Colleges face question of starting semester amid COVID-19

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Remember the start of the fall semester, when college presidents spoke about how their institutions could resume normal operations?

Fast-forward to the last weeks of December, and it’s clear the pandemic isn’t close to being gone. Omicron, a variant of the coronavirus, has spread in the United States and is now the dominant form of SARS-CoV-2 found here.

Many colleges, especially those where the winter quarter or spring semester begins today, are adjusting their academic calendars. Some colleges are holding a few weeks of classes online, and some of those colleges are discouraging students from returning to campus. Other colleges have delayed the start of their semesters. Some are switching the start of the semester to online only. January terms, in which students study one subject for a few weeks, have largely gone online. Some colleges announced their decisions before Christmas. Other announcements came on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

Some colleges are sticking with their original plans, and are winning praise and criticism for doing so.

Many colleges, including those that are making other changes and those that aren’t, are requiring students and employees to get booster vaccine shots or to wear masks in most buildings on campus.

Changing Format of Instruction

DePaul University announced early in December that it would offer the first two weeks of instruction, which starts today, online. University officials cited the early start date.

Harvard and Stanford Universities announced a few weeks later that all classes would go online—Harvard for three weeks and Stanford for two.

“Please know that we do not take this step lightly. It is prompted by the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases locally and across the country, as well as the growing presence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant,” Harvard president Lawrence S. Bacow and other administrators wrote to Harvard students. “It is reinforced by the guidance of public health experts who have advised the university throughout the pandemic. As always, we make this decision with the health and safety of our community as our top priority.”

Other institutions that announced online plans include the California Institute of Technology, Columbia University, Illinois State University, Temple University and Universities of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and at Chicago.

The real momentum started Dec. 21, when seven University of California campuses announced that they would start instruction online in January in response to the surge in Omicron infections. The campuses are at Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Riverside. (The list doesn’t include Berkeley—more on that later.)

Howard Gillman, chancellor of the Irvine campus, tried to offer context for the decision in a note to students.

“Over the last several days, Americans experienced the impact of COVID-19’s Omicron variant in our everyday lives. ‘Saturday Night Live’ aired without an audience; NFL games were postponed; Californians were required to mask up indoors; and more of our neighbors and colleagues tested positive for COVID-19, despite high vaccination rates,” he said. “While we recognize that change is a constant in this pandemic environment, we are committed to doing all we can to maintain in-person instruction for the remainder of the academic year. At the present time, however, we know it is not prudent to return to in-person instruction immediately after winter break. Many members of our community will be traveling and gathering in the weeks before classes are scheduled to begin on January 3, increasing the risks of exposure to the virus, and the transmission of the Omicron variant is predicted to be especially intense toward the end of December and early January.”

The University of California campuses acted after Michael V. Drake, president of the UC system, released a letter he sent to the chancellors.

“Based on consultation with university leadership and public health experts, I am asking each of you to design and implement a plan for a January return to campus that mitigates public health impacts, responds to the unique circumstances facing your campus, and maintains our teaching and research operations … This may require campuses to begin the term using remote instruction in order to allow students to complete an appropriate testing protocol as they return to campus. Given the differences in local conditions and campus operations across the University, the length of this remote instruction period may vary from campus to campus.”

Since the University of California campuses decided to move online, many other campuses have followed. Among them: Agnes Scott, Bellevue, Jarvis Christian, Morehouse, Rhodes and Spelman Colleges; American, Columbia, Emory, Gallaudet, Georgetown, George Washington, Hampton, Kean, Loyola Marymount, Marymount (Virginia), Michigan State, Oakland (of Michigan), Oakwood and Seattle Universities; and the Universities of Colorado at Boulder, Connecticut, Hawaii system (most classes), Miami and Pittsburgh.

Louisiana State University announced on New Year’s Day that “for the first two weeks of the semester, instructors whose courses are listed in the spring catalog as being delivered face-to-face may opt to deliver their courses in synchronous (real time) fully remote, hybrid, or completely face-to-face formats. At the end of the two-week period, if the community and campus COVID-19 positivity rates are below 10 percent, the campus will resume scheduled course delivery.”

Duke University announced on New Year’s Eve that it was toughening its COVID-19 rules.

“All undergraduate, graduate, and professional school classes will now be remote until Tuesday, January 18 instead of January 10 as earlier announced. During this time, no hybrid or in-person classes will be permitted,” the university said.

Many colleges that have a January term, during which students take one class for a few weeks, have converted those programs to online only. Among them are Amherst, McDaniel, Smith and Wellesley Colleges and Wesleyan and Whitworth Universities.

Changing the Calendar

Several colleges announced changes in their calendar, some of which included plans to go remote.

Howard University is delaying classes by a week, until Jan. 18, but then starting them face-to-face.

Methodist University, in North Carolina, is also moving the start of classes to Jan. 18 and is not going online.

Southern University at Baton Rouge will start classes, in person, Jan. 26 instead of the previously scheduled Jan. 12.

Trinity University, in Texas, is delaying the start of classes until Jan. 31. “We believe this will provide time for eligible faculty, staff and students to receive booster shots and avoid having individuals return to campus during the peak of the surge,” a university statement said.

The University of Chicago is delaying the winter quarter by one week, to Jan. 10, and using online-only instruction for the first two weeks.

Yale University is delaying the start of the semester by a week, going online for a few weeks and cutting its spring break in March from two weeks to one.

Staying the Course

Several colleges announced that they were sticking with their original calendars and modes of instruction.

Berkeley said it was doing so, despite fellow UC campuses going online for various periods of time. The university’s announcement noted research on Omicron.

“Our campus public health committee also advises that people who are vaccinated and have a booster usually have mild or no symptoms after infection. Is the infection also mild in unvaccinated people? Will the coming surge in infection also result in a surge in hospitalizations? We do not yet know,” the statement said.

“Presently, the plan is for all classes to be in-person … Based upon the recommendations of our campus public health committee, and consistent with public health mandates and guidance, we plan to emphasize three primary strategies during the spring semester for responding to Omicron: increased vaccination (which includes obtaining boosters), increased testing, and continuation of the indoor face-covering mandate. We do not expect to rely significantly upon remote instruction or large-scale cancellation of in-person activities,” the statement added.

Pennsylvania State University made a similar announcement.

“Our students, faculty and staff have a very high vaccination rate, we are testing weekly those who are not vaccinated and we are continuing to require face masks to be worn indoors,” said Penn State president Eric Barron. “With these measures in place, together with hospitalization data and what we are learning about omicron, we believe we can safely, but carefully, return to on-campus classes and activities as planned.”

In general, public colleges and universities south of Virginia do not appear to be changing their schedules or formats of instruction.

At the University of Florida, Paul Ortiz, president of the campus chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, wrote to university president Kent Fuchs, asking him for online instruction to be the norm for the first weeks in January.

“In order to mitigate the spread of COVID, UFF asks that our campus begin the spring semester in a remote, online posture in terms of classroom delivery and work assignments for the first three weeks of the term to assess the proper next steps to take—as it appears that the omicron variant may escalate later in January,” he wrote. “The added benefit of this approach is that we know from experience that classes offered in a remote modality are more family-friendly and accessible to students who have jobs, childcare or eldercare responsibilities. Beginning the semester in a remote modality will go a long ways in lessening stress and anxiety among members of our community.”

A spokeswoman for the university said there were no plans to open the semester online. She released a letter from the university encouraging people to get vaccinated.

In Massachusetts, Northeastern University announced it is planning for a normal schedule in the spring because “one of the many lessons of the pandemic is that in-person learning remains the gold standard.”

Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, tweeted praise for Northeastern’s position, writing, “Glad to see @Northeastern say they’ll bring back all students in-person to begin next semester. MA college kids are vaccinated and regularly tested.”

Rules for Student Life

The colleges are also making new rules about COVID-19 testing for students who will be on campus and implementing new policies for social gatherings.

Duke said, for instance, “Residence halls will open as planned on January 2. However, on-campus residential students are strongly encouraged to delay their return to campus to a time between January 3 and January 18, if possible. This will give us the ability to effectively and safely manage what is likely to be a surge of students and other members of the Duke community testing positive.”

Emerson College requires students to largely stay in their rooms.

“The campus will operate in a ‘stay in room directive’ through January 18,” the college said. “This means students are asked to only leave their residence halls or place of residence for testing, meals, medical appointments, necessary employment, or to get mail. Students should avoid any large gatherings and not leave campus or their residence except for those situations listed above.”

Princeton University, like several others, is aiming to stagger students’ returns to “flatten the curve of the campus positivity rate.”

The university is also imposing a limit on student travel outside of the county where Princeton is located through mid-February, “except in extraordinary circumstances,” to prevent students from picking up Omicron from friends or family.

What Does It All Mean?

​​Peter McDonough, vice president and general counsel of the American Council on Education, said the country may be entering a new period in fighting COVID-19. He noted that science has proven of the value of vaccinations. Even if they don’t prevent the spread of Omicron in everyone, they apparently prevent Omicron infections from being as serious as COVID-19 has been previously.

But McDonough said the most important change, regardless of the policies individual colleges are adopting, is a shift in thinking about COVID-19. Instead of thinking of it as something that will pass, he said that more leaders are thinking of “how we live in the COVID era.”

Leaders of many of the colleges adopting new requirements, and some of those that are not, cited their beliefs about Omicron: on the one hand, it is very contagious. But on the other, it does not seem to be as serious (to those who are vaccinated) as COVID-19 originally was.

Whatever choices colleges have made, the tests of their  approaches start today.

 

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