Sather Tower at UC Berkeley. (Photo by Tony Webster/Flickr, via EdSource)

Two University of California campuses — Berkeley and Merced — will hold all classes remotely when the fall semester begins next month, they have announced.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ made the announcement during a virtual event July 20 hosted by the Chronicle of Higher Education, citing the “worsening” coronavirus pandemic in California and noting that there was recently an outbreak of COVID-19 cases in the Berkeley community linked to fraternity parties.

“After weeks of developing a very elaborate plan for a hybrid model in the fall, we decided after we had a serious fraternity outbreak, that it was just too risky to teach face to face,” Christ said.

UC Merced followed that with its own announcement Tuesday (July 21) afternoon that it would not be able to offer any in-person instruction when semester begins. In a message to faculty, Provost Gregg Camfield cited “recent changes in COVID-19 cases in our local community.”

Berkeley and Merced are the first two campuses in the UC system to announce they will hold all classes virtually at the beginning of the upcoming academic year. They are also the only two campuses in the system that were planning to reopen next month as they are on semester schedules.

The other seven UC undergraduate campuses are on the quarter schedule and won’t resume instruction until Sept. 30 or Oct. 1, giving them more time to finalize their fall plans. Those campuses are planning to hold some in-person classes but have made clear that those plans are subject to change.

The decisions by Berkeley and Merced illustrate that holding even a limited number of in-person classes this fall will be a difficult task for colleges and universities across California, with COVID-19 cases increasing in many parts of the state.

Classes at Berkeley and Merced are scheduled to begin Aug. 26. In a letter to faculty and staff on Tuesday, Berkeley administrators said they plan to return to some in-person classes “as soon as public health conditions allow.”

At Merced, classes will be entirely remote for at least the first four weeks of the semester, Camfield wrote in his message to faculty.

“If state and local health officials deem it safe to conduct in-person instruction some time during the fall semester, the small number of courses currently identified as best suited for in-person instruction may offer in-person as well as remote instruction until Thanksgiving break,” Camfield said.

If the public health situation improves, Berkeley administrators said Tuesday that they will prioritize offering in-person instruction for a group of “Tier 1” classes that are “significantly preferable to offer in-person,” such as labs and courses with fieldwork.

The next priority would be “Tier 2” classes, which Berkeley defines as “instructional activities that, if offered in-person, would substantially contribute to cohort-building for entering students, to academic engagement for students who are underrepresented on campus and/or part of a capstone experience.”

If Berkeley does return to some face-to-face instruction at any point during the fall semester, students will still have the option to take all of their classes remotely.

“We understand that this is more complex and difficult for students, staff and instructors, and we commit to providing guidance and support,” administrators wrote in Tuesday’s letter.

Story originally published by EdSource.