Winter Woes: University scrambles to deal with Omicron surge before students leave for break
Novel variant, Omicron, shakes up University plans prompting shifts in final exam administration, meal distribution, testing policies, and more.
In early December, the University shifted its COVID-19 alert level from green to yellow — representing “low to moderate risk” — in response to uncertainty about the Omicron variant and concern over increased campus cases following Thanksgiving break travel. In the seven-day period which ended on Nov. 29, 48 individuals tested positive for the virus.
Following a surge in cases, the University shifted to mandating twice weekly COVID-19 testing for students. At this point, booster shots had not been mandated yet, and students expressed concern over the lack of students boosted.
Students also expressed concern over the lack of communication between the University and its students.
“I do worry that Yale’s messaging may not be enough to get the point across to students that now is the time to buckle down on safety,” Brook Smith ’25 said.
International students mirrored this concern, especially over the prospect of and uncertainty surrounding international travel.
These uncertainties included increased international travel restrictions, potential institutional quarantine mandates and the possibility of not being able to travel back to the States.
“I just want to go home and see my family. That is all I want to do,” Ananya Purushottam ’25, an international student from India, told the News.
As of early December, campus was set to close on Dec. 23 and reopen on Jan. 18. Students expressed concerns over the risk of traveling home for the duration of winter break and the possibility they would not be able to return due to fluid public health guidelines.
Students in general felt, what Smith calls, an “unspoken dread” surrounding the surge in COVID-19 cases and an increase of students in isolation housing. In the weeks before winter break, students had been balancing the uncertainty of the virus and the final examination period.
Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun said he remains “cautious and concerned” over the Omicron variant. Dean of the Yale School of Public Health Sten Vermund elaborated, saying that public health experts expected a slightly higher positivity rate as a result of students traveling during the break and the onset of flu season.
Students were impacted with the uptick and felt its effects in more ways than one.
“A huge part of staying motivated and optimistic during this COVID era has been due to having the camaraderie of my suite and comfort of campus,” Nikki Ambrose ’23 wrote in an email to the News.
By mid-December, the Omicron variant was officially detected on Yale’s campus. The University adopted more stringent public health guidelines but remained behind peer institutions for some time. Unlike Columbia, Princeton, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania, the University had no plans to move final exams online. They did, however, transition residential college dining halls, Commons, the Elm and the Bow Wow to grab-and-go meal service only for the remainder of the semester.
On Dec. 15, Yale’s COVID-19 dashboard was retroactively updated with almost double the number of positive cases than previously reported. This happened concurrently with Harvard’s decision to transition to remote operations for the first three weeks of January — a decision that would not affect undergraduate students.
In an email to students, administrators announced that students would be required to receive COVID-19 booster shots in order to return to campus for the spring semester.
Final exams, held between Dec. 16 and Dec. 23, were still scheduled to be held in-person.
Professor of radiology and biomedical imaging, public health, management and economics Howard Forman told the News that there is “not a great reason” to move finals online, adding that he planned to continue administering finals for his classes in person.
This, however, would be short-lived. Following in the footsteps of peer institutions and in the wake of the University’s largest single-day COVID-19 spike, the University moved its final exams online and permitted students’ early departure.
“We are hopeful that we will be able to begin the semester in person, but in light of the rapidly changing public health conditions, we ask you to plan for the possibility that some or all activities will take place remotely at the outset of the semester,” Deans Marvin Chun, Lynn Cooley and Tamar Gendler’s joint statement sent via email read.
Students were urged to take essential items home, and the deans outlined options for students to help them finish the year remotely.
The email told students that they “may request and will receive” permission from their residential college dean to postpone synchronous exams or written assignments disrupted by travel.
Instructors could also replace exams with remote assignments, cancel final exams or base grades exclusively on work completed before the final. Students in these classes were able to convert their grades to a credit and have it not count towards the regular limit on Credit/D/Fail grades.
Lingering uncertainty surrounding the variant and a sharp rise in cases at the University and in the surrounding community prompted the University to shift from yellow to orange — which connotes “moderate” risk. Yale had not shifted to orange alert level since November 2020.
In a final effort to curb the virus, the University delayed the start of the spring semester for Yale College and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Spring classes would not begin on Jan. 18, as previously announced, but on Jan. 25; in-person instruction was scheduled to resume on Feb. 7. This announcement, along with the University shortening spring break from two weeks to one week, came only days before students departed for winter break.
In an email to students on Dec. 18, the University announced that the remainder of finals for undergraduate students would be moved online and that students would be allowed to leave campus early out of concern regarding COVID-19. In-person final exams were also eliminated for students in Yale College, Graduate School and some professional schools.