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aerial view of UCSD campus

About the Return to Learn Program

The goal of the Return to Learn Program is simple: returning to in-person teaching, learning, conducting pioneering research and serving our communities in the safest way possible.

The program has three adaptive pillars that are central to our strategy to resume on-campus activity in the fall.

Return to Learn Program Pillars

Risk Mitigation Viral Detection Intervention
Cleaning and sanitation Symptomatic testing Case isolation
Face coverings Asymptomatic testing Contact tracing
Physical distancing Environmental monitoring Exposure notification
Structural reconfiguration County surveillance Molecular sequencing

Risk Mitigation

By requiring face coverings, using personal protective equipment, and enhancing sanitation we aim to significantly reduce the risk of transmission.

We are also significantly lowering campus population density to provide plenty of space for effective physical distancing.

  • Undergraduate housing density is expected to be a 50 percent reduction from typical density.
  • Only a limited number of courses will be conducted in an in-person or hybrid modality. Class size is limited to fewer than 50 students per class, or 25 percent of classroom capacity, whichever is smaller; many in-person classes will have fewer than 25 students.
  • The maximum ratio of faculty and staff on campus is expected to be below 25 percent of normal operations.

Viral Detection

We have tapped into the expertise of UC San Diego researchers, who have developed a unique testing program that accelerates resumption of in-person activities. Campus clinicians, public health experts, molecular biologists, infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists and bioinformaticians are using statistical modeling to help speed early detection and shorten the duration of outbreaks, which could result in fewer infected people. Our methods include:

  • Conducting daily symptom and exposure screenings for all on-campus students, faculty and staff.
  • Offering all faculty, staff and students a no-cost asymptomatic COVID-19 test. Periodic risk-based asymptomatic testing of the entire on-campus population is anticipated to begin in October 2020.
  • Employees and students with symptoms can receive a no-cost COVID-19 test at a UC San Diego Health location, regardless of healthcare provider.
  • Automated daily wastewater sample collections adjacent to residential buildings, which allows for early viral detection up to three to five days prior to symptoms appearing.


Our program strives to ensure that students living on campus with COVID-19 are provided support and a place to isolate, and that robust contact tracing is conducted to inform those employees and students who had close contact with an employee or student who tested positive are informed as quickly as possible.

  • In the event a student living in on-campus housing tests positive for COVID-19 at any time during the academic year, they will be moved to designated on-campus isolation housing.
  • For those who test positive for COVID-19 through UC San Diego Health, a case investigation is promptly begun by UC San Diego teams to determine if there are other individuals who may have been exposed.

A safe return to campus

We have commenced with our plans to welcome back students, faculty and staff for the Fall Quarter through an incremental repopulation of campus, which started in August and ramped up in mid-September with undergraduate student move-in. Undergraduates moved in over a 10-day period at assigned days and times in order to allow for expedited testing and minimized contact with others. For the majority of employees who are currently working remotely, they will continue to do so at least through December 31, 2020.Our goal is to continue to provide UC San Diego students with rich, equitable and flexible opportunities to learn and grow, and support our dedicated employees’ livelihoods.

UC San Diego’s comprehensive strategic plan has been developed through ongoing analysis of Return to Learn testing results. Thus far, our strategies to mitigate risk, detect the virus, and intervene have been successful.

Throughout the spring and summer, nearly 8,000 graduate and undergraduate students and employees have been living and working on campus with little incident. Our screening, testing and clinical care have been successful in early detection and in handling cases as they arise. In all cases, exposure to the virus was traced to community exposure. More information about Novel Coronavirus testing and prevalence in the UC San Diego community can be found on our dashboard here.

The initial pilot phase of the Return to Learn program launched May 11, 2020. Over a three-week period, more than 1,500 resident undergraduate and graduate students took part in self-administered COVID-19 testing. Notably, not a single student tested positive, which was anticipated as students living on campus at the time had been sheltering in place for the past two months. The ultimate goal is to broaden the scope to test 60-90% of UC San Diego’s on-campus population for the virus on a recurring basis.

Due to the dynamic public health situation, the university’s plan may change as the pandemic evolves and government and public health authorities respond accordingly. A comprehensive plan has been established to ensure UC San Diego can respond rapidly to emerging COVID-19 trends. Please visit this website regularly for new information about the repopulation of our campus, as well as results and status of our SARS-CoV-2 screening and testing of students, staff and faculty who are on campus.

Program leadership

The Return to Learn program has been set into motion by a dedicated collective of UC San Diego administrators, public health experts, professors, staff members and student representatives. The Return to Learn Program Steering Committee provides overarching guidance for all campus task forces. These task forces are assessing how the university can offer regular testing to the campus community, ramp-up research activity safely, support faculty and students during remote instruction and more. Learn about the members of each task force and see their preliminary recommendations on the Return to Learn Program Leadership page.