts,” he said.

UCR faculty members can apply to continue teaching remotely for the rest of the winter session, Warren said. Such requests generally will be granted, he said, if a faculty member has young children who aren’t in day care or lives in a household with someone who has a compromised immune system.

Clarke, who lives on the Cahuilla Indian Reservation in the Anza area east of Temecula, said he is waiting to hear back after applying to continue lecturing virtually to the 525 students in his ethnic studies introduction course.

“We’re basically halfway through the quarter,” he said, and given that the omicron threat is still present he would prefer to finish the winter online.

Clarke noted that Native Americans have been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic, and he said he cares for an 86-year-old aunt.

“My biggest fear is that I might give it to her,” he said.

If his petition to remain online were denied, Clarke said he would pursue a hybrid — partially in person, partially online — arrangement “so students could at least social distance within the classroom.”

Warren said many professors are offering the choice of learning in person or remotely this week.

“So – at least for the larger lecture classes where instructors are offering both options – at least half the students are attending remotely,” he said.

Juturu, the UCR student, said it felt strange to abruptly switch from virtual to in person Monday.

Only about half of the approximately 100 students in a morning macroeconomics class attended in person, Juturu said. Even so, she said, “There are so many people in one space, and after all this time it feels really weird.”

Like many families, Juturu’s family has been hit hard by the pandemic. A grandmother died from COVID-19 last summer, she said. Other family members have compromised immune systems. So the return has created anxiety.

“I’m hesitant,” Juturu said. “But hopeful for the future.”

Wang, UCR’s student president, said students seem committed to being safe. The vast majority are wearing masks to class, he said, and overall the return to in-person instruction “has been a great experience.”

“I really believe that part of being human is the social interaction,” Wang said, adding that he was excited to interact again with fellow students.

“I’m in my fourth year and I’m going to be out of here soon,” he said.

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