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— Education


The formula for UC San Diego’s Return to Learn success

UC San Diego entered 2020 in growth mode, well-positioned to advance progress toward the goals outlined in its long-term strategic plan to drive the physical, intellectual and cultural transformation of the university.

But the emerging public health crisis in Wuhan, China led renowned infectious disease expert Robert “Chip” Schooley, MD, professor of medicine and chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at UC San Diego Health to ask UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla what the university would do if forced to shut down for a prolonged period of time in response to the crisis.

While some universities took a wait-and-see approach, Khosla recognized the seriousness of the situation and knew that thoughtful and immediate action was necessary. He considered the university’s vast human, research and infrastructure resources, and knew UC San Diego was uniquely suited to address this challenge head-on.

Early action
was key

Khosla embraced the university’s deeply ingrained, interdisciplinary ethos to assemble experts from UC San Diego’s faculty, administration and staff to form a task force that could evaluate the rapidly changing situation, regionally and globally. “We assembled our emergency operations centers (EOC) for our campus and for our hospitals. The EOCs explored options and models for impacted operations,” said Khosla. “So, when the state mandated the shutdown in March 2020, we were already a step ahead.”

“We assembled our emergency operations centers (EOC) for our campus and for our hospitals. The EOCs explored options and models for impacted operations.”

— Pradeep K. Khosla

Students, faculty and staff were sent home. Mechanisms and platforms were quickly stood up and communicated to ensure everyone was supported through the transition. Remote operations were stabilized. A newly-formed Campus Operations Group rolled up its collective sleeves. And the necessary work of understanding detection, intervention and mitigation of the COVID-19 virus began with a singular goal: to return to in-person learning, research and service to the community in the safest way possible.

to Learn

On May 5, 2020, UC San Diego became the first university to announce a commitment to incrementally bring back a portion of its campus population in Fall 2020 through a flexible, multilayered and data-driven approach called Return to Learn or RTL.

RTL was built upon three key pillars: risk mitigation, viral detection and intervention. Khosla often referred to the approach as a “Swiss cheese” model. “Every layer has its holes,” Khosla told The New York Times in December 2020. “But put together, it’s a solid block.” Hundreds of employees and students successfully built and tested new systems and protocols on campus with a limited number of students, researchers, faculty and staff in advance of the fall quarter to ensure the feasibility and scalability of the plan. 

A Campus

Faculty reconfigured instruction for remote and hybrid learning, ensuring that the academic rigor of the university was upheld. Staff reimagined nearly every service to ensure access to important resources. UC San Diego’s Facilities Management team, with help from the university’s engineering experts, reconfigured the campus environment, including traffic flow.

Academic buildings, residence halls and retail and dining facilities were adapted to provide one-way traffic into and out of spaces. Experts like Kimberly A. Prather, PhD, UC San Diego Distinguished Professor and Distinguished Chair in Atmospheric Chemistry, served as a resource to guide updates and adaptations to airflow in campus buildings, helping promote circulation of fresh air flow and reduce disease transmission risks.

More than 200 critical custodial staff were devoted to enhanced cleaning and sanitization protocols, disinfecting light switches, elevator buttons, desk tops and other surfaces twice daily. And 1,500 hand-sanitizing stations were installed across campus.

Ready to

With confidence built through practice, UC San Diego put its plan into action and successfully welcomed 5,730 undergraduate students back to a transformed campus for the Fall 2020 quarter. Returning students were introduced to new safety protocols, including mandatory testing during move-in. The Student Code of Conduct was updated to establish clear expectations for student behavior and to remind students of the health consequences of risky behaviors.

On-campus residence housing was limited to 50 percent capacity, with all students residing in single-occupancy rooms. More than 600 beds on campus were reallocated to serve as isolation and quarantine housing for students who received a positive COVID-19 test result. These students would receive special support and access to care.

Bright banners, flags and digital signage were placed on light posts, public transportation, buildings and elsewhere throughout campus to encourage students and to keep safety awareness high. Ground markings signaling physical distance were located where students tended to congregate.

Case rates
remain low

UC San Diego defied the odds and demonstrated that a successful return to campus was possible. The 14-day COVID-19 positivity rate for UC San Diego students on and off campus averaged between 0.12 percent and 0.87 percent throughout Fall 2020. During that time, the positivity rate in San Diego County averaged between 2.7 and 8.7 percent.

A surge was anticipated when students returned from winter break in 2021, but the university was willing to increase campus density because the data was clear: The approach was working, and new innovations, such as the vending machines, were making it easier for students to comply with testing requirements and adhere to safety protocols.


There was a fourth and critical element to the success of RTL: students. The weakest link in any plan is human behavior. The nation saw this play out as other universities struggled to contain the virus after reopening their campuses in the fall of 2020.

But UC San Diego’s commitment to inclusion and innovation meant that students were involved in RTL from its inception. They were empowered to own the issue, plan and implement approaches in ways that worked.

By making meaningful contributions, the student community was invested in creating and sustaining a safe and fulfilling on-campus experience for everyone. Student leaders and Student Affairs came up with novel ways to engage students, including the creation of Triton Health Ambassadors.

More than 400 trained peer ambassadors/educators, easily recognizable by their bright yellow shirts, positioned themselves across campus to personally engage with students and provide important support by “catching” and recognizing positive behaviors and serving as resources for students seeking information.

“Our students behaved in an exemplary manner. I mean it was unbelievable,” Khosla said in an April 2021 interview with KPBS-TV. “We were expecting it, and they beat our expectations and then some. To me, they were the reason we were so successful.”

“We were expecting it and they beat our expectations and then some. To me, they were the reason we were so successful.”

— Pradeep K. Khosla


Collaboration with UC San Diego Health also guided campus efforts to keep positive case rates low. These efforts included: