Home  /  Updates  /  Updates for Students and Parents  /  12/13/2020 - Caltech's COVID-19 Planning and Response

12/13/2020 - Caltech's COVID-19 Planning and Response

To: Caltech Parents
From: Kevin M. Gilmartin, Vice President for Student Affairs
David A. Tirrell, Provost 
Thomas F. Rosenbaum, President

In recent weeks, we have received a few inquiries from parents who would like to better understand Caltech's efforts to plan for an eventual return of on-campus instruction.

We want to assure all of you that Caltech is committed, first and foremost, to supporting the health and well-being of all members of our community, and to returning undergraduate students to campus as soon as it is safe to do so.

Since we were first compelled to shutter campus in March, in the earliest days of the pandemic, and pivot our instructional and research activities to remote-only operations, we have been actively working to plan and prepare for the return of our on-campus community. These efforts have been wide-ranging, from assessment of classroom and residential spaces for air-handling and social distancing configurations, to regular consultation with local health and government officials, to close collaboration with peers and higher education organizations to advocate on behalf of the Institute and our community members for their interests at local, state, and federal levels. In particular, Caltech's leadership represented the Institute and local higher education institutions more broadly on L.A. County's Economic Resiliency Task Force for Education, which was charged by the county's Board of Supervisors with providing recommendations for reopening educational institutions earlier this year.

It is important to note that while Caltech has continued to join with peers and to represent the interests of our research university at the county level, the Institute is uniquely positioned in Los Angeles in that we have our own local health authority in the Pasadena Public Health Department (PPHD). Working closely with PPHD officials over the last nine months, we have fostered a strong partnership and awareness of our needs and operations.

We remain in regular contact with PPHD colleagues, and we continue to consult with them on opportunities for expanding operations and in-person instruction as the public health situation improves. The recent surge in COVID-19 cases, however, is alarming. The trend indicates that the virus is circulating at high levels throughout the Los Angeles area, and has precluded expansion of our in-person instruction or residential living opportunities for undergraduates. In fact, as a result of these trends, we have been running campus operations in a more rather than less restrictive state ever since the Thanksgiving holiday.

Through the diligent efforts of campus community members, and their close adherence to the Institute's preventative health measures, we have mitigated the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus on campus. Our experience in safely operating our research laboratories at reduced occupancy has guided our planning for initiating in-person instruction when the broader community health environment improves. We will continue to advocate for changes to our operational model when it is in the best interest of our community members to do so.

Throughout this process, we have sought to keep all members of the community informed of our efforts. We appreciate, however, that not all of our work may be evident, and that additional information may be helpful. The information provided below is also available online in an expanded FAQ on the Caltech Together website. We will schedule a town hall conversation in the new year for undergraduates and their families to discuss planning and preparation for spring term and 2021 summer research. 

Campus Planning for On-Campus Residency and Instruction
In the spring, two separate committees were constituted with the expressed goal of planning for the return of on-campus instruction and residential living.

The Committee on Reconstituting On-Campus Instruction delivered a comprehensive report and recommendations that took into consideration traditional and nontraditional teaching spaces, teaching models, technologies, and the expressed interest of students and faculty (ascertained through surveys and consultation with student and faculty leaders). In developing its recommendations, the committee assessed the HVAC systems of classrooms and laboratories and modeled seating capacity and configurations for classrooms and auditoria.

A Student Affairs Planning Group simultaneously assessed all available on-campus housing options to understand occupancy restrictions and needs, and to identify isolation and quarantine requirements to support the campus community throughout the duration of the pandemic. Since May 2020, rooms in Avery House have been dedicated for use as isolation and quarantine space; the Bechtel Residence was added as a secondary space for such purposes in September 2020. It is important to note that because of the configuration of some on-campus residential spaces not all of our residences are suitable for student housing during the pandemic. When single-room assignments are considered with isolation and quarantine needs, the Institute anticipates it would be able to accommodate up to a third of the undergraduate population.

While the research and planning efforts of the two committees mentioned above were expressly focused on the fall term, their work has continued to inform the plans for the entire 2020-21 academic year. The groups have updated recommendations to respond to the pandemic and have been instrumental in positioning the Institute to present plans to public health for possible in-person living and learning models. Throughout this process we have learned the importance of adaptability and responding to the situation as it evolves; we have continued to plan for many different models and worked to maintain as much flexibility as possible in our phased approach.

For the fall, we originally hoped to invite cohorts of students to campus, based on the needs and requirements of their academic programs as well as the benefits that in-person instruction might bring in acclimating them to the Caltech experience. In the plan we proposed to PPHD for the winter term, we took a slightly different approach, honing in specifically on laboratory courses that required in-person learning components and that are essential to students' degree progress. We then cross-referenced the course lists and potential enrollment across such courses to determine specifically the number of students who would come to campus as additional courses were added. While PPHD commended the Institute for its careful planning, the unpredictability of the community health environment and increased strain on local healthcare systems have prevented us from moving forward. In order to provide our community with clarity for the winter term, we informed the entire community on December 1 that we would continue with a remote-only instructional model for the winter. This decision aligns with our peers in the region who are also under restrictions from the Los Angeles County Health Department, which has continued to restrict on-campus instruction and dormitory housing. We will return to our discussions with PPHD in the new year to determine whether in-person instruction can be added to our operations for the spring term.

Preventative Health and Well-Being Measures
Since Caltech resumed a reduced level of research operations in June, members of our community have been required to follow strict preventative health measures whenever they access campus facilities. These include wearing a face covering, maintaining a minimum of six feet physical distance from individuals outside their household, and attesting on a daily basis to their health as well as recording physical locations visited and all interactions with other individuals within the campus community.

In addition, we provide members of the community with free access to two campus-based testing programs, which are coordinated through Student Wellness Services. Symptomatic and risk-based testing has been a mainstay of our campus operations since the beginning of the pandemic and as access to testing resources has improved, mostly through partnership with a dedicated testing laboratory, we have expanded those offerings. In the last month, following the Thanksgiving holiday, we have also added to our testing regime an on-campus surveillance testing program. This mandatory, campus-wide program requires all individuals regularly reporting to campus to be tested on a twice-weekly basis. Members of the community who report to campus less frequently will be required to participate in testing on the days when they are present.

In addition to these continuing preventative measures, we have established an on-boarding protocol for all new members of the community, in which they are required to return two negative test results, as well as quarantine for the first 14 days after joining the on-campus community. This process provides time for new members to familiarize themselves with Caltech pandemic protocols and reduces the risk of introducing the virus into the community.

While the above efforts focus on our on-campus measures, we also recognize the importance of mental health and well-being, especially during this time when so many of our normal traditions and gatherings are prohibited. In direct response to such concerns, we have invested significantly in expanding virtual engagement, counseling, and wellness options. We encourage you to read, if you have not done so already, a recent interview with Jennifer Howes, the assistant vice president for student affairs and wellness, in which she talks about new and expanded efforts in her area.

We appreciate your continued interest and engagement. We will continue to share regular updates on our efforts through email and in updates to the Caltech Together website.