Skip to main content

aerial view of UCSD campus

About the Return to Learn Program

UC San Diego’s Return to Learn program began in May 2020 as a strategic response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The goal of the ongoing initiative is to return to in-person teaching, research and service in the safest way possible. 

Positive case rates on campus have remained consistently low compared to regional and national case rates. As a result, UC San Diego has been able to increase the number of students on campus each subsequent quarter throughout the 2020-21 academic year. The campus was able to resume full on-campus operations in fall 2021.

The Return to Learn plan has served as a best practice model for other institutions and K-12 school systems regionally and nationally. It was recognized by the American Council of Education with the Fidelity Investments Award for Institutional Transformation for its science-based, real-time approach to maintaining low infection rates.

As illustrated in the model below, no single defense method is invulnerable, but by applying multiple layers of defense, you can offset the weakness in any single layer. These layers include screening and testing, quarantine after exposure, isolation after a positive test, utilizing the CA Notify app, wearing a mask and getting vaccinated. This illustration was adapted from the Swiss Cheese Model developed by James Reason, Ph.D.

Swiss Cheese Model. Reduce your COVID-19 risk with multiple layers of defense.

Return to Learn Program Pillars

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

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

The Return to Learn program is driven by an adaptive strategy. We are continually collecting data, refining our understanding of the situation and associated modeling, and modifying tactics accordingly to significantly reduce the risk of transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Computational models help investigate the impact of multiple strategies, implemented in isolation and combined.


Worker vaccinating person

In January 2021, UC San Diego Health partnered with the San Diego Padres and the County of San Diego to launch the Petco Park Vaccination Superstation, which administered more than 200,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine and served as a model throughout the state and country.

Concurrently, UC San Diego Health opened a vaccination site from February through June 2021 at the Recreation, Intramural and Athletic Complex (RIMAC) on the main campus to boost the number of doses offered to employees and students. Since its closure, a new clinic has been set up at Price Center.

Housing Density

In fall 2021, more than 12,200 undergraduate students and 5,200 graduate students and families moved into double and single apartments and suites on campus, with triple occupancy options eliminated to reduce density in on-campus housing.

Outdoor Classrooms

UCSD outdoor classroom

To offer greater ventilation while holding classes, the campus constructed six large outdoor classrooms as well as six outdoor study spaces. The 80-by 60-foot spaces are ADA compliant with the capacity to seat up to 75 students (classroom) or 35 students (study space). Each features boosted Wi-Fi, Zoom and podcasting equipment, weatherproof pendant speakers, microphones and large LCD display screens, as well as traditional whiteboards. This key technical equipment allows students to participate virtually in real time across the U.S. and all over the world.

Viral Detection

UC San Diego experts developed a unique testing program that accelerated resumption of in-person activities. Campus clinicians, public health experts, molecular biologists, infectious disease specialists, epidemiologists and bioinformaticians use statistical modeling to help speed early detection. In addition to conducting daily symptom and exposure screenings for all employees and students, our methods include:

Self-Administered Testing

Covid test vending machine

UC San Diego has more testing capacity than any other university in the state, with two labs processing samples—the Center for Advanced Laboratory Medicine (CALM) and EXpedited Covid IdenTification Environment (EXCITE). On average, UC San Diego processes about 5,000 tests per day. Results continue to be fast, often available the next day and sometimes even the same day.

Campus employees and students are able to visit vending machines across campus each week to pick up a self-administered COVID-19 test. The kits are convenient to complete, and results are returned on average within 24 hours. The rapid notification has allowed prompt responses to any spread of the virus. Testing frequency continues to evolve in response to community conditions, what we learn through practice, and what our predictive models tell us.

Wastewater Monitoring

More than 200 wastewater samplers are situated across the university—more than any in the nation—to monitor viral activity of 340 buildings. This involves testing the water and sewage that originate from toilets, showers and other plumbing systems from housing, dining and other facilities across campus.

The system allows us to detect the viral activity in wastewater an average of 3-5 days earlier than an individual test. Even one asymptomatic individual in a building with several hundred residents could be identified. If the virus is detected within a building sample, we alert the individuals living or working there to get tested. Over 20,000 samples have been processed, which has helped prevent outbreaks by detecting 85 percent of cases early, allowing for timely testing, contact tracing and isolation.  


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

Isolation Housing

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 off-campus isolation housing, where Student Health Services will provide care and ensure basic needs such as food delivery are met. Graduate students may choose to isolate themselves in their apartment with their family with consultation and approval from Student Health Services.

Exposure Notification

Cell phone with exposure notification

In September 2020, UC San Diego students and employees became the first participants of the CA Notify smartphone tool, which works behind-the-scenes to automate exposure notification among people who have been in close proximity to each other, augmenting traditional contact tracing. More than half of the on-campus population adopted the app within the first month of launching the pilot program, and over 50 anonymous exposure notifications were issued at UC San Diego during the 10-week pilot.

Due to the early successes at UC San Diego—and subsequently six other University of California campuses—the program has expanded statewide in partnership with UC San Diego Health. This means that nearly 26 million people can now activate exposure alerts and respond with self-quarantine and testing with the goal of reducing the amount of SARS-CoV-2 virus spread.

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 recommendations on the Return to Learn Program Leadership page.