Harvard going remote as universities grapple with Omicron variant

Harvard has had 344 new Covid-19 cases in the last week and a test positivity rate of 0.83 per cent. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Harvard University on Saturday (Dec 18) said it will move to a remote environment for the first three weeks of January because of surging Covid-19 cases and the growing presence of the Omicron variant.

In recent days, many colleges have moved final exams, cancelled graduation ceremonies or shifted parts of their operations online because of fears of the highly transmissible variant.

Middlebury College in Vermont moved to remote instruction for the rest of the semester. DePaul University in Chicago and Southern New Hampshire University both said this month that they would switch to all remote instruction, at least for a time, when classes resume in January. Cornell University cancelled a ceremony for December graduates and closed libraries.

Harvard has had 344 new Covid-19 cases in the last week and a test positivity rate of 0.83 per cent, according to the university's testing dashboard. That was a low positivity rate, but new cases have rarely exceeded 100 per week until December, and the surge in positive cases in the last week was not the product of more testing, which remained roughly the same, according to the dashboard.

"Public health experts anticipate the increase in Covid-19 cases to continue, driven by the Omicron variant, which we have now confirmed is already present in our campus community," President Lawrence Bacow and other university leaders wrote in a message posted on the university's website.

"The Omicron variant is expected to become the dominant variant across the country in the coming weeks, potentially peaking in the first few weeks of January."

The statement added that officials are planning a return to more robust activities on the Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus later in January if public health conditions permit. Spring classes are scheduled to begin on Jan 24.

The latest virus surge presents colleges with a dilemma they have become familiar with over the last two years of shutdowns and restarts. As gathering spots for thousands of students, faculty and staff, they can be natural vectors for virus spread.

But moving operations online also comes with a price, as remote education has contributed to a mental-health toll on isolated students, especially those who do not have robust support systems.

Like many colleges, Harvard has required all eligible students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated. Last Thursday, the university announced that it would also require them to have booster shots for the spring semester. Harvard's peer institutions, including Brown University and Princeton University, have also announced booster requirements.

Though the latest virus surge has echoes to previous ones, the way colleges and universities are responding should not be the same now, said Dr Michael Mina, a former Harvard epidemiologist who urged Mr Bacow to not reopen the campus after spring break in 2020 as the pandemic first took hold in the United States.

Now, there are treatments and vaccines, and colleges have mandated them, Dr Mina said. There is also knowledge that students are generally at low risk of serious disease or death. That should weigh into the calculation about whether a move to remote education is necessary, he said.

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