Live Updates: Latest News on COVID-19 and Higher Education



Live Updates: Latest News on COVID-19 and Higher Education

Surges Reported at Minnesota Colleges

Minnesota colleges and universities are experiencing a surge in COVID-19 cases, The Star Tribune reported.

Nearly one in four University of Minnesota students who tested for COVID-19 at the Twin Cities campus last week were positive, according to data published Friday. The data showed 253 student and employee cases.

Classes resume today, in person.

The university’s American Association of University Professors chapter and members of a union representing clerical workers issued a joint statement calling on the university to move all classes online for the first two weeks of the semester. “Students, staff, and faculty are eager to return to campus this spring, but the university must do its part to limit community spread during the coming few weeks,” the statement said.

Minnesota’s private colleges, which are much smaller than the University of Minnesota, are also seeing COVID-19. St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges each reported more than 100 new positive cases over the past two weeks, and the University of St. Thomas reported 131 cases from Jan. 1 to 7.

Pennsylvania State University at University Park intends to fire a tenure-track professor who scuffled with a counterprotester at a pro–vaccine mandate rally on campus.

Oliver Baker, assistant professor of English and African American studies, was initially charged with simple assault and disorderly conduct following the August incident. Those charges were later dropped due to lack of evidence. Baker pleaded not guilty to the remaining charge, harassment, and was acquitted in November.

Penn State nevertheless continued its disciplinary case against Baker, who had been on administrative leave following the altercation.

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Westfield State Rescinds Testing Requirement

Westfield State University, in Massachusetts, has rescinded its requirement that all students receive a negative COVID-19 test before returning to campus, The Westfield News reported.

The reason is that students were reporting that they couldn’t find a test available.

“I continue to receive feedback on the undue burden our PCR test requirement is placing on a significant number of our returning students and their families. We apologize for this inconvenience and frustration, as there remains ongoing difficulties with obtaining a PCR test and growing delays in the turnaround of the results,” wrote President Linda Thompson in an email to the campus.

This article contains explicit and potentially offensive terms that are essential to reporting on this situation.

Ferris State University in Michigan has suspended a professor for a posting a provocative, often-profane video for students ahead of the new semester this week.

Barry Mehler says in the video that he’s fearful of teaching in person during COVID-19 because he’s already 74 years old, and that he’s retiring at the end of the semester. So while it’s possible that being put on administrative leave isn’t the worst of outcomes for him, Mehler’s faculty union says the suspension is an attack on academic freedom generally.

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Louisville Backs Off Punishing Online Teaching

The University of Louisville has backed away from a policy of saying it will punish professors who teach online rather than in person, The Louisville Courier Journal reported.

On Monday, David Owen, acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, said there was no “wiggle room” in the policy.

But on Tuesday, Owen said, “I certainly recognize … chairs require a degree of flexibility to manage individual and short-term circumstances as they see fit.”

Christine Ehrick, chair of the history department, described the latest statement as a “huge change,” because faculty members previously were told they had no flexibility. “I think a lot of chairs saw this as something of a victory and a de-escalation of a situation that really did not need to become so antagonistic,” she said.

Spiking COVID-19 cases have prompted some colleges to start the semester online and delay bringing students back to campus. Other colleges began the semester in person, then shifted to remote instruction. Still others are staying the course, remaining in physical classrooms despite the concerns of some students and faculty as coronavirus cases multiply.

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Dartmouth Offered Tuition Refund

Dartmouth College offered a full tuition refund to students who wanted to leave because of COVID-19.

The college offered the money until Monday, after students had a full week of classes.

Dartmouth had 566 cases of COVID-19 during the first week of classes, VTDigger reported.

U of Missouri Curators Vote Down Mask Mandate

The University of Missouri system Board of Curators voted down a proposal to require masks to be worn on its four campuses, KCUR reported.

The proposal that the board rejected came from the system president and chancellor, Mun Choi. “Scientifically, it will have the effect of reducing the transmission of COVID that will result in less Missourians getting infected,” Choi said.

Board members questioned whether mandates would work. The board chair, Darryl Chatman, who voted against the recommendations, said, “If we need to reconsider, we’ll reconsider,” he said.

Oregon Grad Students File Complaint Against University

The Graduate Teaching Fellows Federation at the University of Oregon has filed a complaint of an unfair labor practice against the university for the way it has returned to in-person teaching, Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.

The union says in-person teaching is a change in teaching conditions that should require negotiations.

Oregon has 982 COVID-19 cases among students and employees, according to its data dashboard. That is up from 154 cases the week before.

The university instituted new COVID-19 policies stating that instructors—including graduate teaching fellows—may move courses online on two conditions. They must have the support of their deans or department heads, and their classes must be experiencing 20 percent or more COVID-19–related student absences. Instructors who continue to work in person must record their class sessions for students who are absent.

Mel Keller, president of the union, said there is “mass confusion around the new policy.”

Said Keller, “There’s no explanation on if it needs to be 20 percent of students submit a COVID test, or if it’s on word of mouth alone, if students are absent but don’t give COVID-related reasons. It is incredibly unclear.”

13 Cal State Campuses Will Begin Spring Semester Online

At least 13 California State University campuses will begin their spring semesters online.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Cal Poly Pomona announced Monday it will resume classes, online, Jan. 24 and in-person classes Feb. 12.

“Even though we are temporarily moving to online instruction, the campus remains open. All offices and services are now and will remain accessible and staffed to support our campus community,” wrote President Soraya M. Coley.

Other campuses that will start remotely are located in: Channel Islands, Dominguez Hills, East Bay, Fresno, Northridge, Fullerton, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco and San Marcos.

California Community College District Goes Online

The Los Rios Community College District, in California, has moved most classes online until Jan. 31.

The district said the move was in “response to skyrocketing case numbers in our region.”

“Though most of our employees and students are vaccinated, the sheer volume of cases is leading to concerns about serious breakthrough cases, rising hospitalization rates in our region, and the operational impacts of large-scale staff and student absences,” the district added.

The Los Rios district has four colleges: American River College, Cosumnes River College, Folsom Lake College and Sacramento City College.

Facing the surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the spread of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, some colleges are upgrading their face-masking requirements for the spring semester. They say cloth masks will no longer be sufficient and are mandating KN95s or other medical-grade masks instead.

The University of Southern California announced last week it is requiring “medical grade masks, which at minimum are surgical masks and may also include higher grade respirator masks (N95, KN95, or KF94)” in all campus locations where masks are required, including indoor common spaces, public areas, classrooms, libraries, offices and laboratories.

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U of Wyoming Changes Approach to Testing

The University of Wyoming has announced a new approach to COVID-19 testing in the spring semester.

The university will no longer require all students and employees to be tested. It will test those who seek it out, and it will test a random sample of 3 percent of students and employees on Jan. 18.

“There’s already good reason to believe that the virus, particularly the Omicron variant, is widespread in our community. Positivity rates are now growing rapidly, and the risk of creating an environment for further transmission at a mass testing event likely would offset information we would gain from it,” said President Ed Seidel. “We’re making this late change in plans in response to the rapidly changing landscape caused by Omicron, which is highly transmissible but appears to cause less severe illness than previous versions of COVID-19.”

Colleges that temporarily shifted instruction online due to the surging Omicron variant of the coronavirus now face the question of when to resume in-person learning. For a growing number of institutions, the answer is not yet.

Eight institutions in the University of California system—Berkeley, Davis, Irvine, Los Angeles, Merced, Riverside, San Diego and Santa Cruz—all operating remotely, extended those plans to late January, delaying a return to physical classrooms. Duke University and Seattle University, both of which began the semester with online classes, have also announced plans to extend the remote instruction period.

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