As the new, highly infectious Omicron variant of COVID-19 has begun to spread rapidly across the U.S., colleges and universities are pivoting to keep students safe as they prepare for the upcoming spring semester.
One by one, institutions for higher education are moving back to virtual instruction, albeit temporarily, or limiting the amount of people on campus as they return to school in January after the holidays.
Yale University announced Thursday it will delay the start of its spring semester by a week and classes will begin remotely before returning in-person by early February. Seven University of California campuses announced Monday they also begin online: UC Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Riverside. Likewise, DePaul, Harvard and Stanford Universities won’t have in-person classes the first weeks of the semester.
The Universities of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and at Chicago have said they will start the spring semester online, though some students will be on campus, and being tested for the virus during some of this period. Many others have taken a similar path, such as Oberlin College, which will finish its fall semester in January and give students the option to take classes online, and Smith College, which announced Monday its January term would be mostly online.
But Arizona colleges and universities aren’t making any moves yet.
“There are no plans to return to virtual learning at this time,” said Gerardo Gonzalez, spokesman for Arizona State University.
The university’s COVID-19 dashboard, updated as recently as Monday, reported that approximately 3,000 students will continue living on campus during the winter break. ASU continues to offer vaccinations and testing at no charge to students, faculty or staff members.
Testing resulted in 34 known positives among faculty and staff, and 104 positive cases among the large student body. Since Aug.1, ASU has tested about 76% of students living on campus and about 29% of students living off campus.
The dashboard also noted cases in Arizona are slowly decreasing and, thus, ASU is not making any changes to its housing or learning modes of operation. ASU is requiring its employees to get vaccinated, or receive a religious medical exemption, due to its federal contracts.
The Arizona Department of Health Services reported 3,222 new cases and 25 additional deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday ahead of the Christmas holiday. Just 60.7% of the state’s population is vaccinated.
The University of Arizona, based in Tucson, has not announced its plans for spring, though the school announced last Tuesday it had uncovered its first cases of Omicron on campus. Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff also has not commented on its plans amid this current pandemic wave.
Matthew Hasson, a spokesman for the Maricopa County Community College District, which is home to 10 community colleges across the Valley, said the district is closely monitoring the evolving situation.
“We continue to monitor the metrics around COVID cases and have a mitigation process in place to provide as much protection as possible to our faculty, staff and students,” he said. “We require face coverings for all individuals inside our facilities regardless of vaccination status, practice social distancing, and strongly encourage those that are able to receive the vaccine to do so.”
Grand Canyon University in southwest Phoenix is taking a similar approach.
“We are currently monitoring the rise in COVID cases across the country and the status of the new omicron variant, especially as it relates to the severity of illness and how easily it spreads,” said Bob Romantic, GCU spokesman. “But at this point our campus policies remain the same — allowing for full in-person construction and campus activities with little or no restrictions.”
It’s a tack the university has taken for much of the pandemic, and Romantic said it’s worked well for its campus.
“GCU still highly encourages students and employees to receive the COVID vaccine and booster and we have those available on campus for anyone who wants one, but they are not required,” he said. “That approach, combined with our isolation/quarantine protocols, contact tracing and voluntary testing efforts, worked very well in the fall semester, with lower numbers of positive COVID cases on our campus than we saw at many university settings.”
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