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COVID-19 is leading some colleges to alter their plans for the next semester, even as it continues to impact the semester that is finishing up. The concern is the Omicron variant of the virus, which transmits much more quickly than other versions and appears to infect some people who are vaccinated.

In most cases thus far, the Omicron variant does not cause vaccinated individuals to experience anything but mild symptoms, according to public health experts. But college officials are still worried.

Stanford University announced that it will start the winter quarter online, from Jan. 3 until Jan. 18.

“We’ve all been watching in recent days as COVID-19 cases have increased in some parts of the country, and as other universities have seen surges on their campuses,” said a letter from Persis Drell, the provost, and Russell Furr, associate vice provost for environmental health and safety, that was posted on the university website Thursday. “While there continue to be positive signs that the Omicron variant may lead to milder cases of COVID-19, its transmissibility this winter remains a concern.”

The letter said that students can return to campus as they had planned previously and take their courses online for two weeks.

“Other operations of the university are not affected, and employees should continue with their existing plans for returning to campus following the winter close. Our concern is not about the safety of classrooms or workplaces at Stanford, but about the logistical challenges of supporting students amid the uncertainties of Omicron,” the letter said.

DePaul University made a similar announcement a few weeks ago.

“DePaul administrators are closely attuned to information emerging about the omicron variant, its potential impact and the potential surge in COVID-19 cases as we travel and gather to celebrate the holidays,” said a statement from the university. “The Community Health Team and university leaders are making decisions based on the best scientific information and data available. Because we start right after the New Year, before other institutions around the country do, and in the spirit of caring for others and Take Care DePaul, the first two weeks of winter quarter courses, Monday, Jan. 3 to Saturday, Jan. 15, will be held online. In certain cases, exceptions may be made for classes that cannot be offered online.”

Both Stanford and DePaul have classes that start the first week in January. Most Harvard University classes start later than that, but the institution is still adjusting its schedule.

President Lawrence S. Bacow and other administrators wrote to Harvard students Saturday and said, “We write to inform you that for the first three weeks of January we will take steps to reduce density on campus by moving much of our learning and work remotely. Please know that we do not take this step lightly. It is prompted by the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases locally and across the country, as well as the growing presence of the highly transmissible Omicron variant. It is reinforced by the guidance of public health experts who have advised the university throughout the pandemic. As always, we make this decision with the health and safety of our community as our top priority.”

Bacow added, “Only students who have previously been authorized to remain on campus or those who receive authorization from their schools should plan to return to campus during this three-week period. Authorization from schools will be based on compelling individual circumstances or immediate need for campus presence during the January term.”

Pennsylvania State University; the University of California, Los Angeles; and the University of Southern California have all indicated they are considering an online start for next semester.

“Penn State plans to begin the semester in person as planned, however with local COVID-19 hospitalizations at an all-time high, and the uneven spread of the omicron variant creating uncertainty, Penn State officials are reminding the University Park campus community, out of an abundance of caution, to be prepared to alter plans, should the university need to start the spring semester remotely,” a statement from the university said.

The statement said university administrators would announce a decision by Dec. 30.

UCLA issued the following statement Friday: “UCLA is closely monitoring the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant and its potential impact on our campus. We are reviewing a number of options, such as modifications to the start of winter quarter, and will announce any changes next week.”

The University of Southern California is planning to make a decision before Christmas.

“We are evaluating a number of options for the spring semester and will announce any changes, such as a remote start, by the end of next week,” said a Friday statement from USC. “Any decisions we make will be based on evidence-based practices and public health guidance.”

What About This Semester?

Even as colleges that have early starts to the winter semester adjust their schedules, or consider doing so, other colleges are still dealing with the current semester and the fast spread of the Omicron variant.

During the last week, Cornell University had 1,502 cases of COVID-19. When the university moved final exams online last week, it had 469 student cases.

Cornell requires all students and faculty and staff to be vaccinated.

Tufts University and two public universities in Maryland, Towson University and Bowie State University, also shifted final exams to online only.

Towson is also limiting dining halls to serving to-go meals.

“A review of the data this morning revealed a significant increase over a 24-hour period among the student population. In the last 24 hours, the University Health Center has received reports of 112 new positive cases, the vast majority of them among the student population. The number of positive cases among faculty and staff [remains] in the single digits,” said a Friday letter from Melanie Perreault, Towson’s provost and executive vice president of academic and student affairs.

Bowie State, with 121 confirmed cases, shifted exams to online.

“Out of an abundance of caution to mitigate further spread, the provost has shifted all final exams to be offered only in the virtual mode beginning Wednesday, Dec. 15 through Tuesday, Dec. 21 as scheduled. Students who are able are encouraged to check out of the residence halls as soon as possible and complete final exams at home,” said a statement from the university.

Middlebury College and George Washington, New York and Princeton Universities have already made similar moves.


UCLA also canceled a men’s basketball game against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill “due to COVID-19 developments within the Bruins’ program.”

The announcement said that “UCLA’s team-related activities have been paused, and the status of future games is to be determined.” Hampton University has also declared a pause for its men’s basketball team.

Other games were called off, too, including matchups between Duke and Cleveland State Universities, Seton Hall University and Iona College, and Texas Southern University and the University of Cincinnati.

Bowie State barred spectators from basketball games but played the games.

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