How will higher education respond to the Omicron wave next month?
As I’ve said before, it’s difficult to forecast what COVID will do, given the variability of the virus itself as well as how humans respond to its action. What we know now, December 20th, 2021, is that Omicron is much more transmissible than previous COVID strains. Cases have been appearing, then rising in many nations. In the United States many states have officially detected this new strain. Given that transmissibility we should probably expect a far larger reach.
Yet while this is disturbing, there seems to be a kind of cultural ambivalence about Omicron. On the one hand there are epidemiologists and public health officials warning of a new tide which could hit medical systems very badly. On the other, there isn’t a lot of urgency elsewhere. We know that booster shots massively improve one’s chances of not getting ill and not spreading the virus, but fewer than 18% of Americans (59.2 million) have gotten boosted so far, according to the CDC. I must add that boosters are free and widely available.
A personal anecdote: on Saturday my son and I went to the nearest grocery store. We were worried about COVID-19 rising. My wife reported that in the next county infections doubled over the past two weeks, then doubled again last week. But Owain has celiac disease, meaning he needs gluten free food to survive, and grocery stores aren’t always good about getting us the right items through pickup or delivery. We’re both fully vaccinated and boosted, so, masked up, we went in.
Over the past two years this store has been great about masking. The store clearly mandated masks and customers generally followed suit, as have all staff. Yet yesterday we saw more and more unmasked faces as we went through the aisles. Overall I estimate around 40% of customers were either chinstrapping or just maskless. Owain joked that there must have been an announcement over the PA, claiming the pandemic was over.
Back to higher education. How will colleges and universities plan on operating this January?
This morning David Wippman (president of Hamilton College) and Glenn C. Altschuler (professor of American studies at Cornell University) published an article outlining what campuses should do to host in-person activities on site. It’s a good, thoughtful column, addressing a series of practical steps institutions should take, from mandating vaccines and indoor masking to increasing testing. Note, however, that too many did not take these steps in 2021.
To help track how campuses are responding, several of us just set up an open Google Sheet. It displays two lists of academic institutions (one for those using a quarter system and another for those on semester timelines), along with fields for their announced or reported actions and documentation thereof.
As of this writing six institutions are starting January classes online: Harvard University, the New School, Stanford University, the University of Denver, the University of Illinois-Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Each has its own timing and other campus restrictions, but all greet the new year with online teaching and learning.
In addition Willamette University is holding a two-week “quiet period,”
during which students will be encouraged to limit their in-person activities and interactions. Many classes that can be made remote will move online during this two-week period with the intention of returning to full in-person instruction after the quiet period is completed. For the Salem campus, the quiet period will begin January 10. For the PNCA campus, the quiet period will begin January 18…
We expect everyone to return to campus as originally planned.
If this sounds familiar to some of you, it should! Obviously it echoes what happened two years ago, when COVID first struck and campuses rapidly chose to close in-person activities.
I’d like to invite all readers to contribute to this living document. The more eyes on the problem the better. We can update the Sheet as events transpire and we learning about them, amending previous entries as things change. People can add new categories of information and ways of displaying them as you all have time. Hopefully we can all learn from each other.
The preceding account also may remind readers of an earlier project. We launched a similar open spreadsheet in February 2020 for a similar purpose, listing campuses and their plans, along with documentation. It rapidly grew in form and content, indexing college and university actions in real time. In fact, it won so much attention from users and media that it eventually shattered Google’s ability to provision the thing. Still, it was a very useful tool for weeks, creating a single point to track how academic institutions were responding. (Here’s the full story.) I hope that the time of year and Google’s ever-improving technology will keep things open for as long as we need them to be.
In the meantime, please share what you learn. Spread the spreadsheet’s news so we can keep the tracker up to date. And, above all, take care. Get vaccinated and boosted. Wear those masks!