With COVID-19 cases rising, just as students are returning from the winter break, dozens of American college classes are moving online again for at least the first week or so of the semester – and some warn that it may extend further , if the wave of infection does not subside soon.
Harvard is moving tuition online for the first three weeks of the new year, with a return to campus scheduled for late January, “conditions allow.” The University of Chicago is delaying the start of its new term and is holding the first two weeks online. Some others invite students back to campus but start teaching online, including Michigan State University.
Western University is switching to online courses, delaying the start of the winter period
Many colleges hope an extra week or two will get them past the top of the nationwide climb driven by the highly contagious omicron variant. Still, the rise creates uncertainty over a semester that many had hoped would be the closest to normal since the start of the pandemic.
For some students, it is becoming routine to start the term externally – many colleges used the strategy last year in the midst of a wave of cases. But some fear the latest shift could extend far beyond a week or two.
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Jake Maynard, a student at George Washington University in the nation’s capital, said he’s fine with a week of online tuition, but in addition, he hopes officials rely on booster shots and provide a traditional college experience.
He has already taken a year of online learning, which he said “did not work” and was not what he expected from a school that charges more than $ 50,000 a year.
“I’m a junior, but about half of my schooling has been online,” said Maynard, 20, of Ellicott City, Maryland. “You lose so much of what makes school the school.”
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The university invites students back to campus from Monday, but classes will be held online until Jan. 18, when officials increase virus testing and isolate all infected students. The school has more than doubled its isolation space and pushed the deadline for a new booster shot requirement up by three weeks due to omicron.
“The Omicron variant hit us at a terrible time, basically the last few weeks of the fall semester, which does not 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 who saw infections skyrocket in the days before the winter break. The campus averaged more than 80 cases a day during the final week compared to just a few a day for most of the fall. And while recent cases were mild, almost all were among students who had received at least two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.
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As for the mid-January target date for resuming personal learning, Goldman said officials “recognize that there is some possibility it will not be possible.”
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So far, more than 70 colleges across 26 states have started on the term online, and others say they are considering it. Many who move now use quarterly systems that start earlier than those with semesters.
Many of those switching online are in recent virus hot spots, including George Washington, Yale and Columbia on the East Coast, along with Wayne State University in Detroit and Northwestern University near Chicago. The list also includes most of the University of California campuses and Rice University in Houston.
At the University of California, Riverside, students can return on Monday but face two weeks of online classes. They are also asked to sequester for five days while undergoing two rounds of virus testing.
It’s the first time since last spring that the school has moved completely aside, but Chancellor Kim Wilcox said it’s the best way to prevent the virus from spreading after students return from holiday trips.
“We think of it as rebuilding our bubble,” he said. “It gives us a chance to reset things and then hopefully get going.”
Some other colleges are delaying the new period without offering distance learning. Syracuse University pushed its semester back a week, citing forecasts that the first three weeks of January will be “the most challenging of this increase.”
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Others push for personal learning, saying health risks are low with masks and booster shots.
At Northeastern University in Boston, one of a growing number of schools requiring boosters, students are returning as planned. Officials said the school is shifting its focus from preventing all cases to averting serious illness or hospitalization.
“As we move into this endemic phase of the pandemic, our job is to continue to control COVID effectively, not let COVID control us,” said Ken Henderson, chancellor and senior vice president of learning, in a message to campus.
Some universities delay the return to personal classes after the winter break as COVID cases increase
The move was praised by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, who said COVID-19 poses a small risk to college students, while “long-term isolation is a very real risk to their growth and mental health.”
The University of Florida plans to return to personal learning at the beginning of the semester, despite a request from a faculty association to teach at a distance for the first three weeks.
Paul Ortiz, president of the campus department of the United Faculty of Florida, said older faculty members would be at higher risk, especially without mask or vaccine mandates, which have been banned by GOP Governor Ron DeSantis.
“We do not want our campus to become a super-spreader,” Ortiz said. “There’s just a lot of uncertainty right now, a lot of stress.”
At some colleges starting externally, officials say they are committed to a speedy return to the classroom.
The 50,000 student campus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign plans to resume personal classes after a week of online tuition. Students are encouraged to return during the first week so that they can take two virus tests, which will clear them up to resume personal activities if they test negative.
“Every semester, we’ve had an increase when students come back,” said university spokesman Robin Kaler. “We want to make sure we’m on top of it so we can crush it as quickly as possible.”
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