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5/5/2020 - Faculty Town Hall

To: Caltech Faculty
From: Thomas F. Rosenbaum, President; David A. Tirrell, Provost

Thanks to all of you who participated in our April 30 town hall meeting.  A summary of the conversation is below.

April 30, 2020 Faculty Town Hall

Introduction by President Rosenbaum: It's a great pleasure to welcome everyone to this virtual gathering. Over the last months the changes have been fast and furious, but faculty, staff, postdocs, and students have risen to the occasion, making sacrifices to protect the health of the Caltech and broader communities. In sequence, we have emptied the undergraduate residences except for international students who could not travel home, established Avery as an isolation space for symptomatic coronavirus patients, with particular concern for our residential graduate student community, effectively shuttered research laboratories except those involved in COVID-19 investigations, and pivoted to online instruction. This has been an incredible amount of work for the faculty, but I hear that course attendance is even up, a testament to the success of the remote instruction that we are offering. And, of course, we're grappling with the budget and endowment issues. Our general approach and principles are to try to hold together as a community. We have not furloughed or laid off any of our workers, sharing that responsibility across the Institute. Dave and I have drowned your inboxes with emails, but we wanted to make sure everyone was aware of what was going on as best as we knew. Today is a special opportunity for us to hear from you and we really welcome that chance.

General Continuity

Q: Could you provide a rough timeline for how and when specific decisions will be made regarding a return to campus?

David Tirrell: We have been working in accord with state and local social distancing orders. I think the situation changed a lot yesterday when we began to hear from both the governor and the mayor of Los Angeles that they were anticipating modifying those orders within weeks. The Los Angeles County order holds through May 15. I suspect we will see a loosening of the county order around that time and I think we will be ready to begin to expand our on-campus operations shortly thereafter. We are in communication with the health departments and other groups that are making these decisions. We'll try to get advance information if we can. My expectation is that within 2-3 weeks, we will be expanding our on-campus operations.

One thing that has not happened yet is the sustained decrease in the number of infections per day. Los Angeles County continues to see high numbers of infections, which may mean that my May 15 estimate is overly optimistic. Whenever we do expand operations, we'd like to be sure we have adequate testing capacity in place. Right now, we have adequate testing capacity to address symptomatic patients. We have made efforts to provide space for isolation and quarantine if we do get a positive result. For a modest increase in on-campus activity, we probably do have adequate testing, isolation, and quarantine capacity.

Q: Numerous research universities have managed to keep significant elements of their research enterprise going during this crisis. How is Caltech learning from the experiences of others?

DT: We certainly have been in extensive discussion with other universities in the United States both directly through conversation and indirectly by looking at written information that they have provided to their own communities. We have not yet had a conversation with a foreign university, but I have been monitoring their written communications and we're generally aware of what's going on overseas.


Q: We have the resources and the know-how to do campus testing independent of outside resources. Is there a plan to establish testing on campus?

DT: The current situation is that we are collecting samples on campus, but we're sending them to LabCorp and getting turnaround in 24-36 hours. We'd like that to be faster; under an hour. There are commercial instruments (three of them) that can provide results in that timeframe. We have tried to acquire all three of those instruments, but this has been frustrating. We've been given delivery dates that have not been met. No promises on timing, but we're trying to acquire them as quickly as we can.

In order to provide test results to determine health status of human patients, you need appropriate CLIA certification. If we can acquire instruments that let us do CLIA-waived COVID-19 testing, we'll begin immediately. The other possibility is to acquire a higher level of CLIA certification. We are exploring, in detail, what would be required to get that.

We have at least four projects on campus aimed at developing new testing methodology. You may have noticed that a startup company is responsible for much of the testing supported by LA County and they received approval quickly. We've begun to explore whether we'd be able to do that with one or more of our own technologies. So we are pursuing several approaches to acquiring rapid testing on campus.

Q: Is there a Caltech contact tracing plan?

DT: Yes, we have had some experience with contact tracing. We've been fortunate to have a very low number of positive test results. Only one graduate student has tested positive in a situation that was off-campus and occurred well after our social distancing practices went into effect. We did contact tracing for that individual. We do know how to do this. I would like to give credit to Jennifer Howes and her colleagues for implementing those contact tracing efforts.

Q: Assuming that Caltech has more cases of COVID-19 that are undiagnosed, have we considered antibody testing?

DT: Absolutely. I imagine many of you have seen the reports out of Santa Clara County, Los Angeles County, New York—they are giving somewhat different quantitative results, but in general, the qualitative results indicate that the level of asymptomatic cases is an order of magnitude higher than positive tests that are reported for active infection. The jury is still out about the reliability of antibody tests. We will evaluate these tests ourselves as promptly as we can. We are also considering health monitoring of other kinds. I am sure you have seen the use of thermometry in other places. There are also systems that use widely interconnected networks of thermometers that can report on rises in the number of fevers in the networked population. We've begun to learn about those systems to see if it is something that would be appropriate for our campus. We will almost certainly ask everyone to take their temperature every morning and to monitor their own symptoms. It might be that genuinely asymptomatic cases are not so numerous, but that there are many mildly symptomatic cases. If we begin to pay more attention to our own conditions, we may be able to protect one another more effectively than we would otherwise.

Q: Do we have plans to test everyone returning to work?

Clearly we have to come up with protocols to determine what level of testing is adequate to ensure the safety of everyone. It may not be feasible to test everyone. If there is random sampling, what level of random sampling gives us adequate assurance? If people are found to have the virus or antibodies, we'll have to do contact tracing. But the guidelines will be conditioned on the availability of testing and where we'll be able to make sure that social isolation policies are effective.

Research Continuity

Q: Is there targeted knowledge being acquired that is relevant to the cultures/practices of different types of laboratory environments? We have different kinds of operations in terms of the levels of risk that they pose. We have very clean environments on campus where air is exchanged very rapidly and highly filtered, we have laboratories and other environments where the occupation density is low. Will there be a staged re-opening that starts with the lower risk operations?

Thomas Rosenbaum: Our general approach is to develop guidelines centrally, and then ask for their implementation through the divisions. Research and laboratory operations may be one of the easiest aspects to restore operations. Reopening student housing is much more complicated. One of our two working groups is working specifically on this. The timeline will depend, in part, on the county and the state. But once we get the go-ahead, we want to be in a position to do that well. We're hoping to get recommendations from the committees the first week of May. We expect their recommendations to address things like spacing of graduate students in laboratories, ambient conditions, availability of testing and PPE. We would set expectations, and then let divisions work with faculty members to figure out how best to implement them. That's one of the great things about Caltech. We agree on general principles but try not to do a one-size-fits all approach. I am fairly optimistic that in the next month we will see a ramp up of our research activity.

Q: Do we imagine that the initial opening of campus will include research with reduced staffing?

DT: I think that's probably right, although in some ways implementing our research expansion is one of the most straightforward challenges we have. So I think research will make an early start. There will probably be reduced numbers of researchers on campus as well as reduced staff, but it will take that form.

Q: Could we allow graduate students to work one-to-one with instruments?

TR: The specific nature of this is going to be tailored to the individual labs. If it's consistent with our guidelines, that's fine. But we also don't want people to be completely alone in labs, in case of injuries. But it'll be on a lab-by-lab basis.

Q: If research labs are reopened will SURF students be able to do any hands-on work?

TR: We are not providing housing for SURF students, so the vast majority won't be in the area.

DT (comment added to transcript): Our SURF program has been converted to an online program, with students conducting their projects remotely. That plan remains in place.

Instruction Continuity

Q: What are the chances that we continue to teach online in the Fall term? Should instructors of large lecture classes in the fall be thinking about ways of teaching them online?

DT: I think the probability is high that at least some of our instruction in the fall will be online. We have a committee examining the issues that must be addressed to expand on-campus instruction. One of the things that group has already done is begin an assessment of our classroom spaces to figure out what our capacity would be under various models of social distancing. Once we understand that, we'll have a better picture of whether we will be able to accommodate in-person teaching for all of our classes. I think we will probably find that some of our teaching still has to be done online. I would encourage all of our teachers to be ready to teach online should the circumstances require.

Q: To better prepare for future pandemics (or other extreme events that could disrupt normal campus life), should we develop online versions of the classes we teach?

DT: Yes. I think we ought to be examining online instruction very broadly at this point, not only in response to the current health challenge, but considering where it fits in our overall education program. It may be that we decide that we don't want to do that, and we return entirely to in-person instruction when we can. This has been a crash course for all of us in online instruction, and we ought to take advantage of that to see what its role might be in the future.

Q: Undergraduates in many options have required laboratory classes that we simply cannot offer without students being on campus. Is there institutional guidance on how we should handle these requirements?

DT: I was very pleasantly surprised at the extent to which we were able to offer our full curriculum for the spring term. We are currently offering 327 courses online, and we had to cancel only 11 academic courses. I didn't expect that last number to be so small. I think that reflects the ingenuity of our instructors.

DT: Our space inventory includes the labs, and we will develop recommendations for the density that we can allow in those laboratory spaces. That will figure into our decisions on laboratory instruction.

TR: On SURF in particular, I was very impressed for the SURF program that 2/3rds of faculty members who have SURF students were able to accommodate their students remotely. You can't get the same sort of experience online for a lab, but there's a lot we can do remotely – and perhaps this will improve the way we do things looking down the road.

DT: If you have a good opportunity to offer a SURF remotely for one of our students, please contact Candace Rypisi. I'm optimistic that Candace will find a solution to allow that project to go forward.

Q: Might we expect to have hybrid courses in the fall (in person and online)?

DT: That is certainly among the possibilities that we're considering and that individual instructors ought to be considering. Normally, instructors have a great deal of freedom to decide how they teach their classes, but we've had to put limits on that freedom for the spring term. If students are back on campus in the fall and an instructor wants to do part of a class online in the fall, I can't imagine we'd limit that. I think that some circumstances may dictate that we do it and we have the flexibility to do it if instructors want to.

Q: Will we be able to offer class field trips? Maybe in small groups?

DT: I think this is likely to be viable but at that level of detail, we'll be asking our division chairs to assess the specifics of any individual activity to determine if the plan has a sufficient level of safety.

Q: Are we considering starting the fall term at a later date?

DT: That is among the options we're considering, but we're not close to making a decision yet. I've been keeping track of what other colleges are saying about their own plans, and I think most places are saying they'll make a decision by roughly July 1. I'm not sure if we will make our decision at that time, but the possibility of delaying the start of the fall term has been discussed.

Immigration and Travel

Q: Will we be able to accept new foreign graduate students and postdocs at all this year, once the travel restrictions are lifted, or will it be impossible for them to get visas? Is there any end in sight for the current visa slowdown?

Ilana Smith: I hope so, but I don't know. There are several potential obstacles in place, and until they are resolved, we will have significant problems. We have travel bans for foreign nationals who have been in certain countries prior to entering the US. We have no regular visa processing at U.S. consulates overseas, and no date for the resumption of visa processing. Within this, we are trying to maximize the possibility of students being able to enter for the fall term. Sending electronic documents and booking info for consulate appointments so that our students are in line once the consulates open. It's possible, but too early to tell if our students will be able to come for the fall term.

Q: For someone holding an OPT [optional practical training visa] that is expiring in summer 2021, what new kinds of visa status remain practically accessible?

IS: U.S. CIS is still accepting all paper-based applications. Anyone who wants to apply for a green card inside the U.S. can do so. The recent presidential proclamation was just about limiting immigrant visa applications from overseas. The suspension of regular immigrant visa processing overseas has helped clear up a tiny bit of the green card backlog inside the U.S.

Q: Should we assume that even after travel restrictions are lifted, it will be inadvisable for international students to travel to conferences out of the country?

IS: There's nothing that would lead me to discourage international travel in the future. Once the consulates are open, the travel bans are lifted, it will be travel as normal.

Q: Are we allowed to have international students enrolled if they cannot be on campus? If a new student or postdoc is stuck abroad, can they work abroad without coming to campus?

IS: Yes, immigration has relaxed the rules on online studies both inside and outside of the U.S. The starting of employment is not an immigration question, but rather an HR question.

Julia McCallin: We're working one-on-one with people and with OGC. We are saying that we cannot have them starting employment if they are new and outside of the U.S. and they are not able to enter the U.S.


Q: Do we expect to have students in residence in the fall?

DT: Repopulation of the houses could be our greatest challenge. I know that Jennifer Howes and her colleagues in Student Affairs are thinking through that carefully.

Jennifer Howes: This is the primary question we're trying to answer in Student Affairs. The main issue is whether we'll be able to do that safely, so we'll be consulting with both Pasadena and Los Angeles County public health departments. We expect to get more guidance around congregate living situations in the coming weeks. We're thinking about other elements of the residential student experience and whether we can support that within social distancing guidelines.

Q: How are enrollment numbers for class of 2024 looking?

TR: Surprisingly, we're running ahead of previous years. We seem to be okay. We did a lot of activity remotely – prefrosh weekend was not here, obviously. It was kicked off by Frances Arnold engaging with the students. Jarrid Whitney had a number of such events. We're optimistic.

JH: We're hovering around 217 or 220, with the deadline approaching on midnight, May 1.

TR: And graduate student yield rate was very high, which is good – because we want to be winning in the competition for talent with our peers; bad in that we cannot grow the graduate population without limitation, and we are growing it pretty fast right now.

Q: Will incoming graduate students be able to start in the summer, particularly if they can begin research remotely?

DT: This has been discussed with Doug Rees, and I think we all understand the interest in this possibility. It's done commonly in normal circumstances, and we'll look for any opportunity to do so if it's feasible. But we haven't established feasibility yet.

Human Resources

Q: What will happen with daycare when the campus re-opens?

DT: We want to move forward with providing daycare as soon as possible, but there are special concerns with density of our children in the center that must be taken into consideration.

Q: Daycare parents have just been told that it may not open for non-essential parents until July. The current situation of children at home has been difficult for all of our parents but has a disproportionate impact on women. Does the institute have a plan to redress this impact on the careers of women? Contract extensions? And what about teaching relief?

DT: We have already put in place a one-year tenure extension for all of our non-tenured faculty, and we hope that reduces stress levels for our early-career colleagues. Regarding teaching relief – we would certainly like to improve the situation for people who are encountering additional responsibilities and finding it challenging to meet all of their obligations. My hope is that, by fall, daycare will be back in operation.

Institutional Outlook

Q: Please comment on the financial health of the institute.

TR: We're in reasonably good shape, but there are a lot of unknowns. From discussions with AAU presidents and chancellors, it is clear that all of the schools with large medical centers are really feeling the pain from not being able to do elective surgeries. The short-term hit we expect to have is in the tens of millions. The uncertainty has to do with the long-term effects on the endowment and philanthropy. The endowment dropped dramatically at first, but it has recovered a good bit; philanthropy tends to go down in times of uncertainty. The salary freeze was a response to the short-term losses and uncertainty, but we haven't instituted a hiring freeze so that we don't slow down our ability to excel. I'm modestly optimistic that we will see our way through since we have a different model than a lot of our peers. This is also dependent on research continuing at present levels. We're having a banner year for research funding. Long term is harder to say.