Should Colleges Go Back Online in January?

image by Cartooning for Peace

I wrote a piece not too long ago for this blog entitled the hardest semester of your career, Fall 2021. This piece was focused on the fact that as part of emergency operations training you are taught that the recovery phase is the hardest phase in emergency management. Well, that was when we were all cautiously optimistic that Delta was the last serious wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was not, we are all now familiar with the Omicron variant identified in South Africa several weeks ago. It has turned out that the Omicron variant is likely twice as infectious than Delta. So we are caught in a yo-yo pattern of pandemic preparations and recovery, at times the two actually crossing which means spring will again be another very complicated semester.

We are seeing huge spikes in COVID around the country in certain hot spots and like the waves before we know that those hot spots will slowdown and others will flare up. As of this morning we are seeing an average of 122,000 infections per week, over 1200 deaths per day and both trends are on the rise. It would not be surprising to see 300,000 new infections per week soon and the deaths per day number increase accordingly. There has been a lot of discussion around Omicron’s virulence and it may be less than Delta’s. However, given the massive increase in cases due to how contagious this variant is, we will certainly see higher levels of death.

Our campuses have not been immune from this latest wave, most famously at this point Cornell has had an outbreak of over 900 infected students. I know personally, as the semester ended I saw an uptick in COVID infection notifications and the Omicron wave was just hitting here in the San Francisco Bay area.

So this is where we are as all of our colleges are off on the holiday break and most of us heading towards a re-opening date, at least for staff, of January 3rd. So the obvious questions becomes, should we be going fully remote at least for the month of January? And if not, how should we handle the current COVID situation?

At this time, colleges have made a series of announcements for returning after the holidays. Stanford as decided to go fully remote for the first couple of weeks and then reassess. The California State and University of California systems (most campuses) will be requiring booster shots for students to attend on campuses classes. Other campuses are considering or have already decided to act similarly.

So if your campus is back, what recommendations can you make in the discussion about what precautions to take? First off, most campuses have to follow at a minimum, their county health department recommendations that are typically in line with the CDC recommendations. Of course, as we all have seen over the last couple of years these recommendations are ever evolving. This is the minimum start point, your campus/district can always opt to do more, like what the University of California systems is doing by requiring boosters for fully on campus students.

Next is the reinforcement and implementation of existing pandemic protocols, I provided a complete list of these recommendations in my post A checklist for starting face to face classes. But beyond those basics there are a few things that have to be considered:

  1. Should we be going back to campus at all – With escalating infection rates associated with Omicron’s higher level of infectiousness, and the typical four week wave peak periodicity that has been observed, not returning to full campus operations until February may be prudent. It is also likely to limit campus transmissions as well as ameliorate the fears of faculty, staff and students.
  2. Limiting gatherings – As much as the return to campus is normally celebrated with welcome back events. In the current environment, particularly in the coldest part of the year, it would not be advisable to host indoor events that could turn into super spreader events. This also needs to be a consideration for any social events, ceremonies, performances and sporting events.
  3. Vaccine and Booster mandates – For campuses not already there, at this time it would seem that vaccine mandates for staff, faculty and students should be in place. Of course and unfortunately, this issue has become more political than scientific. And while having people vaccinated is the best defense against the virus, some campuses may be limited to acting on this action due to local or state politics. Vaccine mandates are almost always accompanied with medical and religious exemptions. The bigger step of requiring boosters is a bold move at this time. While a good step in defending against the virus, the definition of fully vaccinated for the CDC at this time does not include a booster. As such, it may be hard to get popular and political support for this type of action.

Colleges have hard decisions to make for January 3rd, a big complication is that most of us are off this week. Administrations will not be meeting, boards will not meeting, so most likely for most colleges, whatever information you have now, is what’s happening on January 3rd.

However, for a lot of colleges, staff return on January 3rd but faculty and students don’t return until the week of January 17th. As such, administrators should prepare for a much more hectic first week back than usual for January. Likely there will be a new set of rules for the spring semester, particular rules around events and other campus gatherings. Hang in their friends, hopefully you rested up this week.

Published by Michael Kane

Michael Kane is a writer, photographer, educator, speaker, adventurer and a general sampler of life. His books on hiking and poetry are available in soft cover and Kindle on Amazon.

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