Recess is over: Navigating SF State’s reopening strategy

The Fine Arts Building on campus at SF State isn’t where most would consider trying gymnastics, but as Michael Scott, associate vice president for research at SF State, approaches the building, he knows it’s the only solution to the task at hand.

Sporting an N-95 mask, tape measure in one hand and clipboard in the other, he’s joined by Gaelan Spor, instructional support technician for Printmaking and Photography, and Steven Garen, instructional support technician for Sculpture, Digital Media, and Textiles.

The sculpture labs and darkrooms are the most difficult to measure, he said. They have immovable equipment, such as ceramics throwing wheels, desks and sinks. Maneuvering around these obstacles, Scott has to figure out a way to measure the length and width of the rooms.

“We have to figure out how we can situate students to the maximum to fit as many people in that space as possible at six feet,” Scott explained. “So literally, we went through every room with a tape measure and looked.”

While classrooms can hold up to 50% capacity, students must also still have six feet of distance from their peers in all directions.

An image of a 3D rendering of one of the classrooms in the Fine Arts Building at SF State on April 6, 2021. (Amalia Diaz / Golden Gate Xpress) (Amalia Diaz)

For Scott, the phrase “reopening measures” is quite literal.

It’s one of the plethora of tasks Scott and the university must address to ensure a wide return to live instruction in August. Tangled within a web of guidelines, regulations and reliance on other agencies and organizations, all occurring at once rather than in succession, the plans for how much the university can return to pre-pandemic normalcy lay mostly dependent on one factor: the pandemic’s severity at the beginning of the 2021-22 academic year. 

The most pressing question still exists: Which courses are being offered in person and remotely in the fall?

Departments internally assessed which courses they would like to see in person — based on importance and staff and student comfort, among other factors — and submitted their requests to the respective deans of their colleges on April 16.

Scott and others across the university are now matching courses to rooms — the list is expected to be released on May 10.

While some departments may have specialty rooms designated for their courses, such as ceramics or BECA audio production labs, lecture rooms are typically used by multiple departments.

In the event that there is higher demand for in-person instruction than SF State can supply, a priority list of sorts falls into place. Andrew T. Harris, dean of the College of Liberal and Creative Arts, said that the university is looking to bring back (in no particular order):

  1. Courses relevant for first-year students
  2. Senior capstone courses
  3. Courses that require equipment
  4. Visual and performing arts courses


SF State’s reopening strategy is coordinated through dialogue with the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Eugene Chelberg, associate vice president for Student Life, touches base with SFDPH and other higher-education institutions through bi-weekly meetings.

Chelberg said SF State was the first higher-education institution to reach out to SFDPH last January, two months before the university went remote. 

“‘Is it here yet? Is it worse than the flu, or the same as the flu?’ Those were some of the original questions,” Chelberg said. “So it was early on, and honestly, we were not as worried. Back then, the real question was, especially for international students that were coming back home from their break, we wanted to make sure that those folks felt safe, and hopefully wouldn’t be stigmatized.” 

He added that the SFDPH-mandated guidelines were “pretty strict” at the initial onset of the pandemic, but it’s what benefited the university in the long run.

According to SF State data, only thirty-two cases have been reported since they started being recorded in August 2020. Of these 32, none have been transmitted within the dorms themselves.

Michael Scott, Gaelan Spor, and Steven Garen, an instructional support technician for Sculpture, Digital Media, and Textiles, go through each classroom in the Fine Arts Building at SF State to record new class capacities on April 6, 2021. (Amalia Diaz / Golden Gate Xpress) (Amalia Diaz)

Within the California State University system, SF State had the ninth-lowest recorded on-campus cases of Covid as of Feb. 24. It had 29 reported cases at the time, compared to San Diego State University’s recorded 654.

For now, the university is planning for the fall using current SFDPH guidelines, but keeping relaxed protocol scenarios in mind for the future. A general rule of thumb for the university to follow is that whatever SFDPH says, goes.

Students have also been allowed to weigh in using surveys and groups that Associated Students leadership participates in. In fact, AS President Andrew Carillo successfully advocated to get the ball rolling on Cesar Chavez Student Center reopening. 

Specifics about former and current guidelines remain unavailable to the general public, per California Department of Public Health rules, but administrators at SF State are optimistic that the rules will become more lax as the public gets vaccinated.

“It’s being nimble to cut to both assuage everyone’s anxiety, meet the requirements, but then recognize the requirements are going to keep changing, hopefully for the better,” President Lynn Mahoney said. “All indications are that they’ll be for the better.”

According to Mayor London Breed, roughly 80% of San Franciscans are anticipated to have gotten at least one dose of a Covid vaccine by mid-May.

Relaxed rules would mean the ability to up course cap sizes — for example, if SFDPH follows Centers for Disease Control recommendations for three-feet distancing in K-12 classrooms. This is easier to do than optimistically planning and potentially having to backtrack. 

All indications are that they’ll be for the better.”

— Lynn Mahoney

In the semesters since the pandemic began, the university submitted a list of courses it wanted offered in-person to SFDPH, with reasons as to why they should be in person.

The process is a slight game of tug-of-war — SF State advocates for its classes and tries to negotiate with SFDPH, but as always, SFDPH has the final say. Chelberg described the relationship as a partnership in which the city works to keep the university accountable in maintaining campus safety.

“Some of those, like the nursing exams — which I believe are up to three hours — we had to get exemptions from the city department of public health and the city attorney to be able to offer those courses,” Chelberg said. “Then, reassure them how it was that we were going to keep those spaces clean and disinfected, and that everybody in them was going to be properly wearing face covering or face shields … So yeah, it’s pretty detailed.”

Most personal protective equipment and installed equipment, such as plexiglass barriers and Merv 13 ventilators, are located in the administration building, where most in-person campus activity takes place now.

“It’s much easier [finding PPE] now than it was last summer,” Scott said. “I will tell you, I was the one doing all the purchasing last summer, and just finding a pack of Clorox wipes was next to impossible. Now, things are relatively easy. Now, it’s more about getting the volume and moving it around.”

As a member of the Budget & Logistics workgroup, Chief Financial Officer of Admin & Finance Jeff Wilson said that the goal is to install all PPE, equipment and signage by the third week of August, right before faculty and students begin returning.

“I can’t think of anything we’ve attempted to order in the past six months that we haven’t been able to get pretty quickly, whether it be plexiglass or gloves, or hand sanitizer, or, you…

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