More than a dozen residential colleges have announced in recent days that they will teach classes online when students return from winter break, in January. The precautionary measures come as the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is spreading rapidly around the country.
On college campuses and elsewhere, Omicron has shown itself to be highly contagious and able to infect vaccinated people. Many experts fear the current large wave of infections will crest in the new year, just as many students are returning for winter, spring, and intersession terms. Delaying the in-person components of a term that begins in January could give colleges time to assess the situation, said Anita Barkin, co-chair of American College Health Association’s Covid-19 task force.
“It will provide schools with a little extra time to try and evaluate how safe and reasonable it is for them to reconvene the in-person experience,” she said.
Some colleges’ announcements also say the time will allow more community members to get booster shots, which are thought to improve immunity against Omicron, and administrators to run a round of testing and isolation as needed, as students return from their holiday travels.
The University of California at San Diego is one campus that will be holding classes remotely for two weeks at the start of its winter quarter. Modeling by San Diego researchers showed that, assuming a surge of coronavirus cases timed around the new year, the university could need 400 isolation rooms if everyone returned at once. It has only about 200 available. So leaders decided to hold classes online while encouraging residential students to move in throughout the two weeks, said Pradeep K. Khosla, the chancellor. Students and employees must get tested the day they return to campus. By spreading out the move-in, administrators hope they’ll never need more than 200 isolation spots at the same time.
Campus messages vary in how cautious — or enthusiastic — they are about colleges’ ability to return to a fully in-person experience after the online period is over. Barkin falls on the more cautious side. “Given the evolving pandemic scenario, it is very difficult to make promises,” she said. Returning to in-person instruction in later January “can be your expectation, but the caveat has to be that if the situation changes, we will change our plans accordingly.”
The table below is not comprehensive and updated only as of January 4, 2022.