8/24/2021 - Community Town Hall Transcript
On Monday, August 23, President Thomas F. Rosenbaum and Provost David A. Tirrell convened a virtual town hall to update the community on the Institute's plans for fall term and on-site work.
The discussion, which drew close to 1,000 members of the Caltech community, also included Kevin Gilmartin, vice president for student affairs; Jennifer Howes, assistant vice president for student affairs and wellness; and Julia McCallin, associate vice president for human resources.
President Thomas F. Rosenbaum: Welcome. Thank you for joining us today and for all the good questions that you submitted in advance. The pandemic continues to evolve and our response continues to evolve, which makes this virtual gathering so important.
The heartening news is that we are poised to resume more traditional on-site operations, involving staff, faculty, and students. Of course, there are two parts of our mission, the research and the educational part.
- The research labs are running essentially at full occupancy and have been since the spring, so we do not expect big changes there, other than the masking requirements. The pace of discovery has continued with the characteristic Caltech warp speed.
- Groups across the Institute have been working to make students' transition back to campus and the return to in-person learning as smooth as possible, and this, of course, is where we see the major changes. 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.
Let me briefly review the safety measures that you heard about in the last couple of months. These include:
- A mandatory vaccination program. At present, the percentage of the community that has confirmed their fully vaccinated status is 92%. By October 15, the expectation is 100%, excluding individuals who have appropriate exemptions.
- We will have continued symptomatic testing and regular surveillance screening tests for anyone who has not documented their vaccination status.
- There is now an indoor masking requirement, which in line with LA County, is regardless of an individual's vaccination status.
- Individual health checks and screening for anyone with symptoms or who has been exposed to someone with symptoms continues. Please do not come to campus if you are feeling ill.
With the recent surge of the Delta variant, which has increased all of our anxieties and concerns, compliance with these measures and especially with the Institute's vaccination policies are more important than ever. We are closely monitoring activity on campus and will make adjustments to our operations as necessary—some of which we will have an opportunity to touch on today thanks to your good questions.
I want to emphasize that we continue to work closely with public health authorities and will follow their guidance and lead in implementing any new measures or restrictions as they are needed. Being on the quarter system, we also have the advantage of learning from the experiences of other California institutions who are on the semester system, such as USC, which already had a full return to campus on August 2.
To help discuss and address more specifically the questions that you have raised, I am joined by Provost David Tirrell, who will assume the dual capacities of event moderator and expert responder. Joining Dave are:
- Vice President for Student Affairs Kevin Gilmartin
- Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs and Wellness Jennifer Howes
- Associate Vice President for Human Resources Julia McCallin
Thank you all for joining us and I look forward to today's conversation. Dave, it is all yours.
Provost David Tirrell: Thanks Tom, and good morning, everybody. I would like to add my thanks to all of you for joining us and for the questions you sent ahead of time. And also, importantly, for all the hard work that you have done over the last 18 months on behalf of the Institute. I think the Institute has come through that period successfully as a result of your efforts and I am sure there were many extra challenges associated with your work over that period of time. We are very grateful for what you have done on behalf of Caltech.
The plan this morning is to talk about your questions. What we have done is to group them into five broad areas of interest. To give you a sense of what is to come I will mention what those are:
- First, I will talk a little bit about our overall pandemic planning and response;
- Jennifer Howes will then talk to us about health measures and wellness;
- Kevin Gilmartin will talk about campus life and the residential experience;
- I will come back to talk a little bit about instruction and research in the fall; and
- Julia McCallin will address questions about employee policies.
If I manage the time properly, we will have about 20 minutes at the end to take questions that come in over the course of the conversation, so I encourage you to enter them into the Q&A feature in Zoom.
We will start in with the questions, first addressing the overall topic of the Institute's pandemic planning and response efforts. I will try to handle those questions myself.
The Institute's Pandemic Planning and Response Efforts
How has the institute's plan for the fall term changed in light of the Delta variant?
Tirrell: Tom mentioned some of the safety measures that we have put in place, but I would summarize the most important adjustments that have been made in response to the Delta variant in the following terms.
The first is that we have accelerated our efforts to reach 100% vaccination; that has been done in part through advocacy and discussions with community members to try to encourage vaccination and to help people who might need help accessing the vaccines, and then accelerating the implementation of the mandate. As it turns out, many of you probably noticed that the Pfizer vaccine was granted full FDA approval just this morning and we had originally tried to link our mandate to that approval, but we decided in light of the Delta variant that we had to move ahead with the mandate. We were anticipating approval around this time, so things are coming together in that respect.
We will require vaccination to enter campus buildings. That is a measure that we had not necessarily anticipated several months ago when infection numbers nationwide were significantly lower.
Jennifer Howes will tell you about our plans to expand our surveillance testing program. We were testing people regularly in the spring, and we have continued to test students and members of the community who are unvaccinated over the summer. But we believe that it would be wise for us to expand the surveillance program, and Jennifer will tell you how we intend to do that.
We have a masking requirement indoors that is of course not discretionary on our part—it is dictated to us by LA County Public Health.
We intend to reduce density in our classrooms in the fall, probably to less than half of what it would ordinarily be. Some of our classes will be taught remotely because we will not have classrooms large enough to give us the lower density we think is required under the circumstances. We are going to do as much as we can in person and I will talk about that a little more in a few minutes. Both Jennifer Howes and Kevin Gilmartin will be able to say more about each of these points.
Are we still looking at September 7 as our return to workplace target date? Has the Institute considered pushing it back as JPL has, and if we have not done that, why not?
Tirrell: The short answer is we are still using September 7 as the date by which the campus should be positioned for the start of an in-person academic year. Classes begin on September 27 and students are arriving sooner, so we do not have the flexibility that JPL would have with respect to adjusting their back to work target date. We have to be ready for in person instruction on September 27, and for activities that that predate that, so we are holding to September 7.
Why is the return on September 7 at 100% and not a gradual return, as discussed earlier?
Tirrell: The gradual return that we announced earlier in the year actually referred to repopulation of the campus over the summer, and we gave people September 7 as the target date by which the gradual return was intended to be complete. That is still our intention.
The gradual return has actually occurred, at least in part, although we are not fully there yet.
We can look back at some numbers that tell us about campus occupancy over time: that is, the number of people who are using their cards to get into our buildings. In the spring, we had fewer than 2,000 people coming to campus each week as reported by those card swipes and now we have more than 3,000—we have about 3,300—and so, in fact, that is a sign that the campus is livelier than it was at the beginning of the summer and people have been coming back gradually.
I should also emphasize that we are expecting to allow some level of remote work in the fall 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. Julia McCallin will tell us more about those work policies.
The Institute recently announced the vaccine mandate for all employees and students who did not have approved exemptions. Why did you feel this was necessary? Was testing or screening considered as an alternative?
Tirrell: The COVID-19 vaccines that were developed last year and authorized for use in the US are remarkably effective in preventing serious disease and hospitalization. Vaccination is absolutely essential to our plans to return to in-person operations and, as you probably know, vaccine mandates are common. We require vaccination of our students on a routine basis as public schools do and, under these circumstances, extending that requirement to all members of our community was clearly justified. I think it's a sound decision on the part of the Institute.
Testing is a complement to vaccination. It is not an alternative, it is not a substitute, and, of course, does not protect the test subject directly the way vaccination does. But it is a good complement and it allows us to isolate people so that transmission can be interrupted. As Jennifer will tell you in a few minutes, we are going to be expanding the surveillance testing program.
Why does the vaccination status deadline fall after the full return to campus deadline?
Tirrell: This was a simple matter of giving people a chance to get vaccinated if they have not already done it. It is important to note, and I really would like to emphasize this for those of you who might not have gotten your first shots yet, that the deadline is for full vaccination.
And that actually comes six weeks after the first shot for the Moderna vaccine and so to comply with that deadline you'd have to get your first shot by next Tuesday.
I hope you will, if you haven't done that already, and we wanted to give people time to comply with the deadline.
Caltech's plan is to limit indoor access to vaccinated individuals only. What steps will be taken to prevent access to campus buildings by unvaccinated individuals?
Tirrell: The simplest part of the answer, maybe the only simple part at this point, is that card key access to our buildings will be limited to community members who have confirmed their vaccination status. That takes care of most of our buildings, but of course we have more public spaces than that and I would have to say, to be frank, we are still working on the processes that will work best in each of those spaces. It may be that some of my colleagues will have more to say about that, but in large measure it is limiting buildings to card access and then thinking more about what to do about public spaces.
Can you speak to the metrics that the Institute is using to assess and determine what can be done on site? Are there conditions that must be met for pandemic safety measures on campus to be eliminated? What situation might trigger a return to remote work or closing down the campus?
Tirrell: The first part of the answer, which I think you would all anticipate, is that we have to abide by public health orders. For example, the indoor mask mandate is something that is not discretionary on our part. There may be changes in those public health orders and those would certainly determine how we respond to changing conditions. We are going to be monitoring infection rates, in part through surveillance testing, in part through testing of symptomatic community members at Student Wellness Services, and also through reports of testing in the community. We have been monitoring all of those on a daily basis for a long time now, and will continue to monitor them.
It is too early to say what would allow us to eliminate pandemic safety measures. To be honest, I thought we might be headed that way in early summer, but it didn't go that way.
In terms of returning to remote work, it might be triggered by evidence of substantial transmission within the campus community. We are doing contact tracing, which Jennifer will say more about; with that I think we will have good indications of whether there is transmission within the campus community. Most of the infections that have been identified within our community have been acquired elsewhere; we do not believe there has been substantial transmission on campus, but it could happen, and, if it does, we would respond probably not by campus wide return to remote work, but by more localized measures around the locations where we think transmission is occurring.
Preventative Health Measures and Community Wellness
Tirrell: We are going to move to the second section of our conversation, which is health measures and community wellness. Here we will be guided by Jennifer Howes. I will pose your questions to Jennifer one by one and Jennifer will guide us through the responses.
What are the Institute's plans for testing? Will surveillance or asymptomatic testing be available to all members of the community, even those who are vaccinated?
Jennifer Howes: Thanks, and hello everyone. Student Wellness Services will continue, as we have throughout the pandemic, to provide testing for those who are symptomatic and those who have been identified as close contacts of a laboratory-confirmed case of COVID-19.
Folks need to report their illnesses or exposures to the COVID-19 Reporting Application and SWS staff will work with those folks around testing appropriately.
Any community member who has not yet submitted their vaccination documentation, and those who ultimately receive approved exemptions, will be required to submit samples through the surveillance program twice per week. And then all incoming students, regardless of vaccination status, will be tested upon arrival. After that initial arrival testing, all students who are living in Institute housing—both graduate and undergraduate students—will also be required to submit samples twice per week. We anticipate that this requirement will continue through the fall term but will communicate any changes to the program if they arise.
Additionally, many folks participated in the surveillance program that we ran in the spring and even earlier last fall. We have now decided to offer participation in the surveillance program on an opt-in basis for vaccinated community members beginning on August 30. More information will be coming about that later this week. We have had a lot of community interest and we are now able to open this up more broadly.
Please note, as was previously mentioned, participation in the surveillance program is not a substitute for vaccination. All employees and students are expected to submit their proof of vaccination or approved exemption according to the established deadlines.
Just a reminder about the nature of the surveillance program that we are currently running at Caltech. It is an internal lab [the Caltech COVID Surveillance Lab] that is handling our surveillance. Participating individuals do not receive results directly unless there is a flag for a potential positive result. Our samples are run in pools of two samples each and so, if a pool is flagged, that would mean that further testing is needed. Both individuals in the pool will be contacted by Student Wellness Services and referred for a diagnostic test to confirm the presence of SARS-CoV-2 infection.
It is really important that individuals be responsive to outreach from Student Wellness Services and comply with requests for follow-up testing in a timely fashion in order to ensure that we are able to identify any confirmed positive cases and initiate the isolation and contact tracing processes.
In the event that someone does test positive for COVID-19, how is contact tracing going to work? Will we be notified if someone in our building has tested positive?
Howes: In the event of a positive diagnostic test—either one that is performed by Student Wellness Services, or if we receive a report of a confirmed positive result from a community member reporting through the application—a trained staff member from Student Wellness Services will work with the individual who has tested positive to identify close contacts. Close contacts include anyone who has been within 6 feet for a total of 15 minutes of exposure within a 24-hour period; the infectious period extends 48 hours before the onset of symptoms or a positive test in asymptomatic individuals.
Student Wellness Services and contact tracing staff will also take into account other factors that might not meet the traditional definition of close contacts, such as prolonged time spent within indoor spaces, and considerations about the type of activity or other factors that could increase the risk of exposure. Each case is different and requires an assessment of the circumstances in order to determine the appropriate scope of that contact tracing procedure.
In general, we do not report a building location, lab, or department, or individual vaccination status for confirmed cases. If the circumstances of a particular case, however, warrant the provision of additional details to the community in order to effectively execute public health directives in the case investigation, we will proceed accordingly.
What are the quarantine and isolation procedures for an undergraduate student living in the undergraduate residences?
Howes: Undergraduate students who are living in the residences will be required to participate in the surveillance testing program by submitting samples twice per week [regardless of vaccination status]. If we receive a confirmed positive result through that program or through symptomatic testing at Student Wellness Services, the individual with a confirmed positive result will be moved into dedicated isolation housing for 10 days. Isolation housing is currently located in faculty housing properties that are managed by the Institute. Students will receive regular meal delivery, check-ins from health and wellness staff, and support for academic accommodations during their recovery.
Once they have completed the 10-day isolation period, they will be able to return to regular activities. Sometimes their return to such activities may be a couple of days longer depending on whether the student's symptoms have resolved.
Any unvaccinated students with a confirmed exposure to a positive case will be moved into dedicated quarantine housing for 10 days. As with the protocols for isolation, meals and health and academic resources will be provided and students will be tested at the end of the quarantine period. These individuals should continue to monitor for symptoms for 14 days after the initial exposure to the positive case. Testing does allow us to return folks to activities a little bit more quickly, according to the public health guidelines, but we do ask that people continue to monitor for symptoms. If at any point symptoms develop during that period or they receive a positive test, the student will begin an additional 10-day isolation period as described before.
Currently, fully vaccinated individuals who are exposed to a confirmed case of COVID-19 are not subject to a restrictive quarantine period, but should monitor themselves carefully for the development of any symptoms for 14 days, limit non-essential contact with others, and wear a mask at all times indoors. We will be testing vaccinated folks three to five days after exposure to try to catch any developing infection. We will continue to work closely with Pasadena Public Health to monitor this process and manage any of our quarantine or isolation procedures in response to case activity in the community.
Will people with exemptions be able to access indoor spaces and labs?
Howes: Yes, those with an approved exemption, either from Student Wellness Services or through Human Resources and the Disability and Leave Administration Unit or Employee and Organizational Development unit will be allowed to access indoor spaces. Those folks who have approved exemptions, who are not vaccinated, will need to participate in the surveillance testing program by submitting samples twice per week.
Does Caltech intend to require booster shots once they're available and, if so, when will we start facilitating a third round of COVID vaccinations?
Howes: In line with the vaccination mandate, we do anticipate that boosters that fall under the CDC recommendations will be required for all students and employees once they are readily available. The same exemption process that we have now will apply.
Currently, individuals who are immunocompromised are eligible for a third dose of Moderna or the Pfizer/BioNTech mRNA vaccine, and they may access that at any pharmacy or through your health care provider. The Institute is exploring options for on-campus clinics for boosters and will provide that information as soon as it's available. The current guidance allows for third doses or booster shots eight months after the second mRNA vaccine, so we will make plans for follow-up campus clinics accordingly.
If everyone is vaccinated is masking still required?
Howes: Yes. According to the current health officer orders masking is required of those in indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status. Masking remains a very effective tool in reducing the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. It is especially important in light of the increasing transmissibility the Delta variant.
There are very limited exceptions to the masks indoors policy: the exceptions include if you are alone in a private office or actively eating or drinking while in a seated dining area. This also applies to undergraduates in the residences and congregate housing. Folks must wear face coverings at all times in common spaces and that includes kitchens, bathrooms, hallways, lounges—any common space. Exceptions to that are in someone's private bedroom or in the common area of the Bechtel suites, and again that is only in the company of your roommates. If you have other students visiting you everybody must wear masks even in those private spaces.
While masking is not universally required outdoors, we strongly recommend that folks wear masks when in crowded areas and where physical distancing is challenging to maintain. Some outdoor events may require all attendees to wear masks regardless of vaccination status. Information on whether or not this applies to a particular event will be communicated in advance to attendees and with clear signage on site.
The quality of the mask matters as well. High quality masks are much more effective against the transmission of the virus. N95 masks are available to community members through the Caltech store, which is located in the Hameetman Center. Folks should also check with their division or department as well if there is local availability; some divisions have secured and may supply masks upon request.
You can find more information that's really interesting and helpful about mask performance, which has been compiled by Caltech scientists. That information can be found on the Caltech Science Exchange.
Please continue to be diligent about wearing masks. I know everybody's probably tired of it by now, but it is a really important risk mitigation measure, along with the other things that we have been talking about, including vaccination and surveillance testing. 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. That's one of our community values. That shared commitment is really important as we continue to fight this virus.
Campus Life and the Residential Experience
Tirrell: We received a series of questions about campus life and the residential experience and the fall. Kevin Gilmartin will talk with us about that subject.
How will the pandemic impact orientation and rotation for incoming students?
Kevin Gilmartin: Thanks, Dave, and thanks to all of you who have joined us in this important discussion.
So in terms of orientation and rotation and the initial return: as we return to fully populated undergraduate residences our approach to any kind of formal programming will be cautious and gradual. I think the community can appreciate why we're taking that approach.
Convocation is going to be conducted entirely in a remote fashion, and orientation and rotation will be hybrid events, taking advantage of outdoor spaces wherever that is possible. Both orientation and rotation are currently being planned with the idea that in-person events can be scaled up or down 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. It is for this reason that our approach to student social events and other programming activities will, at the outset, be measured and gradual. With the limited exception of orientation and rotation, we will not be conducting non-academic in-person social activities as the fall term begins. And we are going to be carefully monitoring COVID testing results for students, and for others on campus, as Jennifer has indicated, before we determine how quickly and at what scale to return to any kind of in-person social programming in our house and other residential communities.
What will the limitations on daily life in the houses be regarding things like house dinners and hanging out in the lounges?
Gilmartin: Student dining services are being planned through consultation with local health authorities. Out of an abundance of caution, the year is going to begin without the waited dinners that students are used to. Instead, students will pick up their meals from their respective kitchens and then eat them within those dining halls in accordance with current public health policies. If they choose, they can bring them outdoors or back to their individual rooms.
Lounges and other indoor shared spaces in the residences will be clearly marked for reduced occupancy and, in accordance with current LA and Pasadena city directives, masks will be required indoors in these spaces, regardless of vaccination status. Masks can only be taken off within the student's private room and in private lounges like the Bechtel suites.
Outdoor spaces involve significantly less risk and masks will not generally be required on campus when outside. However, we are going to be urging students, as with other members of the community, to continue to use masks outdoors in situations where it is not possible to maintain appropriate physical distance. In any case, students will be responsible to remain aware of all current masking and other health and safety guidelines, as these may change over the course of the year.
Will visiting guidelines be changed for parents of the undergrads?
Gilmartin: To begin the year, guests from outside the Caltech community will not be allowed inside the undergraduate student residences. While we hope that public health conditions will allow us to relax this policy over the course of the year, it is important that we start fall term prioritizing the health and safety of students within our residential communities.
That said, we certainly appreciate the importance for students and families of the shared experience of moving into a college residence, particularly for incoming first- and second-year students, who have not had this experience before. For this reason, we are going to make an exception to the no-guest policy for our initial move-in process in the fall, and will soon be communicating with students and families about our plans in this regard, and how exactly guest registration for move-in will work. I can tell you now that the plan is that each student will be allowed up to two guests as part of the move-in process. These guests will need to provide evidence of COVID vaccination or a recent negative test. We are also going to ask that guests limit to one hour the amount of time they spend within our residences as part of the move-in process.
Are there plans to develop more outdoor spaces for meetings and social gatherings?
Gilmartin: Well, for those of you who are here, you know that outdoor seating and shading has already been significantly increased across campus over the course of the summer; in particular, around our dining spaces. We will continue this moving into fall, and we'll extend it to the student residential courtyards.
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 in hybrid outdoor spaces.
How will Caltech support students at higher risk and provide alternative events as social gatherings accelerate during the fall?
Gilmartin: As my answers to this point have indicated, students should not necessarily expect that indoor social events will in fact accelerate in any significant way. Over the course of the fall term, we need to assess how things are going.
Guidelines will be provided for very limited social gatherings within individual private rooms, and again for the density of activity in lounge and shared spaces. Beyond that, we are going to be carefully monitoring testing results for students and other community members over the course of the fall term, before any of our initial restrictions are significantly relaxed.
Part of our rationale in requiring regular testing and vaccination for all undergrad students is to protect those members of the community, including students, who are in fact at higher risk from infection.
Higher risk students should reach out to the undergraduate or graduate deans' offices to discuss their situation and their needs and, where appropriate, students should register with CASS, the Caltech Accessibility Services for Students office.
Academic Instruction and Research
Tirrell: Thanks Kevin. We received a set of questions about academic instruction and research, and I will try to address those.
What will in-person instruction look like in the fall? Will classes be taught in person?
Tirrell: The plan is to teach in person to the fullest extent possible. We recognize that there will be some classes—large lectures, for example—that cannot be accommodated in any of our classrooms and so those large lectures will have to be given remotely. We will be doing the vast majority of our instruction in person and we will try to make sure that every course has some kind of in-person component. In a large lecture class, the section meetings would be held in person, for example. The emphasis really will be on in-person instruction.
Will class recitations and office hours be in person or will they remain online?
Tirrell: I would not want to say how the office hours are going to be conducted. I think that will be arranged on a course-by-course basis. In some cases, those will work better in person, in some cases remotely, but I would say that the Institute position is that as many of our instructional activities as possible should be conducted in person, consistent with safety guidelines.
What, if any, additional safety measures will be implemented for in-person learning? Classroom ventilation? Cleaning between classes? Class-size caps? Extended passing period between class times?
Tirrell: We have measured the ventilation characteristics of all of our teaching spaces and we are trying to match the occupancy of each of those spaces to make sure that we have adequate ventilation. With respect to cleaning between classes, I don't think it's realistic to imagine that we can have staff cleaning between every pair of class meetings. The classrooms will be cleaned every day, and for individual class meetings, there will be cleaning supplies available, so if someone wants to clean around their own space, they will have materials there to do that before they sit down.
With respect to class-size caps, we are arranging the class sizes by requiring at least three feet of separation between students so students will not be sitting in adjacent seats. That will reduce the density in most of our classrooms to less than half of what it normally is.
With respect to extended passing period between class times, I am not sure that our scheduling can really accommodate that; I think we'll just have to rely on common sense. Students should not be congregating in high density outside the classroom, and we will encourage them to find ways to keep the density low.
If undergrads test positive for COVID-19, how will they complete academic requirements such as lab classes and submitting work?
Tirrell: We have policies in place for accommodating students who fall ill during the term. That's not a rare occurrence even under normal circumstances, and I believe those policies are, in principle, adequate for the current fall term as well.
How will students collaborate in person? What's the policy for group study?
Tirrell: We encourage collaboration in person, and we would again ask that people use common sense and that they don't pack together closely, they mask appropriately, and meet outside to the extent that they can.
As long as people abide by the policies that that govern density, masking, and so on, we encourage students to collaborate.
What steps is Caltech taking to ensure students who lost critical in-person experience—for example, lab work or machining—master those skills?
Tirrell: There has been a committee on in-person instruction working throughout the pandemic to address issues of that kind and of course many, many other issues as well. That committee and Vice Provost Cindy Weinstein convened a group of instructors who are involved in teaching our laboratory courses to address those issues in particular. The instructors are aware of the concern and will take steps that will have to be tailored for each individual course to make sure that students have the skills they need for hands-on activities.
Employee Policies and Response
Tirrell: I would like to turn now to the final section, which is employee policies and response. Julia McCallin will address these questions.
Julia, can you explain how Caltech is approaching remote work? What is allowed and how is it being decided?
McCallin: Yes, and thank you. It is good to see so many people back on campus; it is feeling normal again.
Over the last four to five months, we have been working 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.
We have worked with our managers so they can make those decisions in a thoughtful way. We have done one-on-one meetings with the managers, we have done quarterly managers' briefings; and we have sat down with the managers to plan out the feasibility of any remote work that they may be able to offer, all in the interest of working toward the September 7 date.
How much flexibility will people have in determining their work arrangements? Can people work weekends or nontraditional hours?
McCallin: Work schedules, as well as the work arrangements, are based on the needs of the department or the division, and adjusting work-week schedules, including allowing employees to work on weekends, can certainly be considered by the manager. It is ultimately the manager's responsibility to assess whether this is optimal for their department or workgroup based on the workflow, customer-service needs, and the availability of appropriate supervision.
If managers need guidance on that, Human Resources is here. Employees can also discuss this with their supervisors or our Employee Organizational Development group is happy to take you through some of those questions as well.
How is the Institute handling shared office spaces? Are there exceptions or guidance to allow for remote work because of masking or distancing requirements?
McCallin: Good questions, all of them. As part of our review with the managers and the managers' review of bringing people back to on-site work, the managers have also reviewed current office setups to determine if any modifications are necessary to maximize the use of the workspace while providing employees appropriate social or physical distancing. Something as simple as rearranging furniture can make a difference for the employees sharing that space.
Another option managers are considering is staggered scheduling, if it's feasible, for their work areas. Hybrid remote work is also being considered to possibly minimize the amount of time employees are in the same workspace or work site. I encourage individuals to use campus resources to discuss other possible options. The Employee and Organizational Development group is here to consult with managers and employees. The Environment, Health and Safety Office also is assisting managers in reviewing workspaces and providing recommendations that are based on best practices.
Will there be distancing requirements or recommendations for indoor work environments?
McCallin: I think this has been discussed throughout this town hall. We will continue to follow the direction of the public health officials and their recommendations and requirements for physical distancing in indoor work environments.
How is the Institute planning for or preparing for the possibility that K–12 schools or childcare facilities will be shut down due to COVID or because of quarantine requirements for someone a community member is a caregiver for?
While I was hoping, a year ago, that we would not have to be thinking about this at this time, here we are. As Dr. Rosenbaum mentioned in his opening remarks, we continue to work closely with public health authorities, and we will follow their guidance and lead in implementing new measures or restrictions as they may be needed.
Of course, Caltech is requiring all employees and students to be vaccinated. This is an important step in supporting efforts to protect the health and well-being of all individuals in our community, especially those who are otherwise not able to protect themselves; that includes the unvaccinated children of staff and faculty. They may not be on campus, but I know the concern of going home to them and, as Jennifer mentioned in her remarks, we are going to have the option starting August 30 to opt in to surveillance testing. That is another way that we're supporting this.
We will continue to update our safety protocols as we get guidance from the CDC, the California Department of Public Health, and of course our friends at the Pasadena Public Health Department, so we will stay on it, and we are focused on it.
Tirrell: Julia, we have five more questions for you and we are getting to the 15-minute mark, so I'll ask you to trim your answers.
I care for or live with someone who's immunocompromised or unvaccinated because they're not able to receive a vaccine. What options do I have?
McCallin: I ask that you work with Human Resources on your specific situation and discuss those options.
As a staff member, what options do I have if parts of my job seem to place me at higher risk?
McCallin: As I mentioned earlier, we really take the health and safety of our employees very seriously; this is one of the reasons we have the October 15 [vaccine] mandate. Human Resources and Environment, Health and Safety will work with individuals and their managers on any concerns they may have about their specific work areas.
Will COVID-19 sick time or leave specifically due to or from the impact of COVID-19 continue to be available?
McCallin: Yes, that will continue to be available through September 30, 2021. We will continue to evaluate those benefits as we move forward.
How are we dealing with short-term visitors and proof of vaccination?
McCallin: Short-term visitors will be required to show proof of vaccination or an exemption.
If an employee decides not to get a vaccine and does not have an exemption, what will be the exact process that occurs on October 15?
McCallin: We are hopeful that this will not be the case, that we will not have to deal with any employees who are unvaccinated and do not have an exemption, but employees who have not complied with this requirement by October 15 may be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including the termination of employment.
My sincere hope is that we will not need to terminate anyone's employment due to their vaccinations. We are giving members of the community more than adequate time for people to be fully vaccinated.
Tirrell: We have some time available to respond to questions that we received over the course of the conversation. I am going to direct the first one to Kevin and perhaps to Jennifer. I would like to ask all of our panelists now to come back on screen. This question is about student clubs.
Can student clubs resume indoor activities?
Gilmartin: The expectation is that once the term is underway, and the move of students into the residences has taken place successfully, and the return to in-person learning has also been negotiated successfully, we can quickly assess how fall term is proceeding and move to restore the activities of clubs and other student groups.
However, should infection rates prove to be a challenge, we may have to extend any pause on social activity in accordance with what is happening in the community.
Tirrell: Thanks Kevin. This one will be for Julia; I think it's closely related to the things that you talked about earlier, but this came from several people and so seems to be a shared concern.
This is asking you to address the risk of a vaccinated parent catching the Delta variant on campus and passing it to an unvaccinated child at home. I would broaden that and, irrespective of where the infection is acquired, whether it is on campus or elsewhere, if we have a parent who is infected who has an unvaccinated child at home, what options does that parent have?
McCallin: We do have the COVID-19 sick time that they will have available to them. We want them to stay home and take care of themselves and, of course, their child. Even after September 30, when the COVID sick leave is due to sunset, we have a very generous sick leave policy with Caltech. I would ask that you reach out to the Disability and Leave Administration Unit.
I appreciate that we are making surveillance testing available to vaccinated people as well who want to opt in—I think that will be helpful. HR can absolutely work with you and we do not want you coming to work if your child is in fact ill or if you are impacted.
Tirrell: Thanks, and I may have missed an important part of the question, which is:
Will requests for fully remote work be approved until vaccines are available for children?
We are working with the managers directly on their staffing needs and we really need to do that on a one-by-one basis. We are not doing a blanket "all remote work" for people with children.
Tirrell: There's a question about controlling density in nonacademic spaces and I'm not quite sure who should address this one. I can give you my own views but maybe Julia would be first in line for this one as well.
We will be reducing class density in the classrooms, in our teaching spaces, but what about other spaces on campus where people might feel uneasy about the density?
McCallin: Sure, so that is a combination of our looking at staggered schedules, some of the flexible work that we talked about, some of that weekend work, and then, working with managers who, I will say, are working hand-in-glove with our Environment, Health and Safety group to look at these situations. For those of you who have visited Human Resources, you know we have a very open office but with lots of people in a shared space, and we have worked to ensure a lower density level in that space by scheduling individuals' remote work days for on and off days.
Employees should work with their managers to evaluate their space and work areas and then see if they do need to reduce density even further, if hybrid work situations would help with that.
Tirrell: This one is for Kevin.
How will rooming assignments be done for freshmen during rotation, and, in particular, there is a concern about whether vaccinated and unvaccinated students would room together?
Gilmartin: We are requiring vaccination for all students who are in residence. So, with the exception of those who have a medical exemption—who will be tested regularly as a result, along with all other students—there will not be unvaccinated students in residence, even in advance of the campus-wide October 15 deadline for vaccination.
And then, in terms of initial room assignments, those are going to be done as they are traditionally done before rotation. We are working with student leaders and student residential life staff, as I mentioned earlier, to develop a hybrid plan for rotation. Once rotation has taken place, rooms will be scrupulously cleaned and students will move into their permanent assignments for the rest of the year.
Tirrell: The next one is from one of our faculty colleagues.
Can Caltech help faculty who would prefer to teach classes outside where this would be appropriate for the style of the class, or hold group meetings outside? Will we provide spaces for those kinds of activities?
Tirrell: Kevin mentioned earlier that there is a plan to create some protected outdoor spaces.
Some of you may remember that we created two outdoor meeting spaces in each division at the start of the last academic year, so we have those 12 spaces already identified. We will probably formalize and enhance the facilities that are available in those locations. We recently received the teaching plans for the various divisions so we're aware of classes that people would like to teach outside or that might be beneficial to move outside because there are some challenges associated with accommodating them in our indoor teaching spaces. The short version is yes, we are going to be providing additional outdoor teaching space and meeting spaces as well.
Tirrell: All right, maybe we'll make this the last one and then we will have closing remarks from Tom.
At what point will the decision to be made on whether the fall commencement celebration takes place?
Rosenbaum: We are planning on going ahead with the October 16 event because it is outdoors and there will be a vaccination requirement, and we may well be masked as well. Obviously, if there's a large change in the public health conditions, we will adjust.
Right now, the county allows up to 10,000 people at an outdoor event. I don't think we would ever imagine something like that on campus—certainly this event will not be that big—but if there is a feeling that the distancing and protection outside are not adequate, we will address it.
We will have to make that decision, I would say, at least a month in advance to give people time to adjust their travel schedules, if need be, but as of now we are intending to move forward and to do essentially everything outdoors.
Tirrell: Thanks, Tom. I think we are close to time and we will have to end the Q&A. I'll just ask Tom to make some closing remarks.
Rosenbaum: Thank you. 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. What is different this time, of course, is that vaccines are around; they are a game changer in terms of preventing serious illness. We are fortunate this academic year to have them widely available and, as we discussed, potentially booster shots as well. As conditions evolve, we will evolve and we will be listening carefully to your input.
A follow-up story and the transcript from today's webinar will be available on the Caltech Together website so if there is anything you or your colleagues have missed, that is a good place to find it.
Let me end by thanking you again for joining us and for all that you do to make Caltech such a special place.