3/28/2021 - A Year of Change: Caltech's Response to COVID-19 and the Path Forward
Virtual Community Town Hall Transcript
March 24, 2021
President Thomas F. Rosenbaum: Good afternoon. It's wonderful to gather as a community. One of the founders of quantum theory, Niels Bohr, famously observed, "it is difficult to make predictions, especially if they involve the future." Who could have imagined that one year ago or so, our lives would be turned upside down by the coronavirus pandemic. In an attempt to capture some of that experience, I searched for some words that might be useful to describe how our community has responded.
The first word is resiliency. Resiliency in the face of overwhelming workload and demands, particularly for parents at home who have to become teachers as their children learn via Zoom, or as they care for ailing family members or aging parents. Even without those demands, which I was fortunate enough not to have, I don't think I've ever worked harder than the last year. Ninety-hour weeks, week after week after week. This isn't unique of course. It's an experience shared by all of us, but we've come through it and we've pushed Caltech forward.
Relentless. Every day is Blursday is my favorite expression about this time. And it isn't just a commentary about Zoom! To counter this, we've been buoyed by our attitudes and our support from our colleagues.
Isolation and outreach. Here the emphasis is that even though we are isolated, we do have extensive outreach capacity, and many examples of intentional communication to check in and provide updates, whether it be person-to-person or institutionally. I think I've written an email every other day or so. And that is not unusual, again, in terms of how we've all tried to communicate, and to express our caring about each other and also to transmit the information that is necessary to move forward.
The courage of our staff who kept this place running, and often assuming personal risks. And in that light, we want to remember the two staff members who we lost to the virus. Pointing out, again, the seriousness of the challenges we face.
Our faculty and our students pivoted to a remote learning environment, supported by innumerable web-based assets and administrative colleagues who did not stop until classes could be held online. We are able to deliver a quality education in this fashion. We miss, of course, the serendipitous encounters, but this pivot is a way that we can continue our mission, and everyone should take pride that we continue to fulfill our mission.
Colleagues across campus kept the research enterprise running and did so with a sense of service to the community: fully committed to keeping our community safe. The labs have been open since May, and here I want to make a special call out to our graduate students and to our postdocs, who have been able to continue the arc of discovery so characteristic of Caltech.
So at least some of the words—and I know that you have many of your own to characterize the experience over this last year—that came to me were: resiliency, relentless, buoyed, isolation, outreach, courage, loss, pivoting, and pride.
Another Nobel laureate, Dennis Gabor, who is the inventor of holography, pointed out that the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented. That's what we're doing now, and that's really the emphasis of this gathering today. We will keep our community safe through continued surveillance testing—any of you who've come into campus now know that, twice a week, you get tested to try to protect your own health and wellbeing and everyone else's—against the backdrop of an incredible change and case rate in L.A. County. First skyrocketing and now thankfully coming back down. And through vaccination, which really is the light at the end of the tunnel.
If you have not been vaccinated, and have access, please, for the sake of yourself and for the sake of the community, do so. We're going to open up our campus in a measured fashion over the spring and the summer. We expect to have some students back in summer—Kevin will talk about this to a greater extent—always satisfying the Public Health Authority guidelines. And we will push forward in as safe a manner as we can, and we will respond to the data. If the situation changes, we will change our approach. But it'll be just wonderful to get back a little closer to normalcy. Right now, the major limitation is that we're only allowed by Pasadena Public Health to be at 25 percent capacity of our campus. But that's going up. We will be increasing the number of people that can come back to campus with the hope that, by fall, we will approach normalcy.
Throughout this, let us all try to learn from this experience, take from it the good that we can, and continue to do what we can together to make Caltech a stronger place.
Today, we're going to have a whirlwind tour of the last year, a year in a pithy half hour, brought to you by Vice President for Administration and CFO Margo Steurbaut, Provost Dave Tirrell, and Vice President for Student Affairs Kevin Gilmartin.
At the end of their presentation, we will address the specific questions that you sent us in advance, as well as those submitted in the Q&A function. With that, let me turn it over to our moderator, Dave Tirrell.
Provost Tirrell: Thank you, Tom. And thanks to all of you who have joined us; we're at about 550 participants and we're certainly pleased by the level of interest in this conversation. Tom outlined the plan for the next hour or so. We will start with a presentation that Margo, Kevin, and I will share that might take us about a half an hour. We will then address questions that we have received ahead of time. As is often the case in these kinds of meetings, we've received many more questions than we can address on an individual basis, but they can be grouped into a set of topics and we have done that and you may hear your question paraphrased rather than asked directly.
Just to give you a sense of how that conversation will be organized, the topic areas are resumption of on-campus operations, student access and activities in the spring with reference, in particular to on-campus housing, testing and vaccination, finances, and then as Tom mentioned just a minute ago, lessons and opportunities for the future. I will be looking at the Q&A submissions as we go along and I will try to fold into the conversation questions that we receive in the course of the meeting.
With that, I'd like to turn to the presentation. Margo will lead it off.
Vice President Steurbaut:
Thank you. Good afternoon. We want to take this opportunity to summarize the impact of the pandemic, and acknowledge the contributions of so many people at Caltech. For most of us, our fulltime jobs did not go away. In fact, the pandemic has made them harder. Numerous people assumed additional duties throughout this challenging time.
By this time last year, the campus had already started to react to the potential threat of COVID-19. Our first actions were focused on measures to protect the campus community during a health crisis. By mid-March 2020, the Safer-at-Home Order required us to shift the academic, research, and administrative operations to remote access in order to address what will become an unpredictable lingering crisis. In today's presentation, we will summarize a brief overview of the interventions. Dr. Tirrell will present an update on the programmatic impact, I will provide an overview of the financial impact, and Kevin Gilmartin will provide an update on summer and fall planning.
We will start with campus interventions. I would like to highlight the Institute's pandemic response management and planning process. Almost immediately, we activated our enterprise risk management program and our pandemic plan. A theme that you will see throughout this presentation is that our pandemic response was and is a team effort that required support and assistance from numerous subject matter experts across campus. The Infectious Disease Task Force group is just one example of this teamwork and collaboration. Nine subgroups were established consisting of 73 people; the Office of General Counsel and IMSS supported all of the groups; and the subgroups range from health and communications, to academic and research, to human resources, staffing, travel restrictions, facilities, EH&S, and so on.
We also activated our virtual Emergency Operations Center to oversee the ground tactics and coordinate amongst the various subcommittees, not only the Infectious Disease Task Force, but numerous other committees that were established. And this group kept the executive policy group informed. The executive policy group provides executive level strategy and institution decision capabilities. The executive policy group consists of Dr. Rosenbaum; Dr. Tirrell; first Joe Shepherd, now Kevin Gilmartin; Jennifer Lum; Diana Jergovic; and myself. We met daily at first; now we meet twice a week at 6 p.m. We're always joined by Shayna Chabner, Jim Cowell until he retired, Ken Hargreaves, Jennifer Howes, and John Onderdonk. In this meeting, we review all of the subgroup recommendations; we coordinate and recruit capabilities, which means we pass out assignments and recruit volunteers, to help us with these issues; we organize communication; and we work closely with the COVID-19 Vaccination Working Group.
Other campus interventions include Student Wellness Services setting up an isolation and quarantine space at Avery and Bechtel Residence, and efforts by Strategic Communications. There were frequent communications through both written notes and virtual town halls, like the one here today. In addition, a communications hub and a COVID-19 dashboard were established to provide timely information to both internal and external communities. As decisions were made, tools for sharing information and keeping the community informed were developed. Sharing information and updates on a real-time basis has been a critical component. However, it's also something that's been a bit of a challenge as the factors that inform our ability to operate extend far beyond our community.
Once these initial interventions were established, we turned our attention to the programmatic impacts caused by the pandemic. Dr. Tirrell will now provide more details of the programmatic impacts.
Provost Tirrell: Thanks, Margo. We're going to start with just a little bit more detail on the chronology that Margo mentioned a minute ago. When we went back to review the communications, what I remembered was that our first communication to the campus on COVID-19 came on January 24, 2020. This was a result of the work of the infectious disease task group that Margo mentioned a minute ago. On March 11, we made the decision to complete the winter term remotely; that meant the students would leave campus as quickly as possible. That was a very challenging logistical enterprise managed very nicely by Student Affairs with a great deal of cooperation of other groups, including the students themselves. That meant that they took their exams remotely. Two days later, we decided we needed to conduct the entire spring term online. On the 19th of March, we got the Safer-at-Home Order that required us essentially to shut down campus activity, other than really essential operations and some research directed toward COVID-19 itself. By late April, we were thinking about returning to campus and we appointed committees to plan both on-campus instruction and research. The research committee issued its report in late May, just in time for the City of Pasadena to approve a limited return.
We conducted virtual commencement on June 12. And, of course, we were disappointed that we couldn't do that in person, but I must say that I found the virtual commencement to be an interesting and rewarding event and I hope those of you who participated found it similarly. We initiated our surveillance testing in late November, in large measure in anticipation of the winter surge that did in fact materialize. Through our testing program we are running roughly 3,000 tests per week on campus. We appointed a vaccination planning group in mid-December. That was the formal appointment, but in fact that planning had been underway for several months.
Just to give some sense of the extent to which our educational program had to be reorganized. First of all, it had to be reorganized within about two weeks for the spring term last year. In a typical term, we offer about 300 courses. We have found that in each of the four terms that we've now had to plan online, we've only had to cancel about a dozen or so of those courses. And that reflects the resourcefulness of our instructors; the Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach; Academic Media Technologies, and others that have effected this change so well.
I'd also like to draw attention to the imagination with which our instructors, faculty, TAs, and others have approached the educational enterprise. This was not something that many of us had done in the past and the skills and opportunities really had to be learned very quickly. Strategic Communications has done a good job of highlighting some of the most imaginative responses we've seen over the last several terms.
Throughout all this, we have tried to keep in close touch with our students. This fall, there was an ambitious survey of our students, where we heard from more than 800 of them. Among the takeaways are that they've certainly seen challenges in the online environment, but they've appreciated in large measure the efforts that their instructors have made. Collaboration has been a particular challenge. And we have made efforts—for example, through the iPad Loaner Program, distributing several hundred iPads—to facilitate collaboration, which students initially were finding challenging and perhaps continue to find challenging. We are mindful of the difficulty of managing workload and the stresses that come from the isolation of our students, and we're working to mitigate those stresses.
Next are changes in the research program. I mentioned that our Committee for Reconstituting On-Campus Research filed its report on May 21st. That report is online, if you would like to have a look, and we will be updating it within the next several days, in concert with the expansion of on-campus activity that Tom mentioned just a few minutes ago. That report required the preparation of detailed operating plans for each of our 300 laboratories.
Now I'd like to provide a sense of the level of detail that these operating plans convey. This shows a schedule for just one day in the operation of a typical laboratory that ordinarily accommodates 16 people. Now, there are never more than four people in this laboratory at any time, and the operation is scheduled from 6:00 in the morning until 10:00 at night. There's a careful management and monitoring of the level of activity in the research laboratories.
Despite the restricted access to the laboratory, many exciting things continue in our research programs. Of course, the most visible to the world as a whole was the success of our colleagues at JPL in the Mars landing roughly a month ago. That continues to produce exciting results and will produce many more over many more years. The choice of the name Perseverance could not have been better. Many of you may know that this name was suggested by a seventh-grade student, and was actually suggested in August of 2019, roughly six months before the pandemic began and extraordinary perseverance would be required from all of us.
Also, we have continued to add to our faculty. We have made nine appointments over this last one-year period, and we're delighted to be welcoming some of these colleagues who have already come to campus; some are yet to arrive. We're delighted to be welcoming a new group of talented scholars, and to be making some progress on our shared objectives with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion in our faculty composition.
I will elaborate, now, just a little bit on some of the steps that Margo mentioned that we've taken to protect the health of the community. We're of course asking all of you to report your health status every day you come to campus and other familiar requirements. We are in the middle of an ambitious program to understand the quality of the ventilation of our research and teaching spaces. We have now conducted more than 40,000 surveillance tests. And I would like to finish by emphasizing, as Tom did, two things. First, the essential importance of getting the vaccine yourself—to protect yourself, your family, the community, the Caltech campus. It is essential, it is safe, and we encourage you to do it at the earliest possible time. The second point is, please tell us what your vaccination status is. We have a space in the reporting application for you to do that. While some 3,000 members of the community have told us their status, there are several thousand who have not, and we need to understand what the vaccination status of the campus is. Please report as soon as you can. As soon as we're done here, please report your vaccination status.
With that, we return to Margo at this point.
Vice President Steurbaut:
Great, thank you. First, I'd like to summarize the financial resources that we have allocated to date for our pandemic response. The total is approximately $31.5 million. As you might expect, the net revenue loss for housing, dining, and the Athenaeum represents more than half of the total costs that we've incurred to date. This is followed by salaries and benefits.
Through our other paid leave, our salary and benefits program, we continued to pay staff who were unable to work remotely from the day we converted to remote work through January 8, 2021. This program also included employees who didn't have enough remote work to complete a full-time schedule, as well as people with childcare challenges. That resulted in full or partial payment to 713 employees for a total of 214,000 hours of other paid leave.
Another benefit that we offered is what I'm going to refer to as emergency leave. The State of California passed an emergency leave bill that entitles all full-time employees to 80 hours of COVID supplemental paid sick leave. This allows employees who are unable to work due to COVID impacts to do so without using their accrued sick time. This program now has provided over 13,000 emergency leave hours to our collective community.
The Institute has also made numerous facility improvements to protect the health and well-being of our employees. These investments include adding 28 additional custodians, three additional HVAC personnel, purchasing all of the PPE that we needed to buy for the campus community, and additional preventative maintenance on the air-handling systems. We came up with traffic flow for buildings and we installed hand sanitizer stations all across campus.
As Dave mentioned earlier, Student Wellness Services implemented a surveillance testing program in November 2020. The current plan is to continue this program at least through the end of the current fiscal year. Currently all employees coming to campus, including those who have been vaccinated, are required to participate in the surveillance program. During this time, we've used a combination of three different vendors and have reduced the costs from $65 a test to $22 a test. In order to make sure we're keeping the entire community safe we're also testing temporary employees and outside contractors that come to campus regularly.
As Dave mentioned, we've conducted more than 40,000 on-campus tests since November of 2020, and this resulted in the early detection of 69 positive cases. We believe this has had a tremendous positive impact.
In the non-labor areas, we continue to make investments to improve the health and the safety and the operations of the campus community. About 25 percent of these investments were allocated to IMSS. For the tools, we needed to quickly get all of our classes or most of our classes online, and all the licenses we've needed for Zoom meetings. The rest of the investments were spread widely across the institute, and they were almost all pertaining to things we needed to enable the staff to work remotely.
Next, I'd like to provide an overview of the collective efforts that have occurred across campus. As I said earlier, this has been a group effort of subject matter experts from all over campus. Although IMSS has been tasked with the technical components, the content for these items came from hundreds of people across campus. In addition to the graduate student recruiting and the online education support that Dr. Tirrell described in more detail, IMSS also assisted with system enhancements to enable remote work. This endeavor supported more than 2,000 remote workers, and has resulted in more than 312,000 individuals Zoom meetings and counting. They also developed a COVID-19 reporting attestation site; the site has been updated to include employee vaccination details. I'll stress again that it's important for everyone to enter their vaccination status into the app. We are using aggregate data from this site to assist with vaccine planning.
We are turning over every stone trying to find ways to recapture the investments that we have made. And we've been fairly successful in finding ways to mitigate the impact that I've talked about. We submitted a FEMA claim for the investment we made for our initial response. We also received an Employee Retention Credit from the federal government, and we're continuing to explore the stimulus package that just was released and many other avenues to try and recoup funds.
Caltech has been approved by the state to administer vaccines to eligible members of the campus community. While we haven't personally administered any vaccines—we haven't been allocated them—we've had access to numerous dedicated vaccine clinics, hosted by both Huntington Hospital and Pasadena Public Health. We also had an on-campus vaccination clinic last week administered by Vons. We hope to continue to make strong progress on getting our community vaccinated.
In conclusion, our primary focus during the past year has been on the health and safety of our community. The Institute's financial health looking forward is strong. We've successfully converted the majority of our classes to an online format, and we're able to continue research throughout this period. I think we weathered this financial storm better than many of our peers. I think the universities who are most impacted were the ones with large academic medical centers or big-time athletic programs.
I think we continue to be hopeful that the pandemic outlook will continue to improve. And we sincerely thank each and every one of you for your contributions and sacrifices during this difficult time.
With that, I'd like to hand it over to Kevin Gilmartin to talk about our summer and fall plan.
Vice President Gilmartin:
Thanks Margo. And hello, everyone. I'm pleased to have this chance to discuss the return of undergraduate students to campus, after this difficult year is behind us. As you know, we've made plans through successive terms to bring undergraduates back to campus and to our residences and classrooms on a limited scale. But L.A. County guidelines for higher education have so far prevented us from acting on any of those plans. It's been a disappointing and frustrating process.
At this point, it's wonderful to finally be planning through a period where public health conditions and ongoing vaccination efforts indicate that undergraduate students will be able to return. On behalf of the entire campus community, I want to say to our students that your presence here is very much missed. This pandemic experience has brought home to us the importance of everything you bring to our research and learning community. Your energy, your intelligence, your creativity are very much a part of what we do.
I want to begin with spring term. Those students who are living in the area will know that starting earlier this month, in accordance with updated county guidelines for higher education, our Performing and Visual Arts Program has been able to provide undergraduate students who are living in the area access to the practice rooms in the music house and a reservation system is in place for that. We will also be able to expand outdoor athletic activities, most notably with the addition of spring term training sessions for our student athletes. We're looking forward to that. Outdoor group fitness sessions and lap swim sessions are also becoming available, including family swim, and graduate student recreational leagues will be underway later in the spring. I fully expect that as public health conditions continue to stabilize in the near term, we'll be able to expand this campus access further. And, in fact, plans are already in the works for a limited return of indoor athletics activity later this spring.
On to commencement. As you know, we'll be holding a virtual commencement ceremony in June to confer bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in a timely way and to collectively celebrate the achievement of our 2021 graduates. We're also planning a fall 2021 in-person celebration to which all 2020 and 2021 graduates will be invited. While the timing and details are still in the works, the event will be open to friends and family, and we'll include the traditional hooding ceremony for our PhD degree recipients and an opportunity for all students to walk across the stage and be recognized in the presence of the gathered Caltech community. Faculty and staff are eager to join families in celebrating the achievement of their students in our on-campus setting. We are looking forward to that.
In consulting with undergraduate and graduate degree candidates about what matters most to them about commencement, we've heard a number of important themes: the ability to be on campus and to connect with peers and colleagues; the opportunity to share the moment with friends and family; and the opportunity to have both the 2020 and 2021 graduates, who have together shared this pandemic experience, together.
Some of the ceremonial elements and traditions that are special to our close-knit community include shaking the President's hand and, again, the PhD hooding ceremony. Current public health restrictions prevent us from realizing these essential ceremony elements in an in-person gathering in a way that reflects Caltech and our community values. In particular, any in-person event we might stage this spring would have to be limited to students who are currently residing in California, and would therefore exclude students living elsewhere in the US, as well as our substantial international community. And it would be particularly restrictive for friends and family. We're really not prepared to plan any commencement event that necessarily excludes substantial numbers of students receiving degrees. That is why we've proceeded as I just described with the virtual event in the short term, and the later inclusive event that can be held in the familiar confines of our main campus.
Looking ahead to fall term instruction, I can say quite clearly and simply that the Institute is planning for a full return of students to campus. This would include fully repopulating the undergraduate residences, and a return to in-person learning as well, although likely with ongoing COVID-19 campus safety measures and health protocols in place.
Of course, we will need to make other contingency plans as well, and our reopening will be in accordance with state, county, and city health guidelines. At this point, the thrust of our fall term planning is toward a full reopening and the return of all undergraduate students to campus. With that in mind, summer is going to provide a critically important opportunity for us to stage a limited reopening of the undergraduate residences in support of summer campus activities in order to ensure that we can do so safely to ourselves, to city and county officials, and, as importantly, to our undergraduate students and their families.
There are many undergraduate activities that typically take place on campus in the summer, supported by our residential capacity with the date range and the number of students normally involved. While it's not likely that we'll be able to run full versions of all the programs, we're working to ensure that we can run them as extensively and safely as possible, beginning with SURF and WAVE. These are both research programs that bring students into the labs to work alongside faculty, postdocs, and graduate students as part of our research programs. The research divisions have made a commitment to include undergraduate students in their planning, as we increase the density and capacity of campus research over the course of the spring. This will enable us to run robust versions of these undergraduate research programs in the summer. Faculty and students involved in SURF have been making plans for research projects that include the contingency of remote work, but, at this point, we expect that many students will be able to work directly in the labs, and that's where our planning is currently directed. Next on this list of summer activities, FSRI, the Freshman Summer Research Institute, is an important summer bridge program for some of our incoming first year undergraduate students, run by the Center for Inclusion & Diversity. It provides orientation and academic support to ease the transition from high school to college. And, like SURF, it has a really critical lab research component. And finally, our fall sports: women's soccer, cross country, and volleyball, and men's soccer, cross country, and water polo. Student athletes typically begin arriving in early August, then the arrival continues through August. And since we anticipate the return of our SCIAC NCAA Division III athletic competition in the fall, it's going to be important that we support the return of our student athletes to campus in advance of fall term.
Within Student Affairs, the group that I work with, we're actively planning to support all these programs, by making as much of our residential capacity as possible available over the course of the summer. This will likely begin with a limited reopening of the residences and student dining services in early June—again at reduced density and capacity in order to support undergraduate research. This will take place with appropriate health and safety measures and will require the approval of Pasadena health authorities and will have to be in line with current county and state protocols for higher education.
We've already been discussing our plans with city health officials and they've been very supportive. We understand that students and their families need to proceed with summer planning. We are making every effort to resolve these plans and receive approval from public health authorities in order to make a timely announcement about the scale of our summer activity on campus. Those of you who've been tracking communications know that the Institute has been urging all members of the community to get vaccinated for COVID-19 as soon as they're eligible. I will follow up with what Dave and Margo both said, with a particular eye toward our undergraduate students. I really do urge you to get vaccinated, as soon as possible, and also to indicate your vaccination status in the COVID-19 reporting feature on Access.caltech.edu, and also to update that status as it changes. Keep in mind that our understanding of the extent of vaccination across the Caltech community, including our undergraduate students, is going to be critical to our effective planning in the weeks and months to come. I know you all want our planning to be successful. So please support it by reporting your vaccination status.
With that said, we understand it may not be possible for all undergraduate students to get vaccinated in advance of a potential return to campus in the summer, in the way I've already described. I can assure you that as eligibility guidelines continue to expand, and as undergraduate students return, the Institute will continue to actively encourage and support access to vaccination for students, as well as for all members of the campus community. Okay, back to you Dave.
Provost Tirrell: Thank you, Kevin. We'll turn now to the questions that were received before the meeting began. And as I indicated earlier, we've combined them into themes, the first of which we're referring to as resumption of on-campus operations. And I'll take the first of these questions.
When will the occupancy be increased in research laboratories?
The answer is, essentially immediately. We have been given permission to expand from 25 percent of normal occupancy to 50 percent of normal occupancy by the City of Pasadena. We are putting together guidelines for that expansion. I expect the guidelines will be ready in the next day or two, and the expansion itself can begin as soon as the new laboratory plans are approved by the respective divisions. It should be within the next week or so.
The next question I'll direct to Margo.
When will administrative staff be allowed to return to campus? How long will they have to get ready to come back? What about the importance of vaccination? And then other measures physical distancing and masking, will those still be required?
Vice President Steurbaut: As you have heard a couple of times already, our occupancy limits are set by local health authorities and our focus is going to be on returning to in-person research and instruction to the greatest extent possible. Obviously as researchers and students come back, we are going to need more staff on campus. But right now, we're saying those who can work from home should continue to do so; we would like to allocate as much of that occupancy limit to in-person instruction and research right now.
We are planning for a full reopening of the campus in the fall. Our hope is that protocols and preventive measures will allow the administrative staff to return at that time.
We understand your concern about how much notice will you be given, that nobody wants to hear at 4:45 p.m. that they need to return to work the next day. We are going to provide as much notice as possible on a return to in-person work and we recognize that some people will need some time and some flexibility to shift and make their plans, particularly for childcare, to allow them to come back to campus. Employees should work directly with their managers and supervisors when the time comes, to establish the timeline and the process that works best for the individual departments.
Provost Tirrell: Thanks, Margo. I'll take the next one.
That is a question about how we will monitor and assess whether our efforts to expand access to campus are successful.
The primary tool there is our continued surveillance testing program. We are, as we said earlier, running about 3,000 tests per week. Everyone coming to campus on a regular basis has to be tested twice a week. We thankfully have a low level of infection. Now we're seeing zero or one, perhaps two infections in a week. We will be looking closely to see if there's an uptick as we've adjusted our practices, and everything we're doing is reversible. If we need to go back to lower campus occupancy, we'll be able to do that quickly.
Next one's for Margo.
When we return to campus, will employees still be allowed to work from home? And what flexibility and schedules will there be?
Vice President Steurbaut: Human Resources is working collaboratively with our partners across campus to develop a framework. Now, as you might imagine, the needs and requirements for on-campus versus remote work vary widely by department, so it's going to have to have some local aspect to it. We expect that decisions on employees and schedules and working arrangements will be determined by the individual managers and divisions based on the needs and requirements.
I think the last year has demonstrated to all of us that having some level of flexibility is appreciated. As we return to Caltech, we also need to think and be reminded that this place depends on personal relationships and interactions, that being present for those exchanges continues to be important.
As most of you are aware, there are also some state laws revolving around the types of schedules we can offer. Work weeks managed to a 9/80 schedule, for example, have specific rules and labor law guiding that model. So, we're going to have to do it on a department or division basis, but, again, I think the last year has demonstrated we would all appreciate some flexibility.
Provost Tirrell: Thanks, Margo. And another one that I'll ask you to address.
Are modifications or updates to campus workspaces being done? For example, ventilation improvements?
And here I can add something that's come in on the Q&A during the meeting. I think I referred to our ventilation efforts as being directed toward research and teaching spaces, but there's a question about whether we're looking at other spaces where staff might be working on campus, and the non-academic parts of the Institute, so perhaps you could address that too.
Vice President Steurbaut: Yes. We've assessed the HVAC systems to ensure that they're operating correctly, providing maximum airflow, and replaced filters to ensure that they are clean. Regular maintenance and assessment is ongoing. This has been done to all buildings, not just the research and instruction buildings.
We have a return-to-work committee that right now is working on return to work and how we do so safely. At the beginning of the pandemic, when we thought we might be returning sooner than a year later, the Environmental Health and Safety Office was available to go inspect individual workspaces for managers and departments and recommend upgrades that would be needed. We've installed a lot of plexiglass; we've installed one-way hallways and stuff. So, as we get closer to returning to work, I would encourage managers and supervisors to avail themselves of these resources, to have somebody with expertise make sure their workplaces are as safe as we can make them.
Provost Tirrell: Thank you. We'll turn now to the second topic, which is student access activities in the spring. And then I think we'll fold this directly into questions about on-campus housing. I'll take the first one.
Is there a possibility of in-person thesis defenses in the spring quarter?
I think the short answer to that question is yes. We are measuring carefully across the campus the ventilation in campus conference rooms and lecture halls. And we are going to be setting occupancy limits for each of those rooms based on recommendations of the World Health Organization and what we believe to be safe rates of air turnover. I think we will have areas on the campus where small groups can gather. Pasadena Public Health has told us that we can go up to 10 people. So, as of today, we can't have a gathering larger than that. But, if in fact that's an interesting and engaging setting for a thesis defense in the spring, I think we probably will be allowed to conduct them in that format.
If you want 50 people to watch your dissertation and presentation, most of them will have to be remote.
We'll shift now to on-campus housing. First question for Kevin. In fact, Kevin will handle each of these.
If a student is able to be on campus for summer research, would they be able to remain until the fall term starts?
Vice President Gilmartin: Well, given that we're going to be working with limited residential capacity, as I described, over the summer, we're going to need to ensure that all students who are at any given time living in the residences are doing so because they're actively involved in campus activity. So, unfortunately, students who come to campus for SURF research will need to leave when their SURF work is complete, so that we can then prepare those rooms and make them available to the student athletes, and perhaps for the research component of the FSRI program and other student programs that we may be running over the course of the summer.
How will the residence halls operate, one student per room?
Too early to say exactly. For summer, we're actively planning for a range of options and possible densities, partly based on ratios of students per bathroom, and partly based on occupancy of rooms. And it is likely that we'll wind up with single occupancy of undergraduate rooms. But where we wind up with this summer planning will depend on public health conditions through the spring term leading into summer, what public health officials approve, and of course they'll take place within the framework of any current L.A. County guidelines for higher education.
Once we do announce our summer plan on those students who are planning to return to the residences, we'll have a clear indication of the density and health protocols that are going to be in place.
How will you support students who can't be accommodated on campus?
I guess, fortunately or regrettably, depending how you look at it, we now have ample experience in supporting students through multiple terms of remote learning. Some of those investments and some of those resources have been described earlier. In terms of summer and the partial reopening of the undergraduate residences that I have discussed in advance of an anticipated full reopening in the fall, we'll continue to support all students involved in summer campus programs, whether they're living on campus or not, and whether they're conducting research in a lab or remotely.
Faculty members, of course, as mentors, will directly support all students involved in SURF research as they always do. The Student-Faculty Programs office will provide versions of the support programming that's typically offered to serve students over the course of the summer. And other support services available to students through the undergraduate dean's office and other student support offices on campus, including the health center, will continue to operate throughout the summer. And again, all of that will be available to students whether they're living and working on campus or not.
Provost Tirrell: Thank you. We'll now talk a little bit about testing and vaccination. We've had some discussion of each of those topics already, but we've had questions about both. I will try to handle these questions myself.
What will surveillance testing look like going forward? Will it continue to be required for all individuals coming to campus?
For the foreseeable future, the answer is yes. We are trying to be especially careful as we expand our on-campus activity. And as I mentioned just a few minutes ago, our most powerful tool in monitoring whether that expansion is being conducted safely is the surveillance testing program.
We will be continuing the surveillance testing program as we go through that expansion and for some period thereafter, to assure ourselves that what's been done has been done safely. Now, that said, we talked about some numbers early on, and I'm sure many of you are very fast at doing arithmetic. And what you would conclude is that we are spending on order $75,000 a week on our surveillance testing program. And, in general, we're finding either no positive results in a given week, or perhaps one. And so, we are spending about $150,000 to find each infection. And while we think that's money well spent, we're glad to do that in support of the health of the community, it is prudent for us to think about when that testing frequency can be reduced. As the vaccination of the campus increases, we will be able to decrease the testing frequency and that might be a consideration for some of you personally, you might not need to be tested twice a week, if the vaccination rate goes high enough.
We will be both monitoring and modeling the situation to see when it's prudent to decrease surveillance testing. But we will continue it as long as it is an important element of our program for protecting the campus community.
Will COVID-19 vaccinations be required? Specifically, will it be required for students and for employees?
As you can imagine, this has been a subject of active discussion among the campus leadership. Our current position, as many of you know, is that the vaccination is not required. It is strongly, very strongly recommended by all of us. It's recommended by medical professionals. I'm sure if you consult your own health care providers, you will hear the same thing. And so, while it is strongly recommended, it is not yet required. The vaccines have been approved for emergency use, but they have not garnered full FDA approval. That affects the status of the vaccine, and we are cautious about mandating it and making it required now, while there's just Emergency Use Authorization in place. With FDA approval, that situation is very likely to change.
The other thing is, it just hasn't yet been possible for everybody in our community to gain access to the vaccine. And so, mandating it at this point just doesn't make any sense. It doesn't make any sense to mandate something that people can't do, no matter how hard they try. So, we have been trying very hard to make it possible for all of you to get vaccinated, and we hope you will do that, and ultimately, perhaps months in the future, it's very likely that the vaccine will become mandatory as the flu vaccine was this year.
Updated guidance from CDC allows for vaccinated people to interact without masks indoors. Will Caltech be changing its requirements for individuals who are vaccinated?
Well, we're not going to get rid of the mask requirement; that won't change. And while we're thinking about how to manage the campus in light of the overall level of vaccination of the community, we are not currently imagining that we're going to differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. That again may change. We're reassessing each of these judgments literally on a daily or weekly basis.
As vaccination eligibility expands, will you hold clinics or help newly eligible community members to get vaccinated?
We will certainly be helping. We have distributed, as many of you have seen, links to vaccination clinics on a regular basis, sometimes several times per week, to try to make people aware of the many options that are available to them. We will reassess whether we should have another on-campus clinic. I think we were pleased with the clinic that was run last Friday. We were, in collaboration with Vons, able to vaccinate 1,100 people in a single day.
If it looks as though our community needs that help from us, we'll certainly be prepared to put together another clinic of that kind. We also have people in Human Resources who are available to help both in English and in Spanish with people who might want assistance in signing up for vaccines. Please let your supervisor or your manager know if you'd like some help. We expect that there will be conversations organized across the campus over the next couple of weeks, to see whether there are people who are in that situation, and who would benefit from this kind of help.
Will the campus be informed of the overall vaccination rate for the community?
I think the answer is yes. We are still sorting through the information that has come in through the reporting application. We don't believe it's complete. We think there are people out there who have been vaccinated who haven't yet told us. Once we believe that the data are robust, we will surely let people know what the overall vaccination rate for the campus has been, and the community has been.
Provost Tirrell: We now have some questions about campus finances, where Margo will take the lead.
First is about the freeze on hiring and annual salary increases, and whether those will be lifted when we return.
Vice President Steurbaut: We are looking towards getting back to as close to normal as possible. In fact, we're hopeful that, as we repopulate campus, we can actually bring the people that we had to lay off back to work. We're looking forward to our residence halls being full and our eating facilities being full so that we can bring folks back, so that we can move beyond the soft hiring freeze.
With this expansion of activity on campus, again, we expect to get back to normal, and that would include annual salary increases.
Will there be future layoffs or budgetary reductions, given new pandemic expenses?
It's hard to predict the future, but I can't imagine there would be additional layoffs. When we announced the layoffs last October, we announced that we felt we're done at that point; that we had taken the layoffs that we needed to, and now our focus is on, again, increasing capacity so that we can bring those employees back to campus.
Provost Tirrell: Thank you Margo. So, I think what we'll do at this point is to take some of the questions that have come in over the course of the conversation. We'll do that for a few minutes, and then we'll ask Tom to close the meeting with some final remarks. Since we have been emphasizing so strongly the importance of vaccination, the first question that I would like to address is:
If we need to miss work due to side effects from the vaccine, should it be charged to COVID leave, or regular sick leave?
Vice President Steurbaut: I'm sure we will allow people to charge it to COVID leave. I think that in my opinion, the same applies to the time people need off of work to actually go get a vaccine. And allow them to do that while being on Caltech's time.
Provost Tirrell: We really have tried to set things up in a way that there would be no loss to any employee for reporting illness. And for testing, for vaccination, we've really tried to make participation as easy as it can possibly be in terms of any loss of sick time or loss of any other benefits or campus compensation. So please do report illness, get tested, get vaccinated, and let us know.
Provost Tirrell: Kevin, I think I'll address the next one to you.
And this is a question about whether two of our graduate student summer activities, GSRI and FUTURE Ignited, will also take place on campus this summer.
Vice President Gilmartin: Yes, we are already working with leadership and the diversity center on planning around those programs. We plan to run them, as with FSRI, perhaps some combination of virtual and in-person for some of the activities. And over the course of the summer it's likely that our ability to repopulate campus spaces safely, that the density will increase over time, and that some of these programs may start in a partly virtual way and wind up in the summer being more hands-on. But those are two programs that we are committed to running over the course of the summer.
Provost Tirrell: And, Kevin, another for you from one of our parents.
Given that next year's sophomores haven't lived on campus, what kind of orientation do you plan to offer them? Or will the focus be entirely on the incoming freshman class?
Vice President Gilmartin: We are absolutely committed to orienting them. As I sometimes walk around campus, I wonder myself about the experience of an undergraduate student who has completed an entire year and met with their faculty adviser many times, but probably couldn't find their faculty adviser's office on campus. I think it's going to be really critical that we find a way to provide a campus orientation experience for our returning sophomores. And the Student Affairs group that typically works with the divisions to plan the formal orientation for our incoming first-year students is already discussing what kind of programming we can make available for those returning sophomores in the fall, as part of their orientation experience.
Provost Tirrell: Another question about student access.
Can student athletes for fall and winter sports, utilize campus facilities?
Vice President Gilmartin: Yes, they can. They can do so in accordance with whatever current density levels are approved. As I said, the first step we're taking immediately, and Betsy Mitchell and her group of coaches are really excited about this, is to bring the student athletes who are living in the area and can access campus, to bring them to campus for outdoor group training sessions. As indoor athletic facility spaces become available, we will also be introducing our student athletes into those activities, again, over the course of spring and into the summer. The answer is yes, and it will depend on the current framework.
Provost Tirrell: Thank you. I'll take the next one. Although if others have comments to add, please feel free to chime in.
If there's another vaccine clinic on campus, will JPL personnel be eligible?
Our view all along has been that once eligibility extended to the education sector, JPL was included. JPL personnel are part of the Caltech community and so our position was they were eligible just as anyone on campus was. We were told that Pasadena Public Health doesn't view it that way, and so there was a bit of a glitch early on in one of the clinics with the city. But we will continue to advocate for JPL eligibility, and to include JPL personnel to the extent that we can. And here perhaps Margo can add more specific information, but we certainly did include some JPL personnel in the first on-campus clinic.
Vice President Steurbaut: Yes, we included JPL employees who qualified based on current Pasadena regulations, which includes employees over 65 and people with certain health conditions. More than 200 JPL employees came to campus for the clinic last Friday to receive their vaccine.
Provost Tirrell: Another question from a parent. And Kevin, maybe you and I can take this one. This refers back to the early reference to 25 percent occupancy of the campus.
What fraction of that 25 percent represents students?
Vice President Gilmartin: Well, my sense is, over the course of the last few terms, we have had about 50 undergraduates per term, roughly—it's varied from term to term—working in the labs. That access hasn't been coordinated in any way by Student Affairs, it's determined by the labs. But as Dave and I have found in communicating with lab groups, they're absolutely committed to including students in campus activities, and particularly as we move forward toward the summer. I'm confident that we're going to be able to run a very robust version of the SURF program for in-person research by our undergraduate students.
President Rosenbaum: I would just add, if I may, that a number of students have been involved virtually. I have an undergraduate from Chile working in my lab; it's not quite the same as coming on to campus, but the research exposure has actually been broader in that fashion.
Provost Tirrell: Because of the time limits we've set for ourselves here, I think we're going to close the Q&A session there. We will try to follow up to the extent that we can, with the questions that have not been addressed here. With that, I will ask Tom to make final remarks and to close our conversation.
President Rosenbaum: Great. Thanks Dave, and everyone. And my thanks to all of you who attended today and those who sent in questions.
In conclusion, I would like to stress the lessons and opportunities here. Though we all agree the pandemic and its consequences are unwelcome, we have learned a lot of things, and I think that we want to be intentional about saving what we can from this experience. We've had a lot of discussion about the nature and the advantages of some of the remote and hybrid connections. Kevin talked about FSRI and GSRI. It may be that they're better programs if they are hybrid programs with a remote portion. I think that teaching with flipped classrooms might provide positive elements for future consideration. All of these elements might be able to leverage modern technology to enrich the experience. Of course, none of us wants to be totally virtual. The interactions between students, between faculty and students, and between colleagues sitting down over a cup of coffee, are enormously valuable. However, we've demonstrated now that we can also reach across the world effectively. I've given lectures in the last couple of months to audiences in Trieste and in Seoul, South Korea, without leaving my living room, which has been great. Those sorts of abilities are actually to be prized and to be built upon.
I think with working remotely, Margo talked a little bit about this as well, we will have to think about flexibility and where it makes sense. I don't imagine, this is my personal view, that we want people only working remotely. Some connection to, a full understanding of what's happening on, campus is important. But you can imagine a situation where people don't come in every day, and may be more efficient and happier with a partial remote working schedule. And we will be working towards that end. We also have campus programming like the Watson Lectures that traditionally have always been in Beckman Auditorium. Why not film one of them in Palomar Observatory, and enable connections that way if we're talking about some work that's being done there.
I think we'll see, over the next few years, the implementation of some of our pandemic lessons. And, if you have ideas about what's been valuable, please communicate them, and we'll try together to take advantage of what we can from this forced situation.
I look forward to seeing all of you back on campus. It will be a progression, but it will be a welcome change. I want to thank everyone for all they've done to let Caltech thrive, even in the most difficult circumstances you can imagine. Thank you all. We look forward to our continuing conversations.