Back to 2020? New COVID variant forces these colleges online in January

Several major universities, from Rhode Island to Washington, are making the switch to remote learning to start 2022.
By: | December 22, 2021
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“This is not how we expected the spring semester to begin.”

Those were the words expressed by several officials at the University of Illinois-Chicago, including Chancellor Michael Amiridis and Provost Javier Reyes, upon making the decision to temporarily reinstate remote learning in January. UIC and other institutions have been pressed into the decision by the COVID-19 variant omicron and its swift spread across communities nationwide.

In some respects, the timing works well as students head off on their holiday breaks, giving decision-makers a chance to make the shift seamlessly. But they also understand the flip side and its potential impact on the psyche of students, so they are trying to limit interruptions and get back to face-to-face modalities as soon as possible.

“If there is any consistency to COVID-19, it is its unpredictability,” UIC leaders said. “In being adaptable for the spring semester, it is critically important that we support academic continuity by minimizing disruptions to students’ learning and coursework while providing as much planning and predictability as we can for students and faculty.”

UIC and the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign are two of the institutions  that have made the move to push learning online. The group includes elite private universities such as Stanford, Harvard and Princeton, public four-years as the University of Washington and most University of California campuses, and even the mostly online Southern New Hampshire University. While the institutions all have different plans, most are targeting a two-week period after they return from break before returning to in-person instruction.

“The two-week remote start is a precautionary measure to keep our campus community healthy and safe, with the ultimate goal of keeping our students on campus for the rest of the semester,” SNHU said in a statement.

UIC will take Jan. 10 through Jan. 23 to keep most lecture halls closed while Urbana Champaign will go from Jan. 18-23. They both expect to bring students back on Monday the 24th, depending on the status of COVID-19. Neighboring Northwestern University and Illinois State University are also implementing a two-week break. The University of Southern California and a handful of others are considering temporary switches, too, and could make the decision in the coming days.

“We have no plans to go online at this moment or having a remote spring semester,” USC officials said in a statement. But, “as part of these plans, like many universities, we are considering the possibility of delaying our in-person return with a temporary remote start in January.”

Because of its transmissibility, omicron has become the dominant variant in just a few weeks. Public health officials are especially worried about areas where there are large unvaccinated populations. Hospitals nationwide are at 80% capacity and rising. So some colleges and universities have reacted with multilayer strategies—pushing final exams online, sending students home early and encouraging booster shots. Around 60 institutions have now mandated COVID-19 boosters, including a new group that includes the California State University system, the University of Rhode Island, Drexel University, the University of Chicago and Duke University.

“While existing data suggests the Omicron variant appears to cause fewer cases of severe illness, it is also much more contagious and can spread much more quickly, threatening our education, research, and healthcare activities,” Duke University Provost Sally Kornbluth and Vice President of Administration Kyle Cavanaugh wrote, as the state of North Carolina experiences a 54% rise in hospitalizations. “These steps will help limit a potential outbreak on our campus and in our community and protect those most vulnerable to this virus.”

Even a few such as the University of Illinois that aren’t requiring boosters are enacting the grace period of remote operations on campus. Willamette University in Oregon, for example, is installing a “quiet period” on campus, where officials are asking students to limit interactions so that it can ensure a safe semester.

The vast majority of institutions go into the winter break without either in place, and most of them don’t have vaccine mandates for the primary doses, either. That includes every institution in Florida, which has seen a 294% jump in COVID-positive cases over the past two weeks, and a large group in Texas, where cases have risen +82%. At one with a vaccine mandate in place, the University of Michigan, more than 800 students and faculty have petitioned for a remote start to 2022.

Others that have decided to go remote in January as a precaution include Yale University, the College of New Jersey, DePaul University, Emerson College, Oakland University (Mich.) and McDaniel College in Maryland, which decided to push its January term online.