Colleges and Universities Vary on Spring Semester Opening Plans

COVID infections are on the rise and for colleges and universities, the game plan for the next semester varies from one institution to the next. Administrators are scrambling to figure out how to balance the need to open the doors with taking appropriate measures to keep students, faculty and staff safe from infection. It’s become a familiar scenario on campuses across the country. Like Yogi Berra once said, it’s like déjà vu all over again.

CDC data identifies community COVID transmission as “high”, and new cases are spiking, despite the fact that 77.6 percent of people older than five years old have received at least one vaccination. The CDC forecasts 640,000 to 1,240,00 new cases for the week ending January 1, 2022 – and things are not expected to improve from there. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) says infections are predicted to increase, and we’ll see as many infections in the next two to three months as we have in the entire pandemic so far. What’s worse, fewer infections are likely to be detected since a larger portion of cases will be asymptomatic, fewer people will seek out testing and more people will be taking home tests and not reporting results.

Institutions are making individual decisions on how to proceed with the coming semester to mitigate the risk of viral spread while keeping doors open. Many U.S. colleges and universities are altering opening day for the Spring semester, while others are beginning in-person classes as usual. Still others are starting classes on schedule, but holding instruction online – at least for the first week or two.

Emerson College will begin the spring term virtually on Monday, January 10, but expects to transition to in-person instruction on January 18. Staff are required to return to regular work hours as of January 3. At the same time, the college decided to administer individual PCR tests instead of relying on a pooled PCR testing strategy, which is less effective, according to the CDC.

Binghamton University decided last week to postpone the first day of classes a week, from January 18 to January 25, and the semester will end five days later. The university will test all incoming students before they’re allowed to move into the dorms. The school also is encouraging on-campus residents to self-test for COVID before returning to campus and stay at home if they test positive to avoid having to return home upon arrival.

Other universities like University of Southern California (USC) are moving students onto campus, but beginning classes remotely. USC will open residence halls and housing as scheduled on January 6, and start classes on January 10 as planned, but the first week will be online only. The school plans to resume in-person instruction a week later but will also monitor the spread of cases in the community and see what other institutions are doing.  

Like Duke University and Temple, Harvard will also begin the spring semester with virtual classes only. But unlike USC, Harvard will allow only students who have previously been authorized to remain on campus to return while remote learning takes place during the first three weeks of January. The school plans to return to more of an on-campus teaching and learning model later in January, subject to improving public health conditions.

Stanford University also is opening spring semester with remote instruction and is also requiring students to get a booster shot before returning to campus.

Some institutions are operating remotely, but allowing some activities to take place on campus. Citing significant increases in COVID-19 cases because of the Omicron variant, Emory University announced that it is starting spring semester in a remote format, but excluding clinical and research activities, School of Medicine courses and some other activities. In-person classes will resume on January 31, if conditions permit.

Institutions will continue to monitor the spread of COVID-19 in their communities and nationwide to determine their next steps.

For more articles in this series on how colleges and universities are handling COVID mandates, see:

Colleges and Universities Boost their COVID Booster Requirements

How COVID is Helping Higher Ed Find Technology’s Goldilocks Scenario

Universities Respond to Increasing New COVID Threats