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8/12/2021 - Fall Return to Campus

To: Caltech Undergraduate Students
From:  Kevin Gilmartin, Vice President for Student Affairs
Date: August 12, 2021
Re: Fall Return to Campus

I hope you are enjoying productive and rewarding summer breaks. After more than a year of remote learning, the return of students to campus as part of our summer programs has been a welcome development. And a successful one. I am particularly grateful that students in the residences have done their part to ensure a safe experience under very challenging conditions. Thank you! Administration, faculty, and staff are now working together with student leadership to prepare for the next step, a full return to campus learning and residential occupancy in the fall.

Those of you who have been here this summer know that conditions on campus and throughout Southern California remain quite restrictive. Indoor masking requirements have returned throughout Los Angeles County, and access to Caltech facilities is limited to individuals who work or live there. At the same time, an alarming rise in COVID-19 infection rates across the country, the troubling spread of the more contagious Delta variant, and the appearance of breakthrough cases among vaccinated individuals all represent new challenges during what many of us hoped would be a summer marked instead by improving public health conditions.

With this in mind, I am writing in part to urge you to consider the challenges Caltech will continue to face, particularly through late summer and early fall, as undergraduate students return to our classrooms and residences. We need to work together to ensure that this process goes well. Although Institute policies will continue to adjust to current public health conditions, it is likely that you will return to a campus operating under significant restrictions. Our fall planning remains cautious and deliberate: convocation will be held remotely, and orientation and rotation will likely involve a mix of virtual and in-person experiences.

This cautious and measured approach will extend to the undergraduate residences. We understand the value of social interaction within the house communities, and we appreciate that much of this was lost to more than a year of remote learning. You are probably eager to return to the social traditions associated with undergraduate residential life at Caltech. However, please appreciate the importance of a deliberate scaling up of social activity. As we proceed, student compliance with any current testing protocols will be critical. The ability of Institute leadership to make informed decisions about campus activities will depend on our having a clear sense of infection rates and patterns of community transmission. Again, administration and staff will work closely with student leaders to ensure an approach that allows us to enjoy the return to campus, while ensuring community safety and avoiding any need to scale back or reverse course. More detailed communication about health and safety policies will be coming over the course of the summer.

While most of us benefit from the extraordinary protection afforded by vaccines, it is important to keep in mind that there are members of the Caltech community who still face significant risk from COVID-19. Some have existing conditions that increase the danger from infection. Others cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons. Further, many faculty, staff, and graduate students are part of households with young children who are not yet eligible for vaccination. Arriving international students and scholars may not have had access to vaccines and will therefore undergo the vaccination process as part of their transition to campus. Asymptomatic transmission among vaccinated individuals will represent a particular risk for vulnerable and unvaccinated members of the community and their families. All these considerations urge a careful and gradual return to familiar levels of campus social activity.

In returning over the course of this summer to my Dabney Hall office, I have welcomed the opportunity to renew relationships over coffee at the Red Door. This experience has come as a sober reminder of how much the pandemic has stripped away what I value most about the Caltech community. With that in mind, I understand your eagerness to recover the rich social dimensions of your undergraduate residential experience. The most important thing we can do to ensure that this will happen is to approach the late summer and fall return to campus in a careful and responsible fashion.

I look forward to joining other faculty and staff in welcoming you back to campus this fall. Without you, we have been a significantly diminished research and learning community.