Dozens of colleges and universities have chosen to push the start of their 2022 semesters online because of a resurgence of COVID-19 and the fears of transmissibility of the omicron variant.
But some cautious institutions, not sold on the virtual experience or not in position to make the transition, have opted to extend winter breaks for students. They are hoping to restart in person after one-, two- and in some cases three-week delays, with a few opting for Jan. 31 returns if all goes well.
In Washington, DC, one of the epicenters of the rise in coronavirus cases and home to Georgetown University and American University, will begin remotely, Howard University instead has decided to delay its semester rather than try to start with a robust residential return and face-to-face learning. The added time also gives it the benefit of preparing campus and ensuring students are vaccinated and tested.
“The CDC predicts a potential peak in COVID-19 cases in January,” Dr. Anthony Wutoh, Provost and Chief Academic Officer at Howard, said in a statement. “Our most recent weekly positivity rate has increased to 19%, which is the highest number we have seen throughout the pandemic. At that rate, we would not have enough beds to quarantine positive students living in the residence halls if students returned on the originally scheduled start date for the spring semester.”
Syracuse University effectively is taking a similar approach, pushing its spring semester to open on Jan. 24, while planning for an in-person return. “I am optimistic because we have done this before,” Syracuse Chancellor Kent Syverud wrote to the community. “Syracuse has safely and successfully held three in-person semesters of instruction in the midst of the pandemic. Each semester, the circumstances have been different. Each semester, the resilience has remained the same. Each semester, we have made decisions based on science and the best public health guidance. I am confident in our ability to do it again.”
Syverud noted confidence in booster vaccines, which are being mandated for students, staff and faculty that will be key in maintaining operations and in helping protect neighboring communities.
“What is different for this upcoming semester is that we have booster shots that are proven to be both safe and effective,” he said. “This means our students, faculty and staff can be back on our campus. This means we can enjoy the traditions and activities we cherish.”
The Northeast has been one of the areas of the U.S. showing the highest increase in numbers of cases, hospitalizations and deaths. The severity of omicron is still unclear, although most public health experts agree that it is more evasive and more transmissible than the delta variant.
In response to a 53% increase in cases statewide, Salve Regina University in Rhode Island has delayed its start by another week to Jan. 17, an unusual but necessary step given its quest to finish its semester on time on April 22 and have a somewhat regular spring break and commencement. It also added back Feb. 21, April 14 and April 18 to its calendars. Students will be moved in on two separate days the weekend before the 17th.
“The decision to hold classes on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Presidents Day, as well as to shorten the Easter break, was not made lightly,” officials said. “We recognize the civic and religious importance of those holidays and the disruption these changes will mean for our students, employees and families. Still, as a university guided by its mercy mission—and what that means in terms of our obligations to others—we concluded that delaying the start of the semester is essential given the disease forecast for the coming weeks.”
Yale University also has pushed back its Yale College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences learning to Jan. 25, and then those students will see virtual instruction for two weeks.
Like Yale, the University of Chicago has delayed its start (by one week to Jan. 10) and will then go to remote learning for two weeks before fully reopening on Jan. 24. Two institutions in the state of Tennessee also pushed back their reopenings: Vanderbilt University and Tennessee State University. Southern University in Louisiana also delayed its start to Jan. 26.
While many institutions are going forward with in-person plans in the state of Texas—where case counts are up more than 200%—Trinity University in San Antonio won’t begin its semester until Jan. 31.
“Due to a dramatic increase in the number of positive cases of COVID in our campus community, we have decided to extend winter break so that we may do so in person,” Trinity officials said. “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. While we remain hopeful that omicron will not cause serious illness, the rapidly spreading variant does have the potential to overwhelm campus operations as students, faculty and staff are forced to isolate or quarantine.”
Except for essential workers, Trinity has asked all employees to operate remotely until Jan. 17. It also is working on making changes to its academic calendar.
Methodist University in North Carolina, where positive cases have increased 85% statewide, will begin on Jan. 18 with precautions in place including masking indoors and testing. “I am certain we will have cases on our campus this spring, but as promised all along, we are working daily to remain as open as possible while also being as safe as possible,” President Stanley Wearden told the Methodist community. “Delaying the full opening of campus by a week affords us multiple opportunities to mitigate risk.”