In-person classes begin with COVID-19 still looming
As students return to in-person classes for the first time in almost 18 months, University officials are closely watching the Delta variant and how it may affect instruction and other plans.
Yale has recorded more positive COVID-19 cases this term than the corresponding period last fall as students return to in-person classes after 18 months of remote instruction.
This year, during the seven-day period before classes started, 11 undergraduate students tested positive for COVID-19, nine living on campus and two living off, according to the COVID-19 dashboard. Over the past seven days, from Aug. 24 to Aug. 30, 31 University-affiliated individuals have tested positive for COVID-19, including 16 students and 15 staff and faculty members — up from six total cases between Aug. 23 to Aug. 29 last fall.
All Yale students, faculty and staff are required to be vaccinated and wear masks indoors, allowing campus to more closely resemble its pre-pandemic self. Prior to the start of classes, the University reached a 98 percent vaccination rate among undergraduate students — a percentage nearly double the national rate due to Yale’s vaccination mandate. Vaccination rates for graduate students, faculty and staff have reached 97, 92 and 90 percent, respectively.
Still, undergraduates began the semester with a risk of contracting COVID-19 as the Delta variant creates uncertainty about the state of the pandemic on campus. In a town hall last week, University officials and public health experts commented on the uncertainty of how well the vaccines protect against transmission of the Delta variant but said they plan to have classes remain in person even if its members or faculty contract COVID-19.
But the pandemic has already thrown a wrench into the University’s housing plans, as it prepares for the possibility of a spike in positivity rates following student arrival to campus. Five days before classes began, the 49 students who were supposed to live in mixed-college housing in McClellan Hall were notified that they will be indefinitely moved to the Omni Hotel in order to increase isolation housing capacity on-campus should there be a need for it. Currently, the University has 74 percent of its isolation housing capacity free.
According to Dean of Student Affairs Melanie Boyd, the length of the students’ stay in the hotel will depend on whether and how long the extra isolation space is necessary, which will be determined by the student testing data collected over the next few weeks. Vaccinated students are required to be tested once per week through September, while students who received vaccine exemptions are required to test twice weekly for the entire semester.
Despite these risks and protocols, students expressed gratitude for the ability to return to in-person classes.
“After more than a year of taking classes online, to physically be in a room with other students and to see people filling the streets, walking to class and interacting felt surreal,” Victoria Vera ’23 told the News of her first day of classes. “Even with everyone wearing masks, it almost feels like Yale was approaching normal again.”
Natasha Ravinand ’24 told the News that she feels “really grateful” to return to New Haven for in-person classes after her gap year. During her time off, Ravinand counted down the days until she could reunite with friends and professors, despite the University’s public health precautions such as mandatory indoor masking.
In a welcome email sent to undergraduate students on the first day of classes, Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun stressed that even amid the excitement of the return to campus, public health should be at the forefront of the community.
“I want to recognize that we are starting a year not just with excitement but of course with an eye toward carefulness as well,” Chun wrote. “We are returning to in-person curricular and extracurricular life after months of preparation — through vaccination requirements, regular testing, and good habits and practices that we learned from last year.”
According to the CDC, COVID-19 cases are up 14.3 percent in New Haven County since Aug. 1. The county falls under the CDC’s “high transmission status” category, which means there are more than 100 positive cases per 100 thousand residents, or a positivity rate greater than 10 percent.