Drew Parker has found on-campus life to be like a constant game of tippy-toe. (Photo: Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

Drew Parker didn’t expect a normal senior year when he moved into on-campus housing this fall. But he hoped to salvage at least some approximation of socially distant campus life in his last year at UC Santa Cruz.

“I kind of tricked myself into thinking it’d be a lot more grandiose than it actually was,” said Parker, who is finishing up his degree in games and playable media. “In reality, honestly, everyone was just inside, and there was no more than three people walking around at a time. So there was no social interaction other than online.”

Parker was one of more than 900 students living on campus at UCSC this fall, about a tenth of the usual number. Students were told to stay off campus and study from home, if they could. Only six courses were offered in-person.

Those who did live on campus underwent a rigorous testing regimen — part of a protocol that campus leaders credit with keeping the kind of outbreaks seen at some other colleges at bay.

The experience may have precluded the kind of social life students like Parker hoped for, but data suggests the approach paid off when it comes to public health. Students living on campus tested positive at lower rates than both students living in the wider community — and the community as a whole.

Testing and low positivity rate

At UCSC, testing was required once each week at the start of the fall term. By late November, students on campus had to take COVID-19 tests twice weekly. That speedy pace was enabled by UCSC’s diagnostics lab, which opened in May as the first clinical lab in campus history and is continuing to expand.

Students also had to get mandatory flu shots, take an online COVID-19 safety course and stay isolated as much as possible for 14 days after moving onto campus.

During the Sept. 26-Dec. 18 term, UCSC’s lab reported 14 positive tests for on-campus students — a rate of .14% out of more than 9,700 tests. Off-campus students tested positive at a rate of .51%, with 64 positive tests reported. Santa Cruz County’s overall positivity rate for that same time frame ranged between 1.9% and 10.4%.

Much of the difference in positivity rate between students and the wider community could be attributed to testing frequency. But if testing frequency were the only factor, UCSC’s diligence should have turned up more COVID-19 cases per capita than in the wider community. In fact, available data suggests those rates were comparable.

Sarah Latham, UCSC’s vice chancellor of business and administrative services, said regular testing and other protocols have helped keep COVID-19 cases in the campus community “well below the county average” for both students and staff.

“Since it’s asymptomatic testing, we’re able to get our arms around potential problems early,” Latham said. “We’re able to proactively quarantine and isolate.”

Across the UC system, only UC Santa Barbara and UC Merced reported fewer student cases. UC San Diego managed to keep positivity nearly as low while housing 10,000 students on campus — more than any other college in the state. Students there were tested twice monthly, and UCSD also piloted CA Notify, an exposure notification app that launched statewide earlier this month.

‘Forced summer camp’

An empty pathway winds through the UC Santa Cruz campus, where officials plan to continue with mostly remote coursework through the summer.

Parker had been planning to stick out the year on campus despite the rigorous protocols and lack of social interaction. Then, on Dec. 3, he learned his roommate had tested positive for COVID-19, forcing him and their two other roommates to quickly pack and move to separate “isolation” housing. The roommates were among 52 students put into isolation or quarantine since the start of the quarter, according to a campus spokesperson.

It felt like “forced summer camp,” Parker said. Food deliveries appeared on the porch, trash piled up inside with no clear instructions for how to dispose of it. He only left for a long walk through the woods to take a test at the campus health center.

The COVID-19 test turned out to be a false positive. After about a week in isolation and his own negative test results, Parker received the all-clear.

But he took the scare as a sign that his last year on campus wasn’t meant to be. So, on the verge of finals week, Parker packed up and headed home to San Diego on Dec. 11, where he plans to stay for the remainder of the academic year.

“It just doesn’t feel worth it,” he said, adding that he understands other students may not have a viable alternative.

It wasn’t the campus experience he was hoping for, but Parker credits UCSC with putting together an effective playbook to combat the pandemic.

“I have to give them props,” Parker said. “They actually did a really good job in quarantining people and making sure people got tested. But that’s part of the problem is it detracts from the overall school life and college experience — basically, living in a constant tippy-toe rather than actually living a college life.”

Nick Ibarra covers higher education for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.