The University will move forward with its plans to begin spring semester classes in person, with some procedural adjustments to accommodate difficulties posed by cases of the COVID-19 Omicron variant rising nationally, Provost Richard Locke P’18 wrote in a campus-wide email Friday.
Course materials such as lecture recordings and notes will be made available to students online, and instructors will follow new guidelines to ensure classroom density during shopping period remains at safe levels, Locke wrote.
Faculty have been asked to make their classes accessible online given the varying levels of disruption for students who test positive and have to isolate, “but (classes themselves) are not online,” Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey ’91 MA’06 told The Herald. “People on the first day … are going to in-person classes and shopping period, just like usual.”
Classes will maintain their original instructional modality outlined in Courses@Brown — either in person, hybrid or online — “to ensure that the University remains in compliance with their accreditation and federal reporting obligations,” Locke wrote. Instructors for all course modalities are asked to either record class sessions via lecture capture, offer a live Zoom during class or post class notes for students to access online.
To manage shopping period classroom density, which may be higher than rooms’ designated capacity, seats will be reserved for those already registered for the course, and instructors may have to ask students not yet registered to leave the classroom if in-person attendance levels are too high, Locke wrote.
Instructors who will need to be absent for personal and family situations are expected to identify a substitute instructor, temporarily transition class sessions to be remote or switch to using online course materials and activities developed in advance. Instructors may have to potentially reschedule a class to a later date in urgent situations, according to the announcement.
With guidance from “the world's leading experts on the pandemic,” the University's decisions are made “based on their expertise and experience and advice about the best tools available to us in particular with regard to testing,” Carey said.
Beginning Jan. 17, students will be required to test twice per week with self-administered rapid antigen testing kits — unlike the optional PCR testing model in place last semester — and self-report positive results to the University, The Herald previously reported.
Students will be given two antigen tests in a box every week, which they will take with at least 24 hours between tests. Given the way the viral load can change over a period of days, this timing makes the testing system “most effective,” Carey said.
With this new testing system, there is “more responsibility on the part of the student that they pick up their tests, take their tests, and if it's positive, that they contact health services,” Carey said. “It's a collective commitment of students, faculty and staff to take care of themselves and take care of each other and understand that individual decisions have community implications.”
Testing will continue to be optional for fully vaccinated faculty, staff, graduate students and medical students.
Carey added that testing is not a substitute for monitoring symptoms, and when someone feels symptomatic they need to stay home and seek medical advice, which is provided to students through health services.
“The question we're trying to answer is, ‘Am I infectious now?’ because those are the individuals who should be isolated, and that's what we really want to focus on,” Carey said.
The University will also stop using the COVID-19 dashboard in its aim to shift the focus from counting positive test results as the primary indicator of campus safety to infectiousess and reducing the risk of severe illness or hospitalization, The Herald previously reported.
Weekly Today@Brown announcements along with other campus-wide emails will be used to share updates with the community in a “very transparent way, just different from the dashboard,” Carey said.
Students who test positive for COVID-19 but have roommates who test negative will be isolated in either the Courtyard by Marriott Providence Downtown hotel or in dorm rooms reserved for isolation housing, according to Carey. Students who test positive and have roommates who also test positive, as well as those who live in singles, will isolate in their residence hall rooms, Carey and Vice President for Campus Life Eric Estes wrote in a campus-wide email Wednesday.
After the five-day isolation period and a negative antigen test, students will be required to return to the regular antigen self-testing program. This is unlike previous semesters when students were removed from the testing program because PCR tests sometimes mistakenly continue to report an individual as positive for COVID-19 during the 90 days following their initial infection, Carey explained. “An antigen test will be positive if they're actively infectious … which is part of the rationale for making the switch” to antigen tests, he added.
Students and faculty with vaccine exemptions will be required to continue PCR testing twice a week. Health Services may also continue sending PCR test samples for people who are symptomatic to the Broad Institute for Variant Sequencing, according to Carey.
But, the “director of the (Rhode Island) Department of Health said this week that Omicron is 90% or more of the COVID cases in the state,” he added. “It's just the assumption that close to everything is Omicron at this point.”
The University will also distribute KN95 masks at the Alumnae Hall and One Davol Square testing kit pickup sites. Cloth masks do not provide adequate protection and are acceptable only when used over a disposable mask, Locke wrote.
“Wearing (KN95 masks) religiously and carefully, well-fitted, indoors is probably the most important thing people can do after getting vaccinated and boosted, which most people have already done,” Carey said.
Fully vaccinated instructors who have received a COVID-19 booster can continue to choose to remove their masks when speaking during course instruction.
The deadline to submit proof of a booster vaccine is Jan. 26. So far the response to uploading booster vaccines “has been terrific,” Carey said. “Both in terms of trying to facilitate access to boosters on campus and the cards that are coming in, we feel very good about compliance.”
Earlier this week, the University hosted a booster clinic in which 280 booster shots were administered, according to Carey. There will be another booster clinic Jan. 19, and a request has been submitted to the state for permission to host a booster clinic the first week of classes.
“Once we get past the first week of the shopping period or so, we'll have a better sense of where we are. But in terms of looking forward to the semester, it's an in-person semester that I think will be great — I'm very optimistic about that,” Carey said. “The community at large has been fantastic about taking these types of things very seriously and that gives us additional confidence going into the semester."
Gabriella is the Senior Science & Research Editor of The Brown Daily Herald. She is a junior from San Francisco studying neuroscience on the premedical track.