Campus leaders discussed Caltech's response to the COVID-19 Delta variant, outlined the return to campus plan, and addressed questions posed by community members at a virtual town hall meeting on August 23.
Almost 1,000 students, faculty, and staff, some connecting from as far away as Japan, Romania, Lebanon, and Germany, joined to hear the panel discussion, which was moderated by Provost David Tirrell.
In opening the town hall, President Thomas F. Rosenbaum said, "The pandemic continues to evolve and our response continues to evolve, which makes this virtual gathering so important."
He went on to note that, while research labs on campus have been "running essentially at full occupancy and have been since the spring," and that "the pace of discovery has continued with the characteristic Caltech warp speed," it is the return of students to campus and the transition to in-person learning that will transform the campus once again.
"Our mission as an educational institution and the start of fall term is what sets the timeline for the broad return to campus for faculty and staff and students," Rosenbaum said.
Tirrell addressed the Institute's pandemic planning and response efforts, noting that the Delta variant has led to an acceleration of efforts to reach full vaccination status across campus. To that end, the Institute will require confirmation of full vaccination for entry to campus buildings, "a measure that we had not anticipated several months ago when infection numbers nationwide were significantly lower."
Other impacts of the Delta variant, Tirrell said, required developing a plan to "reduce density in our classrooms in the fall, probably to less than half of what it would ordinarily be," and to teach remotely those classes where density cannot be adequately reduced but with an in-person component in all instances. For example, in cases where larger lecture courses are remote, section meetings would be held in person. "The Institute position is that as many of our instructional activities as possible should be conducted in person, consistent with safety guidelines," he said.
Tirrell said that despite changes to the details of the return-to-campus plan, September 7 is "the date by which the campus should be positioned for the start of an in-person academic year." That said, he noted, the campus has been repopulating throughout the summer; card-swipe data shows that, while approximately 2,000 individuals were regularly accessing campus in the spring, approximately 3,300 are doing so now.
"I should also emphasize that we are expecting to allow some level of remote work in the fall," he added, "and so, on any given day, there will be people working remotely, and the overall density on campus will not be what it was prior to the pandemic."
Jennifer Howes, assistant vice president for student affairs and wellness, spoke about the Institute's surveillance testing program for all students as well as for other unvaccinated community members and announced that the program, which operates from a campus laboratory, would be offered on an opt-in basis for vaccinated community members beginning on August 30. "We have had a lot of community interest, and we are now able to offer this more broadly," she said, adding that "participation in the surveillance program is not a substitute for vaccination."
In addition, Howes discussed the contact tracing process and the process for isolating those students who test positive for SARS-CoV-2, the response for those who are exposed to an infected individual, and plans regarding vaccine boosters.
"In line with the vaccination mandate, we anticipate that boosters that are recommended by the CDC will be required for all students and employees once they are readily available," she said. "The same exemption process that we have now will apply. …The Institute is exploring options for on-campus clinics for boosters and will provide that information as soon as it's available."
Howes reminded those in attendance about the masking policies in residences and indoor spaces on campus. "It is also really challenging for folks who are in the public-facing positions, such as in our dining or library facilities, to constantly remind people to wear masks. We just ask that everybody continue to do so and treat one another with respect," she said. "That's one of our community values. That shared commitment is really important as we continue to fight this virus."
Kevin Gilmartin, vice president for student affairs, spoke about the virus's impact on campus life and the residential experience, emphasizing that, "as we return to fully populated undergraduate residences, our approach to any kind of formal program will be cautious and gradual." Specifically, he said, Convocation will be entirely remote, and orientation and rotation will likely include hybrid events, "taking advantage of outdoor spaces wherever that is possible."
"Both orientation and rotation are currently planned as in-person events that can be scaled up or down," he added, "and, as the time approaches, we will assess public health conditions and campus infection rates, and make a final decision that will maximize the value of the student experience while still prioritizing community safety. In all of our planning, I should stress that the aim is to get our undergraduate students safely back into their residential communities after more than a year away. We want our students to be able to return to campus learning and research."
In addition, Gilmartin noted that an increase in the number of outdoor spaces with seating and shading that has occurred over the past several months will allow for small unmasked groups to gather. "We are also working on plans to possibly create outdoor tented spaces so that students and other members of the community can have the chance to gather socially," he said.
Julia McCallin, associate vice president for human resources, addressed questions regarding return to work for employees, with a focus on how groups across the Institute have been assessing and ultimately structuring their operations models to support the return of Caltech's residential learning community. She noted that as we move into the fall, some types of hybrid work arrangements and staggered scheduling might be possible. "Over the last four to five months," she said, "we have worked with our managers and supervisors to provide them the tools to evaluate their work requirements and for them to make informed decisions on whether remote work or a combination of remote and on-site work is feasible for the business needs of their organization."
McCallin also pointed to the availability of the state's "COVID sick leave" for individuals who either become infected or need to isolate or care for others with the virus. That leave pool is available through September 30, she said, adding that if the program is not again extended, Caltech has a generous sick leave policy and a Disability and Leave Administration Unit that can work with employees to address specific concerns.
In closing the town hall meeting, Rosenbaum said: "All of us hoped that we would not still be having these kinds of discussions but, just as before, I have every confidence that we will be able to pull together as a community and get through these challenges safely while successfully fulfilling our mission of discovery and education in service of society. We have done it before; we will continue to do it."
For more information on the Institute's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, visit the Caltech Together website.