As students return from winter break with COVID-19 cases rising, dozens of US colleges are resuming online classes for at least the first week or semester – and some have warned that a wave of infections could strike. It can spread for a long time, it does not subside quickly.
Harvard is moving online classes for the first three weeks of the new year, with a return to campus scheduled for late January, “conditions permitting.” The University of Chicago is delaying the start of its new term and is holding the first two weeks online. Some are inviting other students back to campus but starting online classes, including Michigan State University.
Many colleges expect an extra week or two to overtake the peak of a nationwide spike driven by the highly contagious Omron version. Still, the surge is casting uncertainty over a semester many expected it to be the closest to normal since the start of the pandemic.
For some students, starting term remotely is becoming routine – several colleges used the strategy last year amid a wave of cases. But some fear the latest change could extend beyond a week or two.
Jake Maynard, a student at George Washington University in the nation’s capital, said he’s fine with a week of online classes, but beyond that, he expects officials to rely on booster shots and a traditional college experience provided.
He’s already taken a year of online learning, which he said “didn’t work” and wasn’t what he expected from a school that charges more than $50,000 a year.
“I’m a junior, but about half of my schooling experience has been online,” said Maynard, 20, of Ellicott City, Maryland. “You lose a lot to make a school a school.”
The university is inviting students back to campus from Monday, but classes will be held online until January 18 as officials ramp up virus testing and isolate any infected students. The school has more than doubled its isolation space and extended the deadline for needing a new booster shot by three weeks due to Omicron.
“The Omicron edition hit us at a terrible time, basically the last few weeks of the fall semester, which doesn’t give us much time to prepare for spring,” said Dr. Lynn Goldman, dean of the George Washington School of Public Health.
The university was among many that saw the transition in the days before the winter break. An average of more than 80 cases were reported a day on campus during the final week, with only a few days for most of the fall. And while most recent cases were mild, nearly all were among students who had received at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.
For a mid-January target date for resumption of in-person learning, Goldman said officials “recognize there is some possibility that this will not be possible.”
So far, more than 70 colleges in 26 states are introducing online term, and others say they are considering it. Many moves now use the quarter system which starts earlier than the semester ones.
Many of those shifting online have been in recent virus hot spots, including George Washington, Yale and Columbia on the East Coast, as well as Wayne State University in Detroit and Northwestern University near Chicago. The list also includes most of the campuses of the University of California at Houston and Rice University.
At the University of California, Riverside, students can return on Monday but face two weeks of online classes. They are also being asked to isolate for five days while they undergo two rounds of virus testing.
It is the first time since last spring that school has moved away completely, but Chancellor Kim Wilcox said it was the best way to stop the virus spreading after students returned from holiday travel.
“We think of it as rebuilding our bubble,” he said. “It gives us a chance to reset things and then hopefully be off and running.”
Some other colleges are delaying new tenure without offering distance classes. Syracuse University pushed back its semester by a week, citing projections that the first three weeks of January would be “the most challenging of this boom”.
Others are moving forward with in-person learning, saying the health risk is less with masks and booster shots.
At Northeastern University in Boston, one of a growing number of schools in need of boosters, students are returning as planned. Officials said the school is shifting its focus from preventing all cases to serious illness or hospitalization.
“As we move through this endemic phase of the pandemic, our job is to continue to effectively contain COVID, not let COVID control us,” said Ken Henderson, Chancellor and senior vice president for learning, said in a message to the campus.
The move drew praise from Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who said COVID-19 posed little risk to college students, while “prolonged isolation poses a very real risk to their development and mental health.”
The University of Florida plans to introduce in-person learning at the beginning of the semester, despite a faculty association request to teach remotely for the first three weeks.
Paul Ortiz, president of the campus chapter of the United Faculty of Florida, said older faculty members would be at greater risk, especially those without masks or vaccine mandates that have been outlawed by GOP Gov.
“We don’t want our campus to become a super-spreader,” Ortiz said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty right now, there’s a lot of tension.”
At some remote start-up colleges, officials say they are committed to an early return to the classroom.
The 50,000-student campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign plans to resume in-person classes after a week of online instruction. Students are being encouraged to return during that first week to take two virus tests, which will make it clear for them to resume personal activities if they test negative.
“There’s a spike every semester when students come back,” said university spokesman Robin Kler. “We want to make sure we’re on top of it so that we can crush it as quickly as possible.”