Zoe Berg, Photo Editor

Yale’s decision to delay the start of the spring semester and move courses online for two weeks makes the University one of the most cautious and conservative of its Ivy League peers, many of whom have chosen to pursue classes in-person as originally planned. 

While Columbia University, Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania have opted for a mix of initial online instruction and delayed return to campus, other peer institutions, including Harvard University, Brown University, Dartmouth University and Princeton University, have decided to continue with full in-person instruction as planned. According to University President Peter Salovey, Yale’s decision was made primarily out of concern for the wider New Haven community and a desire not to be a “net exporter” of cases.

Salovey explained that moving classes online was driven by a desire to protect the New Haven community — with which Yale is deeply integrated, he said. The decision to delay classes by one week and spread out the return of students to campus was spurred by a need to avoid maximum occupancy at the peak of the Omicron wave, he added. University public health experts broadly supported Yale’s delay of in-person instruction and cited a responsibility to the New Haven community and general public health trends.

“[The primary reason] is trying to minimize the negative impact that returning Yalies have on our surrounding community,” Salovey said. “That really is what’s driving [the decision]. We are a much greater proportion of the population when we come back to campus because our host city is smaller than other [Ivy League] host cities. And the nature of our campus is more integrated into the city, and so we are really working hard to spread out the impact of thousands of people suddenly coming back into town.”

Harvard senior administrators explained in a letter to the Harvard community that the high rates of vaccination in Cambridge, Massachusetts and diminished severity of the Omicron variant enable them to safely continue in-person instruction. 

The administrators’ Jan. 4 message said that while they can expect to have a “large number of cases” at Harvard, their community benefits from “near-universal” vaccination rates.

“Among people who are fully vaccinated and boosted, early data indicate[s] that the Omicron variant causes less severe symptoms than infections with previous variants,” the Harvard administrators wrote in their letter. “The diminished severity of infection means that on-campus activities pose less health risk than before, enabling us to advance [Harvard] University’s teaching and research mission while continuing to protect the health and safety of our community.”

A Dec. 21 letter from Brown University administrators expressed a similar sentiment, noting in particular the role of high rates of vaccinations and mandatory boosters in protecting students and faculty. 

At Princeton, students were asked to return no earlier than Jan. 14 — a week later than previously scheduled, but have begun their semester as planned with in-person instruction. Dartmouth welcomed students back in the first week of January and has continued to hold in-person classes since. 

Yale is not alone, however, in adopting restrictive policies in order to stem the spread of the virus. Columbia University’s policies resembled Yale’s with the first two weeks of instruction conducted remotely. But the school stopped short of also delaying the commencement of classes. Cornell similarly implemented two weeks of remote learning, but did not delay students’ return. Only the University of Pennsylvania was similarly restrictive to Yale: The first two weeks of the spring semester were conducted online and students were asked to return to campus a week later than scheduled. Still, classes began as originally planned on Jan. 12, with no delay to the start of the semester. 

Three epidemiologists from the Yale School of Public Health spoke with the News about Yale’s approach to the pandemic in light of the nature of the Omicron variant, and expressed varied perspectives on the wisdom of the decisions. 

Albert Ko, professor of public health and epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, explained that the Omicron variant has three primary characteristics: it is highly transmissible; it causes less severe illness relative to previous variants; and vaccination with a booster provides ample protection against hospitalization. He further explained that epidemiologists have expected the current Omicron wave to peak around the end of January. 

Ko praised the University’s balancing of public health interests with the interests of its students, noting that Yale’s original timeline to return to full in person activity would have coincided with the peak of transmission.

“The worst thing you want to do is to open up at a peak,” Ko said.

He further explained the concern for the New Haven community, elaborating that while Yale enjoys near-universal vaccination, the same is not true for the residents of New Haven. Given the high transmissibility of the current variant, vaccinated individuals would still be able to pass the infection onto the unvaccinated, potentially jeopardizing the health of the broader Elm City community. 

Professor of medicine Saad Omer, the director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, concurred with Ko, adding that the University’s first priority has to be the health and well-being of the community, while also ensuring that Yale does not become a “net exporter” of cases to the surrounding communities. 

Salovey explained that the decision to open a week later than originally planned, while also allowing students to return at any point during the two weeks of online classes, is driven by a desire to avoid fully reopening at the top of the infection curve. 

Additionally, slowing the return to full person activity can help alleviate capacity issues with COVID-19 isolation housing for students.

“I think it’s reasonable to be conservative,” Ko said. “The worst thing to do is to do anything during the top of the wave.”

Salovey added that the decision to move classes online for the first two weeks of the semester also allows the University to measure the prevalence of COVID-19 on campus.

“[M]ostly starting online gives us a chance to assess the level of the rates of COVID in our campus community, before we suddenly put everybody back together, in classrooms, with faculty who might be older, might have children at home and the like,” Salovey said. 

However, Howard Forman, a professor of radiology and biomedical imaging, public health, management and economics, suggested that, in hindsight, the University adopted an overly-conservative approach to the new wave of infections, noting in particular that he thinks the decision to move classes online will have little to no effect on the spread of the virus. 

He further added, however, that the University made a decision about the spring semester at a time when very little was known about the new wave of infection, and that it is challenging for large institutions to make micro-adjustments to policy once a decision has been made. 

Despite that, Forman said that he “fully expect[s] that Yale will complete that period, on schedule, that we will have a reasonable number of cases returned to campus on the initial round of testing, which will dramatically drop off over the ensuing two weeks.”

Omer further noted that the academic mission of the University extends beyond the first two weeks and that were the University to adopt an approach similar to Harvard or Brown, Yale would risk an outbreak that could overwhelm the system and put that mission at greater risk.

Yale College classes are scheduled to resume in-person instruction on Feb. 7.

Philip Mousavizadeh covers Woodbridge Hall, the President's Office. He previously covered the Jackson Institute. He is a sophomore in Trumbull College studying Ethics, Politics, and Economics