Campus Reopening Planned for Fall

At least 4 academic terms will be remote

By Snigdha Saha | Published 04/12/2021

Most Caltech undergraduates remember March 11, 2020 as a turning point in their academic careers: It was the beginning of a remote learning model that has spanned 4 academic terms to this day, and it put on hold a year of countless on-campus traditions and activities that many had taken for granted. After nearly a year of Zooms and Discord voice calls, the question naturally arises: “When will we back on campus?”. While many undergraduates long for a return to campus, the freshmen simply desire to officially begin their Caltech journey as they had desired.

So far, the answer to this question comes every term in the form of an email, indicating that the pandemic is nowhere near an end and signalling yet another remote quarter. The reaction to this answer has been quite varied within the Caltech community; while many students have been able to adjust to the online setting, quite a few have voiced concern and discomfort with the current situation.

In fact, in December, several parents wrote a letter to President Rosenbaum, Provost Tirrell, outlining how the “fully remote model does not adequately replace an in-person one”, leading to many students feeling “distraught” and “considering deferring or transferring”. While it is not clear how or where the authors of the letter collected their data, there is a strong urge for Caltech to “invite all students back to campus for the spring quarter” since other institutions of higher education have “safely brought and retained students on these campuses”. As a concluding action item, these parents urged the Caltech administration to organize a Zoom Town Hall to address their concerns.

With regards to the comparison to other schools across the country and even in LA County, there is quite a unique situation for Caltech. As can be found on the Academic Year 2020-21 FAQ, Caltech has their “own local health authority in the Pasadena Public Health Department (PPHD)” and are thus “restricted by the health orders and restrictions implemented by PPHD and not by the Los Angeles County Health Department (LACHD)”.

On that note, in January the Pasadena Public Health Officer Dr. Ying-Ying Goh expressed that it will be difficult for any college to reopen while the county is in the purple tier, and colleges that are reopening under the current restrictions are “violating the order” and will thus be “ineligible for a lot of government funding”. In addition to the horrifying conditions in LA County, Pasadena also houses a slightly older population and thus higher at risk for COVID-19. Plus, since Pasadena is “70x smaller in population compared to LA County”, and thus the “close contact between constituents” allows for a tighter enforcement of COVID restrictions. Dr. Goh also confirmed that Caltech has been setting up mechanisms to bring students back, but anytime “20 year olds come together, there happens to be a surge among 60 year olds”, and thus the risk to the community overpowers the need to reopen. However, Dr. Goh emphasizes that with a low enough case rate, protective measures, and vaccines for the older professors and staff, and then students, this risk might be able to be combatted. Thus, the only thing we can do as a community is follow orders and hope that the pandemic takes a better route soon.

Caltech administration did indeed host a virtual town hall on January 25th, 2021. The main points of discussion were a return to campus, vaccinations, academic planning, commencement, SURFS, and student life and mental health. Many of these topics correlate to the issues raised by the parents in the aforementioned letter. There were mentions of a potential hybrid model if approved by the PPHD, and students can expect a decision by mid-February. The administration shared optimism for a return to campus in fall term, and thus a resumption of normal Caltech life, including lab work, in-person classes, and campus traditions. Interestingly, the vaccine is not yet a predetermined requirement for a return to campus. However, as of January 28th, Caltech is an approved community-based provider of the COVID-19 vaccine and thus this may change.

Interestingly, there are a handful of undergraduates and several graduate students on campus currently, but only for the purpose of research. Despite the pandemic and its numerous difficulties, research continues either virtually or, to a limited amount, in-person. Geoffrey Pomraning (Ricketts ‘23) lived in Marks last term and he describes it as a “capital S Surreal experience”, due to “the empty Olive walk and the quiet houses”. Alex Hong (Blacker ‘23) is currently on campus researching “synthesizing nickel catalysts that copolymerize polar and nonpolar monomers to make high molecular weight olefins with polar side groups”. She says that “living on campus is extremely isolating” and that campus is constantly “either barren or scattered with people walking their dogs or their children”, with her only in-person interaction being with her lab mentor. It is evident that campus is now only a skeleton of what it used to be under normal circumstances.

On February 18th, the Caltech authorities informed all individuals of the Spring Term decision. Much like the last two terms, Spring will also be virtual and public health officials in the area did not approve the requests to have a limited number of in-person classes. However, the email still contained optimism for a return to “in-person instruction and residential living in the fall”. As we prepare for yet another eleven weeks of Zoom classes and virtual friendships, this optimism seems to provide a glimmer of hope for the future.

As vaccinations rise and test positivity declines, Caltech is indeed optimistically looking at an in-person fall term. At the March 24 town hall, Caltech administration announced new plans to slowly prepare campus for fall. In the current term (Spring 2021), while classes remain remote, undergraduates living in Pasadena will have access to certain facilities on campus. In summer, there are plans to have a few SURFs and WAVEs in-person, with various restrictions. Finally, in fall, Caltech hopes to bring all students back to campus. While graduation remains remote in June, administration is also planning for a celebration in the fall meant for all individuals from the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021. Thus, President Rosenbaum and his team are certainly preparing for a “normal” fall. While it is not a guarantee, it does help us believe that the end is in sight.

The fact remains that many other universities have welcomed students back on campus (although in limited amounts) for Fall 2020 and Winter 2021 - but to varying levels of success. While some colleges such as UC Berkeley have seen surges of cases in their undergraduates, others such as UC San Diego have been able to successfully maintain a low case rate. On the other hand, Stanford University cancelled their plans of being freshmen and sophomores back on campus for winter quarter a mere two days prior to the beginning of term, owing to a spike of cases on the Santa Clara campus. However, most universities are continuing to practice online instruction as much as possible even with students living on campus. It is quite clear that the Caltech administration is trying to find a way to bring students back, but the decision ultimately lies with the pandemic and its state in the larger community of Pasadena and LA County.

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