The Chain of Decision Making: Where Are COVID-19 Rules Coming From?
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, LA County’s precautions have been among the strictest in the country. For example, the county recently mandated proof of vaccination to enter a wide range of businesses, including restaurants, shopping malls, and hair salons. The county’s caution has also extended to colleges and universities, which now operate under the same set of draconian regulations regardless of their size, location, or other extenuating factors.
At Claremont McKenna College, a member of the Claremont Consortium, the Covid Compliance Committee has been entrusted with handling the school’s response to the virus, taking into account regulations set forth by LA County. But the decision making process is not transparent, and students have little insight into factors driving the COVID policies. Whether the Covid Compliance Committee is withholding information regarding LA County’s new regulations, or if LA County is not releasing new guidelines to CMC’s Covid Compliance Committee, it is critical that the college make the rationale behind its decisions as transparent as possible, and also take into consideration the low rate of COVID test positivity on campus.
First off, LA County needs to adapt its COVID rules and regulations to the size of each institution, as differences in school population and class size affect transmission rates and case numbers. The Claremont McKenna Community Dashboard has tracked COVID cases since the summer when students returned to campus. Claremont McKenna and other schools within the Claremont Consortium, all small institutions, are seeing extremely small case numbers since their return to campus this past August after over a year of virtual learning.
Within LA County are 58 colleges, universities, and graduate schools, all subject to LA County’s restrictions and oversight. With a student population of 1,264, Claremont McKenna’s population is in stark contrast to larger institutions within LA County, such as University of California, Los Angeles with a population of 45,742.
Although CMC and UCLA are operating within the same county, and are subject to the same rules and regulations, the schools still primarily operate on different COVID guidelines. For example, at UCLA, weekly testing is required for unvaccinated students, but weekly tests are not required for vaccinated students. At CMC, weekly testing is required, and students are subject to consequences if a test is missed. Similarly, Pomona and Scripps also have outlined harsher consequences for missed tests. The broader Claremont Consortium has a more accurate understanding of ongoing COVID rates on campus than UCLA, since asymptomatic students can be detected through the rigorous testing process. In comparison, UCLA encourages testing if students are reporting symptoms, meaning asymptomatic students could be spreading the virus. Of UCLA’s 45,742 students, 97% are vaccinated, and 87% of faculty/staff are vaccinated. CMC is doing better in regards to minimizing spread on campus than UCLA, as 99% of the student population is vaccinated, and 99% of faculty is vaccinated.
As stated on the Community Dashboard, “The College regularly adapts its campus policies and practices in light of current public health metrics in the region, guidance from public health authorities, national data and trends, and the evolving science on COVID-19.” CMC has since acknowledged and adapted the change LA County made to the modified quarantine, described in an email. However, this has been the only policy change this semester.
In addition, the dashboard provides information about how many tests are being conducted, and how many positive cases there are as a result. This data is accessible to the public, and can be found on the Community Dashboard. Even though this dashboard states it regularly adapts its campus policies, we have not seen that on campus. The only function of this dashboard has been updating the current case numbers, and identifying where the cases are located (on campus vs. off campus). There has been a lack of clarity about future plans for CMC’s campus and its COVID restrictions.
As previously mentioned, the Covid Compliance Committee is the organization responsible for CMC’s COVID regulations. Dean of Students Diana Graves describes, “The CCC works closely with campus departments to advise on policy decisions related to things like social life, campus guests, school sponsored travel, and COVID mitigation strategies. The chair of the CCC also sits on the COVID Response Group (CRG), which is comprised of administrators from all of the Claremont Colleges. The CRG meets weekly to provide campus updates and to talk about policy decisions that cut across all of the campuses, when applicable.”
The response team may sound like the ideal solution to on-campus COVID risks, but in practice, its weaknesses outweigh its strengths. There is a lack of transparency from the CCC, and the students subject to its policies have little insight into the driving factors that determine the current regulations. The committee “meets weekly” and “is not open to the public”. Detailed minutes are kept, and the committee sends out a community update at the end of every week. But, these detailed minutes are “an internal document kept for County audit purposes and committee use.” Because there have been few updates from the administration regarding regulations (even though larger social events are occurring), there is confusion among students as to where the school is headed.
As students attend larger gatherings outside, such as Thursday Night Club (TNC) and other 4C parties like the Pitzer Halloween party, there have been no updates from CMC administration about large gatherings. The only update regarding social events (for CMC) was on September 24th, 2021, in an email from the Dean of Students. This email explains that 4C parties and 5C club and organization activities are permissible. There has been no follow up from administration regarding large events, only announcements from student activity leaders regarding the planning and execution of these events. This lack of clarity is confusing for both students and faculty on campus.
LA County must release more information regarding the success or failure of community spread on campuses, not just at CMC but for all universities and colleges. At the same time, CMC needs to take the initiative to make things clearer to the students, faculty, and staff. There have been large social events happening more frequently, but with no new update since September 24th, 2021, in an email from the Dean of Students. There has been no follow up from administration regarding large events, only announcements from student activity leaders regarding the planning and execution of these events. LA County has outlined how to lift the mask mandate for large events and indoor establishments, but has provided no further guidance for schools, universities, and colleges. While LA County and CMC need to coordinate better, CMC should still take steps to increase transparency accordingly, as a way to help students and faculty gain a better understanding of how to move forward.
It would be helpful to have a clearer path onward, and quite frankly, a plan of action to look forward to. Although I am impressed with how the campus has been reopened and the tremendous opportunities created for students during a global pandemic, my greater question is, how are we going to move forward? I am eager to know what needs to happen in order to keep opening up campus and having larger community events, as students are eager to socialize and get back to a somewhat “normal” academic and social life.