By Omar Younis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - As uncertainty about the spread of COVID-19 continues, the biggest university system in the United States decided this week to make fall term classes virtual, one of the first to do so, amid fears of a second wave of infections in the month ahead.
California State University said almost all classes across its 23 university campuses would be online at least until the end of the fall term. Programs such as the maritime academy, which holds classes aboard a training ship, may be among a handful of exceptions. The Cal State university system serves 482,000 students.
"As the largest four-year system of higher education in the country, while the spotlight is on us in terms of the decision, we weren't hoping to influence anyone," said Cal State spokesperson Mike Uhlenkamp.
"This is a decision that the chancellor and the campus presidents arrived at that we feel is in the best interests of our students and our employees."
Colleges and universities across the United States are grappling with similar decisions. But it was the timing of Cal State's announcement that came to some as a surprise. Other colleges and universities have said their decisions would come later in the summer.
As of Friday, the COVID-19 respiratory disease has infected more than 1.4 million Americans and killed at least 85,816, according to a Reuters tally.
Efforts to stem the spread of the disease have shut schools and businesses nationwide, severely disrupted travel and devastated the economy. Top U.S. infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci has warned that a second wave of infections is a near certainty in the fall, which helped influence Cal State's decision, according to the chancellor's statement earlier this week.
"Obviously, this isn't what anyone had planned for," said Cal State's Uhlenkamp. "I want to make sure that people understand that we're not closed. The campuses are not closed."
Cal State universities moved to online classes on March 17. Students who could go home were asked to do so; those who couldn't were permitted to remain on campus.
"The social aspect is just completely gone, and I do very much miss it," said Ofer Barr, a 19-year-old mechanical engineering student at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, who has moved back in with his parents in Los Angeles.
"Here at home, the only thing I've really found that lets me have any kind of social interaction is video games," Barr said.
Some students are now living with their families in different time zones, which can be a problem for classes with fixed times.
Some classes are hard to make virtual.
"A lot of the art classes that I take are lab classes, they're studio classes," said William Hunter, a 21-year-old studio arts major at San Francisco State University.
Moving online has been costly for the universities. Earlier this week Cal State's board of trustees discussed an estimated $337 million in new costs and revenue losses for the spring term due to COVID-19.
(Reporting by Omar Younis; Additional reporting and writing by Clare Baldwin; editing by Bill Tarrant and Cynthia Osterman)