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1/28/2021 - Parents' Town Hall Transcript

On Monday, January 25, President Thomas F. Rosenbaum and Provost David A. Tirrell hosted a virtual town hall to discuss Caltech's COVID-19 response and continuing efforts to support the undergraduate student experience.

The discussion featured a panel that included Kevin Gilmartin, dean of undergraduate students and incoming vice president for student affairs; Felicia Hunt, assistant vice president for student affairs and residential experience; and Jennifer Howes, assistant vice president for student affairs and wellness.



President Thomas F. Rosenbaum: Good afternoon, it's a great pleasure to welcome you to today's virtual town hall. This is a wonderful opportunity for us, as leaders of Caltech, to connect with the parents and families of our undergraduates on the issues that we face together in these fraught and challenging times.

Let me start by outlining the plan for the conversation. Caltech's provost Dave Tirrell will serve as the moderator (and also as an expert on a number of the issues presented by the coronavirus pandemic). We will address first broad categories and themes identified through the questions you submitted, bringing in our local experts as is needed. Following the questions we have in hand, we will open the conversation to questions from the audience. You may submit them in the Q&A feed.

Before turning the program over to Dave, I did want to make a few comments on our general principles and approach, and the structural constraints that we face.

We are grateful that you are entrusting your children to us for these precious years, and we take extremely seriously our responsibility for their health and well-being. That is our starting point. At the same time, we are committed fully to advancing Caltech's mission in forefront education and research. Universities across the country are grappling with the demands of virtual instruction. Caltech has an advantage because of our small size—for example, the ability to create living and learning groups to replicate, at least to some extent, the camaraderie and mutual support provided by student study groups and the residences—but we understand that it cannot be exactly the same. We have invested heavily in technology and student and faculty support to deliver a quality education and to do the best we can under the circumstances.

Since last spring, we have been working intensely with the local (Pasadena) and county (Los Angeles) health authorities, who control what we are allowed to do. L.A. County has been extremely conservative—no college or university in L.A. County is allowed to have an undergraduate residential program, including UCLA, including USC, including the Claremont Colleges, including Caltech. We have undergone more rounds of scenario planning and submitting of proposals to health authorities for partial re-openings than I care to recount. We continue to work with our peers, lobby the L.A. County Health Department and the Board of Supervisors, and consult closely with the Pasadena Public Health Department. At present, however, the numbers in L.A. County are truly frightening. Until those numbers turn around or vaccines become more readily available, it is unlikely that there will be major changes at least over the next few months. That is not the solution that any of us want, but it is a matter of law and of conscience.

The Caltech community has pulled together through this time. And we are grateful for the dedication of our faculty, our staff, our students, and you, their families. There is light at the end of the tunnel and we will do our best to illuminate the path forward.

Let me now introduce provost Dave Tirrell to begin the Q&A.

Provost David Tirrell: Thanks, Tom. I would also like to extend my thanks to all of you who are participating in today's conversation and also to the other panelists. You may have noted their names on the introductory slides, but I would like to mention them briefly. First, Kevin Gilmartin, who is our vice president for student affairs; Jennifer Howes, our assistant vice president for student affairs and wellness; and Felicia Hunt, assistant vice president for student affairs and residential experience.

We received somewhere between 70 and 80 questions ahead of time. Some of them, as you might imagine, reflect shared interests on the part of those sending in questions and so not all of those questions are distinct from one another. What we have done to try to facilitate the conversation is to combine similar questions under about a half dozen or so topics; we will organize the conversation in that way. I will begin with the first of those topics—planning for the spring term—which is certainly urgently on everyone's mind.

Planning for the Spring Term

Tirrell: The first question here is:

What are the factors involved in a return to campus decision and what criteria must be met?

Consistent with what President Rosenbaum just said, the key event in approving a return to campus is the decision by Pasadena Public Health that we will be allowed to do that. We have been in frequent contact with Pasadena Public Health, and here I would especially like to recognize the efforts of Jennifer Howes and Kevin Gilmartin, and before Kevin, Joe Shepherd, who was Kevin's predecessor as vice president for student affairs. The three of them have been in very frequent contact with Pasadena Public Health and have established a good working relationship with the public health department.

We keep them informed of our operating practices, the occupancy level of the campus (we have been required to keep our campus occupancy below 25% of normal). We keep them informed of our teaching plans and our proposals for teaching in subsequent terms. We talk with them about our coronavirus testing, and, of course, we keep them informed when we detect positive cases of infection on the campus. And most recently, we have begun vigorous conversations with them about planning for vaccination of the campus community—to the point where we have offered and provided storage space for vaccine doses because we have some special storage instruments, ultralow temperature freezers that have been especially useful to the city. So that is an ongoing frequent conversation that I think has been carried on in a very positive way.

With respect to other factors that we will figure in our thinking, surely, we have to take account of infection rates in Los Angeles County. Those infection rates currently are at about 8,000 to 9,000 new cases per day, averaged over a seven-day period. That is down from about 15,000 or so a couple of weeks ago. But it is twice what we saw at any time prior to the Thanksgiving holiday. It is still extraordinarily high. Everyone is hopeful that there may be a continued decline, but we'll have to keep a very close watch on that.

Our community lives all over Los Angeles County. We have seen over the last weeks to months various inquiries that cite what is going on in Pasadena. And while that's certainly relevant, we have to take account of the larger L.A. County situation because of how our people are dispersed throughout the county. We have to take account of the stress on the hospital system, the availability of support services from the hospital, and just space in the hospital and personnel availability, and the results of our own surveillance testing; if we're seeing high rates of infection on the campus, that will certainly figure in our thinking irrespective of what the city tells us.

And then ultimately, as President Rosenbaum said, there will be vaccination of the campus community. We have applied for permission to administer the vaccines on the campus ourselves. That's still pending, and perhaps Jennifer Howes might say a little bit about that later. So those are the things that will go into our decision about how many students we might be able to reengage on campus.

The second question is: Is Caltech considering a hybrid model for the spring term?

We are considering it, but as the president said, it is likely to be a hybrid model that if anything, is primarily remote. It seems highly unlikely that we will be able to implement anything beyond what was offered, both in the fall term and in the winter term. In advance of each term, we made specific proposals to Pasadena Public Health about courses that we thought needed to be taught in person, courses that just could not be taught remotely. In each case, we were told we could not deliver even those courses in person on campus. That may happen again for the spring term. We are in the course of making that proposal to Pasadena Public Health now with about a dozen courses on the list that we think are essential, both in terms of course content and their importance for progress toward degree completion for our seniors.

Next question: When do you plan to announce if students will be invited back to campus for the spring quarter?

We are targeting a decision by mid-February. We simply have to make a decision by that time because of all the preparation that has to go into a return to campus. There will be an announcement by mid-February; we expect it to be an announcement that looks very much like what we are doing now, and in the best case, with perhaps a few courses and a small number of students accommodated on campus. We are optimistic that we might be able to do more than that in the summer and in the fall, and we are planning for both eventualities in both of those cases. We are certainly hopeful that we will be able to bring students back in the fall.

There's a question here about the Caltech layoffs. We are aware that Caltech laid off employees in January of 2021. Will these layoffs adversely impact Caltech's ability to expand operations for spring quarter and summer 2021?

Here the answer is straightforward. First, I would say, that that decision was a very painful decision to make. We made every effort that we felt was responsible to keep those employees employed on the campus and compensated for their employment. After 10 months, we just didn't feel we could continue to do that for certain kinds of operations that were just not being performed on the campus and so we reluctantly implemented some layoffs. But the answer to the question is short, those layoffs will not impact any decision or any operational preparations for us at any time. We know that we can scale back up once the decision is made to have people come back to campus.

Vaccination and Testing

Tirrell: The second topic is vaccination and testing. And here Jennifer Howes will take the lead.

First question for Jennifer: Will Caltech allow students to return to campus before the vaccine is available to all students or will you wait to open campus until the vaccine is available to everyone?

Jennifer Howes: Thanks, Dave. And thanks for the opportunity to be here today. Hi, everyone. Having the vaccine available to students is not a predetermined requirement for returning students to campus. Vaccines are just one of the tools that we will use in order to safely bring students back to campus, alongside social distancing, the use of face coverings, preventative hygiene measures, and testing; all of those elements will continue to be a part of our fight against COVID.

We also hope that everybody, regardless of whether they're students or others or even household members, will take the vaccine as soon as it is available to them. That may be in your state; it could be that locally folks are able to get the vaccine sooner than we are able to get it here on campus in California. We don't want folks to wait; we would like people to get vaccinated as soon as they can.

We wil continue to work with Public Health in order to create the plan that is going to be able to bring students back to campus when it is safe to do so. As Dave said, we work very closely with Pasadena Public Health and we are in constant conversation with them about how we might do that. Certainly, vaccination is an important piece of that discussion and partnership.

Tirrell: Thanks, Jennifer. The second question is similar. And you may just say that you've answered this one already, if so, we'll go to the one to the following one. But the next question was: Will vaccination be a requirement for return to campus?

Howes: As many of you know from filling out the health forms when you started here at Caltech, even if that was during the pandemic, we do have a number of required vaccinations as part of our enrollment requirements to help keep the community safe. It may be the case that once the vaccine is widely available, and especially if we are able to administer it here on campus, that we do ultimately make it a requirement. But at this point because there are wide ranging issues around availability, it's not a requirement for accessing campus. We will continue to review that as we go ahead.

Tirrell: Thank you. And next: Will Caltech acquire and administer the vaccine to students?

Howes: I think you had already spoken a little bit to this, Dave, but we have submitted an application to the state through its vaccination hub in order to become a provider such that we could receive bulk allocation of vaccine. This would enable Caltech to vaccinate members of the campus community as soon as that vaccine is available and in accordance with the prioritization tiers that are put forth by the state and local jurisdictions.

We are hopeful that we will be able to receive vaccine at the earliest available opportunity. And we're also working with vendors and have a whole team of folks and a work group who are very focused on getting all the site plans and all of the logistics needed in order to bring a vaccine clinic to the campus. When we do administer vaccines, they will be free to the campus community; we won't charge for those. We do not know at this point which ones we will get; public health will give us whatever is first available, which at this point, could be either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. But again, we're encouraging everybody, wherever you are, if you have access to the vaccine to get that as quickly as possible.

Tirrell: Thank you. And now a question about testing: When students are able to return what will be the testing plan and requirements?

Howes: Given that we are not exactly sure when students will be coming back, things do evolve and change quickly, so we will continue to keep the community informed as we make plans in that regard. Currently, we are testing everybody who is on campus at least once a week. Individuals are tested a minimum of once a week; most folks are getting tested twice per week. There are no current plans to ramp that testing program down.

Whenever we are able to bring students back to campus, we will integrate a responsible testing strategy into that plan and let folks know ahead of time what the requirements may be unless they may change over time as well. We do plan to integrate testing into our plans to bring folks back and keep the campus running safe and smoothly.

Academic Planning, Advising, and Support

Tirrell: Thank you. Our third topic is academic planning and interventions and support of students. Kevin [Gilmartin] and I will share this topic and I'll take the first one.

How will Caltech respond if students are not able to complete their degree requirements?

The first thing I would point out is that in each of the first two terms, we have offered roughly 300 courses and we've been required to cancel about a dozen or so. This has not created a large number of problems with respect to completion of degree requirements. Nevertheless, we're very much concerned about it; we know that some substitutions and alternatives are likely to be required for everyone to finish their degree programs.

Additionally, we have done two things and maybe more that I don't know about at the option level. First, each academic option has identified a member of the faculty who is responsible for working with every student in that option to ensure that requirements are completed or appropriate alternatives are identified. In doing so, there is a point person in each of our degree programs who is responsible for making sure that that happens.

The other thing that's been done, which is sort of redundant but very important and nicely complementary to the option level interventions, is that each of the senior students, fourth-year students, is working directly with our registrar to ensure that degree requirements will be completed. This is something that I suspect would be very difficult to implement on essentially any other campus in the United States, but with our class of about 200 seniors or so, it's possible for our registrar to work personally with each of those students. And she's doing that and she is a remarkably effective person. I take a great deal of reassurance from the fact that Christy Salinas, our registrar, is working with our faculty to ensure that these degree requirements are completed.

The next question will be for Kevin and this is about academic advising. How is academic advising currently being done?

Kevin Gilmartin: Thanks, Dave. And first, thanks to all of you for attending and for your participation.

Academic advising is certainly an important question under these conditions so I'll try and be as thorough as possible. Academic advising at Caltech for our first-year students centers, as you may know, on a faculty advisor. Each of these advisors is assigned a small group of first year students, typically six to eight. Our frosh advisors receive extensive training and support, coordinated by the undergraduate dean's office, in all aspects of the curriculum or academic support programs in the first-year experience. And this year that training included COVID related accommodations and adjustments that we've made.

Anticipating the challenges that our first-year students, in particular, were going to be facing in our remote living and learning environment. This year, we supplemented the faculty advising system with a range of additional support structures. And these are aligned with what Tom Rosenbaum already mentioned, our first-year Living Learning Groups or as we've come to call them LLGs. Now, you'll hear more about these soon from a social and emotional support perspective, but I do want to begin with the academic side.

The group of students assigned to each of these faculty advisors has formed a Living and Learning Group and each of those groups also has assigned to it two upper class student counselors and a graduate student RA; this creates a complete academic support team. The faculty advisor meets with the LLG collectively as a group and also meets with each student individually for academic advising purposes after midterms.

We have a program where advisees meet with both the faculty advisor and the graduate RA to review their individual academic progress, to discuss challenges they may be facing, and to provide referrals where appropriate to other campus resources. The deans and the residential life staff work with the LLG groups to promote awareness over the course of the term in the academic year of a whole range of support programs for first-year students that do focus on academic growth and success.

For example, we have "Tackle the Term" sessions run by Jennifer Howes group out of student wellness, writing workshops provided by \ Hixon Writing Center, and as we come to this time of year, SURF research information sessions that are provided by Student-Faculty Programs. Although students are not in residence, our traditional graduate student RAs have really become a critical component of this LLG structure. They're trained in academic and personal support. These are graduate students also just a few years ago completed their own undergraduate STEM experience and they have that to work from as well. They meet with their LLG group every other week. And again, they respond also individually where students may be facing particular academic challenges.

For upper-class students who are advised through the options, staff and faculty across the academic divisions have pivoted to offer advising support via zoom and other remote means. In addition to scheduled individual meetings with advisors, faculty advisors have been providing a whole range of resources, including special advising office hours, and setting up group meetings for students within our options—some of those by year since academic progress is related across years. Course instructors have also been working in really interesting ways to engage students in the classroom around advising and academic progress matters, making class sessions essentially an occasion to guide students through appropriate further coursework and decisions about their option.

And I just want to close by reminding everyone that the undergraduate deans are really a critical part of our advising framework at Caltech. And as Dave and Tom have mentioned, Caltech small size allows this to happen. They regularly work with students individually who face challenges in their coursework, in their decisions about course scheduling, and their academic program. The deans continue this work in a remote learning environment. The dean's office also runs a peer tutoring program that can provide any student who feels the need for academic support in a particular course with a trained undergraduate tutor, and typically one who's actually taken that course and done well in it.

The deans are often a first point of contact to connect students with a whole range of campus resources. If your student is facing particular challenges or has questions about academic support or any resources available on campus, please encourage them to set up an appointment with one of the undergraduate deans, Lesley Nye and Kristen Wyman. Students can do this directly on the dean's office website.

Tirrell: Thanks, Kevin. The next question concerns our teaching assistants. I think you've touched on this a bit, but it is a more explicit question. Please describe how TAs are interacting with the undergraduates. And there was a question that just came in from one of our participants that's complementary. This one: What's being done to encourage more interaction?

Gilmartin: Caltech graduate and undergraduate teaching assistants are assigned to specific courses. As during in-person instruction, TA recitations and an online environment vary from course to course. In general, TAs continued to interact synchronously with students by holding office hours via zoom. For courses that have recitation sessions, zoom has become the typical interface. In some cases, TAs also interact with students via discussion sections and Q&A forums.

In terms of the additional question about what's being done to encourage interaction. The Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach is the place where TA training happens across campus. That training has, as with other aspects of campus life, pivoted to support learning in an online environment, and our TAs have been provided with resources that help them reach out to students, contact students. In many cases, a particular TA has been assigned to general meetings with students, drop-in sessions so we are trying to create as many opportunities as possible for TA and student interaction.

TA's grade and mark student assignments and they provide feedback that allows students to understand how they're doing in a course and what they can do to improve. In terms of what's being done to encourage this, the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach has been involved in the training that TAs are provide, and that training has again pivoted to an online environment so that TAs can be made available of the best ways to approach their own role in this environment.

All Caltech TAs receive this training and they also work closely with faculty. Again, all of this has been updated for an online learning environment so that TAs do understand better how to provide service in this environment. And then the other thing to say is that the Living Learning Groups are places where, particularly through the intervention of the RAs, students can be encouraged to access the kind of support that TAs are capable of providing.

Tirrell: Thanks, Kevin. I'll take the next one, I've touched on it. But again, it's more explicit than the earlier part of the conversation. Can Caltech provide enough in-person lab courses for seniors who need them to meet graduation requirements?

One thing I would say is that our laboratory courses at Caltech are extraordinary in the level of attention that students get in those laboratory courses. We have promoted them to Pasadena Public Health as vigorously as is possible to do. One might ask, in a curriculum that ordinarily offers 300 courses, how important is it to argue with the health department that you should be allowed to offer or attend to those courses out of 300?

Well, it's because of their special quality and the importance of those laboratory courses. And we're going to do the same thing for the spring, we will go down to the wire with Pasadena Public Health with advocacy for those courses. And if in some instances where, in the end, we're not able to offer those courses in person, I am confident that our faculty will be able to identify enriching experiences that can substitute effectively for them. It'll be a loss, we regret that. We regretted it in the fall and then the winter, but we're confident that the quality of the program will be very high.


Tirrell: I think now we should switch to topic number four, which is commencement. And here, I would ask President Rosenbaum to talk about our plans. And let me pose the question as it was submitted to us. What is the timeline for the commencement decision and what factors are involved in that decision?

Rosenbaum: Great. Thank you, Dave. The first part of this is easy. We are planning an announcement by mid-February to accompany the announcement about what we're going to be able to do for our spring term.

The second part's a little harder and I thought, perhaps, I would share how we're trying to think about the issue. We are keenly aware that commencement is an incredible celebration of our students' accomplishments. It is a culminating factor of the last term of the student experience and it's hard to decide that we can't get together as a community, sharing it with the families, to be able to celebrate in-person. I think the likelihood of bringing 1,000 people to the Caltech campus in a few months, in June, is not high. I don't think health conditions and vaccinations will be such that we would have any chance of doing that by any public health guidelines.

What we're hoping to do, but we haven't worked out all the plans, is to have a celebration on campus, a formal commencement in fall quarter, maybe at the start of term, maybe a little into term, and perhaps even invite the graduates of the class of 2020 to join us. To be able to get together as a community and mark this special occasion. Let me hasten to add that the degrees will be awarded in June. Students who need a degree to move on to their next job or next activity, of course, we would never stand in the way. But we're going to try to be able to celebrate our students in this fashion, and we will communicate with you as soon as we understand the parameters involved.

Tirrell: Thanks, Tom. The next topic is our Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships, or SURF program and other summer opportunities. Kevin Gilmartin will, again, take the lead in this part of the conversation. And the first question is: Will SURF be held in the summer?

Gilmartin: Simple answer there. Yes, the SURF program will be held this coming summer. It's hard to say anything certain in this climate but I am confident about that. In fact, just this morning, an announcement went out to our undergraduate students that the deadline for applications will be extended from February 22, the original deadline, to March 15. Our aim here is to give students and their mentors more time and flexibility in their planning, and with any luck, by the time these are due, we'll have a clear idea of what the summer might actually look like.

We are certain that we will be able to offer the same virtual and remote experience for SURF research that we did last summer. Faculty, mentors, and staff within the SURF office have been working with students to develop SURF plans that align with the possibility of ongoing remote work. At the same time, in conjunction with other planning around a full reopening of campus and return of undergraduate students, we are considering the possibilities for in-person versions of SURF.

Depending on the timing of our campus reopening, it may be, for example, that some projects will need to begin remotely and then we will continue with an on-person research component. We are getting very good, as some of my colleagues have indicated, at making a whole range of plans. Thus far those plans, unfortunately, haven't come to fulfillment, but as we work towards SURF, there's really a feeling that conditions might meaningfully change by that point. Again, given the uncertainty, faculty are working with students to develop research proposals that are as flexible as possible.

Tirrell: Thanks, Kevin. Next one: Can students return to campus for research even if they live off campus or will you restrict SURF to only students living on campus?

Gilmartin: There has been no change or reduction in the level of support and funding available through the SURF office this summer as compared to past years. We fully expect to accept a comparable number of students and as we did last year and in past years, and that will not depend in any way on access to housing or labs; we are going to maintain the same level of things.

Tirrell: Maybe in that context we could say a little bit, and here I might ask Jennifer to respond if she wishes, to talk a little bit about the current situation with undergraduate students who are living near campus and some of whom are conducting research on campus. Jennifer, would you want to respond to that?

Howes: Yes, so we do have a number of students who are in the local area who accesses campus regularly, they participate as part of our surveillance testing program and follow all of the lab protocols depending on which division and which lab that they are working for. That work falls within our protocols around continuing to do research on campus as part of our overall mission and as part of the graduate program requirements. So those folks are tested generally twice a week, unless they are only here once per week, and then they are tested once per week on the day they report to campus.

We also have undergrad students who are in the area who come to use the gym and such other resources that might be available to them. And they have also been tested prior to coming to campus although as they're not regularly working on campus, they are not participants in testing program.

Tirrell: Thanks. And here, I can perhaps interject a response to one of the questions that came in from one of our participants and that is: Why are graduate students allowed on campus?

I think that conversation or Jennifer's comments illustrate the key point and that is that we have continued to do research, and graduate students do that. We have proposed to Pasadena Public Health very detailed protocols for doing research that limit occupancy and scheduling, and so on, so that we manage the density of people in the laboratory at any given time.

The undergraduate students are integrated into those plans and they have to have specific schedules for working in the laboratory that are similar to those that are required of the graduate students. There's no distinction, per se, between graduate students and undergraduate students. The distinction is between research, which is an allowed activity with Pasadena Public Health, and classroom instruction and congregate housing in the undergraduate houses. I don't know if Kevin or Jennifer would want to elaborate on that or perhaps correct anything I've said that might not be quite right. If I happened to get it right, we can move on to the next question.

Howes: I was just going to say I think that that's a good summary. The number of undergraduate students who are regularly accessing campus for research is relatively small. It's less than about [50] this term that are kind of on our radar. We did have around the same number fall term. We will continue to evaluate new undergraduate folks who made arrangements with researchers and involve them in the same way.

Tirrell: Thanks. The next question, also for Kevin, is: Will there be summer visitation opportunities offered for new students such as transfers to come to campus?

Gilmartin: Thanks. Yes, summer typically involves a whole range of student programs on campus. We have already talked about SURF, but we also have the Freshman Summer Research Institute, which is run by the Center for Inclusion and Diversity, undergraduate athletic programs, and of course, all that activity leads into orientation at the end of the summer for incoming first-year students.

In terms of the question, it's important to observe that, typically, orientation does include transfer students as well. Given the expectation that public health conditions will improve through spring and summer, we are assessing the viability of all these summer campus activities. And we are certainly committed to staging them on campus wherever possible. That is where we are going to really be focusing our planning. I'm optimistic looking forward to orientation, that that is something we are going to be able to do. But we are going to have to see how the summer unfolds.

Tirrell: The last question in this section: For students missing out on hands-on laboratory SURF experiences two years in a row, would there be an opportunity in the fall?

Gilmartin: Okay. Well, as I've already indicated, it is not yet clear that there will not be a hands-on laboratory activity in the SURF program this coming summer in some form. Faculty and staff are working together to plan for a whole range of summer opportunities. But looking ahead to the fall, provided that public health conditions have sufficiently improved and campus activity returns to normal or something like normal, returning students would certainly be able to participate in research.

Undergraduate research students during the term, whether paid or for academic credit, is something that has long been central to the Caltech experience and we take great pride in that. In fact, several years ago, the number of academic course credits, basically regular courses that are part of the curriculum that a student could take per term, was reduced. The rationale for this, in part, was to encourage students to become more involved in research during the term. Faculty have responded to that shift by providing more opportunities to do that. So once campus has reopened and undergraduate students have returned, there will be research opportunities for those students throughout the academic year.

Tirrell: Thanks, Kevin.

Student Life and Mental Health

Tirrell: For our next topic, student life and mental health. Jennifer Howes and Felicia Hunt will take the lead.

The first question is for Jennifer: What is Caltech doing to support students' mental health?

Howes: Thanks, it's a big question, and I know one that many parents and families and students themselves are thinking about in addition to all of the folks here at Caltech who are thinking so much about students who have been through a lot of disappointments and transitions and challenges to what they were hoping and expecting, which can create some difficulties and some challenges. Even if people are generally coping well, we still want to offer a number of different resources that can be helpful to students.

Student wellness services continues to serve students even if they are remote and engaged in distance learning. Our hope is that students will call us for consultation even if they are in another country or in another state. We really want students to reach out and learn about the different options that we have available to support them. That can be anything from one-on-one consultation, therapy case management, to occupational therapy; it can also be a number of our groups and workshops that we have available. For international students in particular, it can be hard to have synchronous experiences with both class and with staff. As such, we have all of our workshops and groups available for folks to download and stream whenever it's convenient for them. We also have a lot of different web-based resources. And our staff has really tried to be flexible by meeting students where they are—and if that means sending them resources and then checking in because it's hard to set up an appointment, we can do that.

For students who do want to get connected to a provider, if they are in California, we are able to continue to meet with students for occupational therapy and counseling and the full range of things that similar services can provide.

If students are outside of the country or the state, we still want you to give us a call and talk about what options are available and what your needs are. Our clinicians are there to look at each individual circumstance and make recommendations and stay connected to that student until they're connected with appropriate local resources or by connecting them to one of the things that we are offering.

In addition to the workshops and groups that I've mentioned, we have weekly drop-in hours for both occupational therapy and counseling; for those programs, it doesn't matter where a student is across the world, they're welcome to join that and connect with the other students and/or clinicians for support. Our emotional well-being series is launching—it is a series that we run every year and we're continuing to do that even though it's over zoom. In the series, we engage some of our staff as well as providers from the local community to talk on a range of different topics: from things like struggling with ADHD, to relationship difficulties, to stress management, there is a whole range of different topics that are really designed to help give people coping strategies and skills that can help them through this time.

I also wanted to point out, I think somebody is going to be putting this in the chat or directing somebody to point to our website, that we have an extensive report on all of the different services that have been created and offered throughout the pandemic, as well as, interesting statistics on the numbers of students that are coming to seek services, why or why not. We know that some students find it hard to engage over zoom or are really tired of doing that, so we're always looking for other ideas and feedback that we can add to our slate of services.

Our staff has done a lot to try to create a range of things that are going to meet the specific needs that our students have during this time around working from home, dealing with living with your family when that really wasn't part of your plan, struggling with making social connections, and then all the normal things that we're all struggling with as well, like managing stress. I think one of my favorites was the blurring of space and time. It's one of the workshops that we offered that is particularly relevant to the pandemic. Please check out the website and that report, there's a lot of different information there that might be helpful as folks look for specific resources that could be useful to them.

Tirrell: Thanks, Jennifer. It is now Felicia's turn. We have a couple of questions for Felicia who is our assistant vice president for student affairs and residential experience. The first one for Felicia: What is Caltech doing to meet students' social needs? Are you considering new forms of student engagement from what has been offered previously?

Felicia Hunt: Thank you. It's always fun to get to talk about things that are fun. Let me tell you a little bit about what we do in the Office of Residential Experience. Our goal is really to help students connect with one another. We know that is really important right now. We also believe fundamentally that college should be fun and that that experience needs to continue even in a remote world. To that end, let me tell you about the range of different programs and activities that we have set up.

First off, we know that it's very hard for students to understand, engage, and appreciate all the offerings that are happening on campus. We have tried very hard to organize and centralize all of those on a Monday newsletter that we send to students. If there's ever a question about what might be happening, we want students to have that information, and so Monday that goes out with everything that's happening on campus. We also know that some centralized activities that we provide for students are really important. We have a range of things that we've done and that are coming up, for example, we're showing the Interstellar movie and it's being hosted by our own Professor and Nobel Laureate Kip Thorne; we have a concert; we're doing a panel of students who worked on the Perseverance rover; we have game nights; we have talent show; we have a range of things that we put together for students to participate in.

We also know that students themselves have fantastic ideas and are really committed to the traditions of Caltech and we don't want to lose those even in a remote world. We're trying very hard to keep up what has made Caltech so special for our undergraduates. One of the traditions, for example, is to have doughnuts each term. So last time we had GrubHub deliver doughnuts to the students at home. We will do that again in upcoming terms, all we ask is that they give us permission and accurate address. We know that Pi Day, and fake Ditch Days, and actual Ditch Days are all part of the fabric on the social connections that students really enjoy. And all of those will happen, they'll look different, but they will happen. And that's important to us.

We've created some other activities where students can get to know us and each other in more meaningful ways. And let me give you an example of one of those. We have a series called "What Matters to Me and Why". This is a program where we have professionals from a range of different fields to come and share their choices, their decisions, their challenges, their field with us and so we can get to know them. We started this program recently, our first speaker was Betsy Mitchell, an Olympian and world record holder. Our second program will involve TV producer, Sarah Ray, that's this week. In two weeks, we'll have Konstantin Batygin, professor or planetary science, who also discovered the ninth planet—he's going to be fabulous and entertaining. We try to bring things to students that they might not be able to learn about in this deep meaningful way outside of it.

There are also student-directed activities that are not run by us but that we facilitate. We have over 50 clubs and organizations. We had a club fair over discord, and we will do that again to make sure that people find each other and are able to connect around the activities and interests that they all share. And then, of course, the big one, the houses. The undergraduate houses can be a really important center of social life on campus. They have been busy; they just finished rotation. For many of our first-year students, you'll be hearing from your students that they are now affiliated with one of our wonderful houses on campus. Those welcome events and social activities are ramping up right now. They started last week, but they will move forward with game nights, painting activities, hangouts, welcome activities, care packages. The houses are really warm and inviting place and they do a lot of great things to help students feel included because they really believe students are included. You'll see a lot of that happening.

The Office of Residential Experience is not the only place that is interested in making sure that students feel engaged, included in campus life. There are so many offices and they also have Monday newsletters. But just to give you kind of a range: There's the Caltech Y that does our service-learning program and engages our students in tutoring, visual and performing arts with some fabulous ways for students to engage in artistic expression. We have our center for inclusion and diversity that has a range of programs, International Student Programs, the SURF office, and of course, our athletic office.

While we enjoy celebrating and providing fun, we are not the only ones that are doing that on campus. We try to make this all available and easy for students to access, of course, when that's not the case, we encourage students to tap into us and ask us how they can get involved. My offices and partner offices have been calling all the first-year students to check in on them this term, and make sure that everybody is feeling included and supported and that they are welcome as much on the second term as they were in the first-term. We will be asking them how we can make sure to provide fun and social connection for them, but we are always open to the feedback if there are other ideas.

Tirrell: Great. Thanks, Felicia. We do want to reserve a little bit of time for responding to questions that came in from the participants. We've responded to a few of them as we've gone along. There is one more question for Felicia, maybe we could have a brief answer. Are you curating programming or activities to support students at different grade levels, for instance, freshmen versus seniors?

Hunt: Absolutely, the first and the final year are really important transition times for our students. The first-year experience includes a whole series of programs and activities. Every other week there's an educational session to help our students' skill build. Today was working with the career center to get prepared for our career fair on Friday. There's always something happening with the LLG programs and with the RAs, and now with the houses.

Of course, on the flip side, we have our seniors, and it's their graduation year. We are so happy for them. There is a whole senior series of activities, programs, dinners, movies, happy hours available to them. It's all listed. They all got the information and we hope that they're able to really celebrate with us even in this remote world.

Tirrell: Thank you, Felicia.

Audience Q&A

Tirrell: All right, now we'll turn to the questions that we've received from our participants.

The first one relates back to something that Jennifer Howes was telling us about a few minutes ago and I know that she wanted to add a bit to her previous comments. But let me pose the question, and I've seen it from several of our participants: What sorts of resources are available and where they can go?

Howes: Thank you. I wanted to follow up because we do have a lot of different programs and services that are available to students who are willing and able to reach out to us and respond to our outreach. Sometimes students are a little reluctant to ask for help or it may be that a family member or a parent just realizes that something isn't quite right or that their student is struggling. We really welcome collaboration and consultation if you notice that your student is having a difficult time. There are a number of different ways to do that. But the most straightforward way is to submit a care referral.

Our care team includes folks from wellness, residential experience, the undergraduate and graduate dean's offices, and our security team; we have a range of different folks who are involved and able to provide support and brainstorm around how best to support students. So caltechcares.caltech.edu is the care team website. There are also links on the Counseling Center website and wellness and various other, the dean's website, I believe, to click to make a referral. Submitting a referral provides some notice to the care team that somebody might be struggling, and we can then take that information, put it together with any other information that we may have that may help us complete a support plan and then reach out to the student and try to engage them in resources.

You can reach out to the care team; you can also reach out to the dean's offices or student wellness services directly; all of our offices have ways to contact us directly. The care referral is the quickest way to let us know that something isn't quite right and that we need to be engaged with the student and, very often, family or their support folks in order to come up with a plan for how we might support the student.

Tirrell: Thank you, Jennifer. The next one is going to be for the President. And it might not be the subject that you would anticipate but it's a subject on which he is thoroughly knowledgeable. And that is: What about spring sports? Does Caltech plan to allow their spring athletic teams to play? And if so, don't the spring athletes need to be housed on campus?

Rosenbaum: We are part of SCIAC, which is a conference of nine schools, six of those nine are in Los Angeles County. None of those six, including Caltech, will be able to fill teams because of exactly the point you raise, which is we cannot house our students on campus and we don't have courses to offer broadly across the spectrum. There are three schools that are outside Los Angeles County and the rules in their area are different and because of that there may be some sports activities for those schools. SCIAC itself, however, is not having any formal competition this spring.

I'm sorry. Kathy, my wife, and I love going to the sports events and seeing the students, and we know this is a big part of many of our students' lives. We'll try to make it up as best as we can.

Tirrell: Thanks, Tom. This one's probably for Jennifer.

Is there any consideration of a hard quarantine, for example, a 14-day quarantine for all returning students to reopen safely?

Howes: Sure, so we are working, as we've said many times with Pasadena Public Health. The most recent of interactions that we had with them was around on-boarding a handful of graduate students--and this was also the case earlier in the year—and at this time, we have a 14-day quarantine period for the students who are moving into our housing. These students are moving into off-campus apartments, which are very different than the undergraduate congregate living that includes our houses and are separate from the on-campus congregate living that is currently prohibited throughout the county.

Pasadena Public Health has indicated that they would like us to do a quarantine period including testing and so we've complied with that. When we will think about implementing that on a larger scale, certainly, if we were inviting undergraduates back in any significant number then we would have a plan for that and make sure that folks are able to get what they need. Since we have our on-campus surveillance testing program, that's also an important component to making sure that folks continue to be safe once they are on-boarded.

Tirrell: Thanks, Jennifer. This one I think I will direct to Felicia although Kevin or others may wish to help out. And that is: Will orientation, whenever it's held, include freshmen who have not yet been able to go to class on campus?

Hunt: Absolutely. I think when we're ready to resume, I think we're going to be doing multiple kinds of orientations. We will be doing a first-year orientation because that's an important time. But we also have students who haven't been on campus and helping them make those connections in-person, feel comfortable on campus, integrate into the campus community is going to be a top priority.

Gilmartin: Just to reaffirm that, as orientation is planned and run out of the dean's office and is being actively discussed as part of the summer and fall term planning. The idea that we essentially have two classes arriving on campus who have not been here before is something we've been thinking seriously about. And just to let you know how seriously we're taking this; we also have a first-year graduate student cohort who's been in the lab but effectively hasn't been on campus. We have a whole range of members of our student community who need to be introduced to the campus in thoughtful and meaningful ways. And we'll certainly be planning carefully around that.

Hunt: We will also be partnering with the students who left, who were here for first years and left for a significant amount of time and are returning and finding out what they need to be able to feel like they can integrate back into our campus community.

Tirrell: Thank you. I think this will be our last question, our last live one just because of the constraints of time. I would point out, though, that you can continue to enter questions, communicate questions to our communications office in the same way that you did prior to this event. And we'll make an effort to address them to the extent that we can and post them on a page of frequently asked questions so that you'll have access to our best answers.

I'll ask one more live question, which is kind of a logistical one, and then ask President Rosenbaum for closing remarks. The question is: It seems likely that seniors won't be able to return to campus, in that case, can Caltech mail their belongings back home?

Gilmartin: Felicia has been more closely involved in this; I'll ask her to follow up. It was a herculean effort to manage this with seniors last time, but we undertook it and it was a real team effort. I know athletics was closely involved in it. I will say yes, and Felicia can offer some.

Hunt: We're learning how to do all of this and we're getting good at it. To our seniors never fear, we'll be taking good care of you.

Tirrell: Thank you, Kevin and Felicia. It has been an enormous amount of work; I've watched from a distance and it's been striking.

Tom, some closing remarks.

Rosenbaum: Thank you, Dave. I want to start by thanking all the panelists, and most of all, to thank the parents and families of our students. We miss seeing you on campus, but we will be able to reconnect and stay connected virtually. In the interim, I would encourage you to check out the website, together.caltech.edu. It has all this information about the coronavirus. We will be posting a transcript of these proceedings as well for your convenience. And you might also want to keep up with other things going on campus through Caltech Weekly.

Let me also just do a brief advertisement since Felicia mentioned Pi Day. Kathy and I will be hosting— haven't announced this yet—a study break for all our students on Pi Day. We will look forward to seeing you then. We did one in the fall and it was great, really fun. Kathy and I answered questions from the students and I know we will be challenged, yet again, by our inventive and creative students. Take good care and thank you for your support and commitment to Caltech.

Additional Audience Q&A


Is there a procedure for allowing students or employees who have been vaccinated to return to campus once they are vaccinated?

Caltech is legally required to operate in accordance with regional and state health orders. The current protocols in the city of Pasadena restrict campus operations to the current level of activity, regardless of individuals vaccination status.

If I have been vaccinated, do I still need to participate in surveillance testing?

Yes. We are asking that all members of the community continue to adhere with all preventative measures and protocols that have been implemented—including participation in surveillance testing, wearing a face covering, maintaining physical distance, and washing hands frequently—regardless of whether they have received a vaccination or not. Compliance with all of these preventative measures is essential to curbing the spread of disease and to resuming more traditional operations.


Has the Governor's action to lift the regional Stay-at-Home order in California changed operations on campus?

No. The Governor's decision to lift the regional Stay-at-Home order means that we have returned to the state's reopening blueprint, a color-coded tier system that bases restriction levels on counties' COVID-19 cases and test positivity metrics rather than ICU space. Los Angeles County and the City of Pasadena are currently categories in the state's most restrictive, purple tier.

How has Caltech upgraded campus facilities in response to the pandemic?

Caltech has implemented health and safety measures and protocols to safeguard all individuals reporting to campus for work, research, or educational responsibilities. Upgrades included a comprehensive assessment and maintenance of all HVAC systems to ensure that they are operating correctly and providing maximum air flow, the addition of hand sanitizer stations in all common employee area and building entrances, and the implementation of strict reporting procedures that limit campus facility occupancy to 25 percent of our normal capacity.

What specifically has been done to assess and improve building ventilation?

We have assessed all HVAC systems to ensure they are operating correctly and providing maximum air flow, and replaced filters to ensure that they are clean. Regular maintenance and assessment is in place.

In addition, we have disconnected demand limiting devices and increased air flow in all occupied buildings to ensure maximum ventilation.

International Students

Some foreign students have not yet been able to get an appointment for the American student visa. How can Caltech help with that?

On December 30th, the Department of State announced that the resumption of routine visa services would occur on a post-by-post basis (that is, by country to country), based on local conditions. F-1 students are listed as a third priority, after U.S. citizen services, and after people coming to the United States to assist in response to the pandemic.  As a result, student access to visa services in their home country may be delayed.

Unfortunately, Caltech cannot in any way schedule or arrange visa appointments on behalf of students, since the process is a personal application.  Nevertheless, the knowledgeable and deeply committed International Student Programs staff provide regular updates on visa policies and processes on their "Current Travel Guidance" webpage. Students should review this webpage regularly as relevant policies have been changing over time.

Can Caltech do something to allow international students to come and stay in Pasadena outside the campus if the Institute doesn't plan to open?

Under current guidelines, securing a visa is not dependent on housing, whether on campus or in off-campus housing, but rather on the kind of academic programming that is offered.

Upper-class students who are continuing F-1 international students (with Active SEVIS records) can enter the United States to participate in a fully-remote academic program of the kind that Caltech currently provides. 

Unfortunately, first year students who have not yet entered the United States in F-1 status, and who have Initial SEVIS records, are not eligible to enter the United States to participate in our fully-remote academic program. This is based on the SEVP Fall Guidance, which has not been updated. Until this changes, Caltech is not able to facilitate the entry of these students in the United States.

Again, international students who remain abroad should follow updates available on the International Offices' "Current Travel Guidance" webpage, and should reach out to isp@caltech.edu if they have questions or concerns.


What are the undergraduate student fees for when students are not allowed on campus?

The mandatory student fees support specific areas such as the Health Center, the Caltech Y, and ASCIT and other student organizations. A portion also supports undergraduate student activities across the Institute. Since these programs continue to operate during the pandemic, the fees continue to appear on your students' bill. The Institute has refunded and is not charging the house fee, since students are not residing in their houses and cannot participate in those campus-based activities.

While some student programming associated with fees may have diminished, others have required significant new investment and support in order to pivot to the particular conditions of remote learning. It is worth pointing out too that while the student fees are collected to support these programs, the expenses involved go well beyond the fees themselves, and Caltech contributes to support a range of student activities within Student Affairs and across the campus.


My daughter rented a house with her friends in Pasadena. Just wonder if they are qualified to get test through school's testing station

On-campus testing resources are available to all members of the Caltech community. The conditions for which testing is provided is detailed at on the Caltech Together page on testing programs. Individuals with questions about their personal circumstance or situation, are welcome to reach out to staff at covid19@caltech.edu for additional information.


If students are back to campus in the Fall will sports resume?

If we are cleared by local health authority for in-person instruction and a return to full capacity in our residences, we expect that athletics will also resume, pending planning by SCIAC, our athletics conference.

If L.A. Country currently allows athletes to be back on campus, why has Caltech not welcomed athletes back?

Universities in Los Angeles County who have returned athletes to campus largely compete in Division I athletic programs. Caltech's athletics program is at the Division III level, and as a conference and a collective body of Division III schools, the SCIAC schools in Los Angeles County have chosen to follow a different model for approaching athletics. Athletic teams and competition are offered as part of a comprehensive education program which prioritizes student education, health, and safety.