Updated Jan. 7 at 9:32 a.m.
Citing the global explosion in cases of COVID-19 driven by the infectious omicron variant, the undergraduate Claremont Colleges will move to remote instruction for the first two weeks of the spring semester.
The Harvey Mudd College president’s cabinet initially confirmed the news in a Thursday afternoon message to community members.
“This transition will provide additional time for everyone to return to Claremont, particularly those students who face challenges getting approval for travel visas or those who test positive for COVID-19 and need to isolate before their return to campus,” the administrators said.
Medical advisers suggested the anticipated spread of the new variant over the next few weeks is “likely to impact 10-15% of our student population,” Pitzer College President Melvin Oliver added in a community update, which could overwhelm isolation spaces for infected students, as well as the school’s capacity to contact trace and test as needed.
The experts believe an initial delay for in-person classes is necessary to “have the best chance of successfully continuing the spring semester in-person,” Oliver said.
“We must expect a significant number of students will test positive before traveling to campus and have to change their arrangements, or they will test positive upon arrival on campus and need to be in isolation,” the Pomona College president’s cabinet said in an email. “It’s also possible a significant number of staff and faculty will come down with COVID-19 during this time as well.”
The 5C presidents made the decision on Tuesday, Harvey Mudd’s cabinet said, and will meet again at the end of the first week of classes to examine initial testing rates and consider how to move forward. Oliver emphasized that the schools currently plan to resume in-person instruction Jan. 31.
Claremont McKenna College President Hiram Chodosh said faculty could choose to continue teaching online or shift in-person “if conditions improve in advance of the second week.” It’s not clear if that qualification applies to the entire consortium, although Scripps College interim President Amy Marcus-Newhall said the presidents’ Jan. 21 meeting could include a reevaluation of remote classes if the “effect of the Omicron surge significantly wanes.”
“While this is not how any of us hoped to begin this new semester, please know that we remain committed to offering in-person instruction as soon as it is feasible for us to do so and that we all look forward to being back on campus together,” the Harvey Mudd cabinet said.
As TSL previously reported, students may arrive on campus on time and live in residential halls while the initial period progresses. Classes start online Jan. 18, as scheduled.
But while CMC deans told students last week that they were “expected to move-in on January 16-17 so we can start testing and establish our Claremont Colleges’ baselines more quickly,” other administrators took a less definitive tone.
Marcus-Newhall said one reason for shifting online was to “provide flexibility to our students who may not be able to or want to return to campus due to exposure to or testing positively for the coronavirus and/or flight cancellations or modifications.”
“To ensure that our staff is able to provide appropriate support and resources for our students that will be traveling back to campus domestically and internationally, we ask those students that are able to please exercise flexibility and move in after January 16,” Oliver said.
The semester will also begin with enhanced restrictions outside of classes, including limitations on dining, student activities, and student interactions in general. Students will not be allowed to have guests from other 5Cs within their dorm rooms or apartments, Chodosh said.
“Students who return to campus in mid-January should expect a very different environment than last semester,” Oliver said.
As announced in the fall, in-person 5C events will not take place until the week of Feb. 7, when administrators also plan to reassess cross-campus dining restrictions. Most dining locations will shift to grab-and-go service for January.
“We encourage ALL student events to be virtual or outdoors to limit exposure,” Scripps College interim Vice President of Student Affairs Adriana di Bartolo-Beckman told students in a Wednesday email. Marcus-Newhall said Thursday that common areas like auditoriums, conference rooms, and the student union would be closed, and that Tiernan Field House will only provide outdoor activities.
Still, “there are no current [changes] to student athlete participation,” Pitzer Vice President for Student Affairs Sandra Vasquez said.
In addition to previously-announced booster requirements for those eligible, the colleges are also ramping up testing and masking mandates.
Pomona, Scripps and CMC have extended their weekly testing requirements to faculty and staff as well as students. Pitzer and Mudd will test twice a week students for the first two weeks, a step CMC previously said it was evaluating.
Due to a shift in Los Angeles County guidelines issued Wednesday, employees working in indoor spaces are now required to wear “upgraded masks,” which the county defines as “well-fitting medical grade masks, surgical masks, or higher-level respirators, such as N95 or KN95 masks.”
Pitzer and Scripps will mandate these more effective masks for students and employees, providing them if necessary.
This is a breaking story and will be updated with more information.