By Grace McFadden
Last week, the University of Connecticut held two town halls to address lingering questions around how COVID-19 will impact the spring semester. University administrators covered topics such as testing, vaccine requirements, and quarantine in two hour-long sessions held on Monday and Friday.
The first town hall occurred January 10 and answered questions mainly impacting students. The second happened on January 14 and focused on university employees. These are ten things to know from the town halls.
- The university is not looking to keep classes online for longer than two weeks.
Though other universities have extended online classes in the face of the omicron variant, UConn is not anticipating doing the same, said Interim University President Andrew Agwunobi. Instead, UConn is planning on opening in ‘red’ once students return the weekend of January 28th.
“We have gotten the question, ‘is it really only two weeks or is this something where you’re planning for longer in terms of virtual?’ We are planning for two weeks. That’s what we’re planning for,” Agwunobi said.
- The university will not be refunding any fees.
University Chief Marketing and Communications officer Tysen Kendig explained the loss of certain fees would have too much of an impact on the university.
“Tuition covers the cost of academic instruction, whether faculty deliver that instruction online or in person,” said Tysen Kendig. “While there’s some flexibility when it comes to housing and dining fees and some costs can be absorbed, that’s not the case for some other fees, such as transit, Student Health and Wellness, the Rec Center fee, which are all fixed costs, meaning the fees which support these cases allow them to operate in many cases year-round,” said Tysen Kendig.
That being said, students who move in the weekend of the 28th will receive a credit for two weeks worth of housing and dining. Kendig also mentioned the federal money UConn received to give emergency grants to students in the pandemic. Students can apply for COVID relief grants at UConn’s Financial Aid website.
- Boosters are required for students, but not for professors — yet.
All students are required to get the booster unless they have a medical or religious exemption. However, the university is still working with the unions on a booster mandate for employees. Associate Vice President & Chief Human Resources Officer Chris Delello said the university began working with the unions right before the start of the year on mandating the booster.
“Currently, the Employee and Labor Relations team within the Office of Human Resources is reaching out to all of our Unions and have already started to commence conversations about the impact of a mandatory booster for our faculty and staff,” said Delello.
That being said, the university is preparing to require the booster for employees, according to Agwunobi.
“The intent is that we want all of our staff, faculty, and eligible employees to receive the booster,” said Agwunobi.
- There will be no changes to the add/drop period.
Provost Carl Lejuez said the idea of moving the add/drop deadline had been brought forward by the Undergraduate Student Government, but the university decided against it for a number of reasons.
“The thing that was compelling to me is that you see a very steep drop in a student’s GPA the later they adopt a class. It’s almost a full grade point for students who are starting a class at the tenth day versus students who start it at the start,” Lejuez said.
Lejuez said that moving add/drop may also impact financial aid.
- The university is not planning on cancelling spring break, but they haven’t ruled out moving it.
Students were vocal about keeping spring break, said Lejuez.
“There was a really strong preference, more than anything else, that we maintain a spring break. It’s going to be really important that we do that so we don’t want to pull that week away,” said Lejuez.
Lejuez said that it made sense to move spring break last year, but the situation is different this year.
“Given what we know about seasonal shifts and just where our semester is right now, it seems to offer less potential benefit of doing that,” Lejuez said about moving spring break this year. “But if at any point it does appear that that may be valuable, we will certainly engage in the same community based conversations to make that decision.”
- The university is keeping to-go containers…sort of.
In response to a question about takeout containers, Dean of Students Elly Daughtery said the university understood students wanted to keep to-go containers for a number of reaons.
“We’re gonna keep to-go containers. I wanna applaud the students who came forward and said they really liked to-go dining,” Daughtery said. “We’re going to maintain to-go services for students who are in quarantine, but also have academic and personal items that we need to take care of.”
To-go containers will not be available on request for every student as they were last semester. However, students with medical needs and students in quarantine will have access to to-go containers. Students who have a class or work conflict with mealtimes can also request a bag meal this semester.
- Students who have their boosters will not have to quarantine in case of a contact, but isolation will stay the same.
The university has about 150 isolation beds, said Daughtery, and the ten day isolation period will stay the same for anyone who tests positive. However, since CDC guidance now says that a five day quarantine is adequate for vaccinated people who have tested positive, the university has changed its quarantine policy accordingly.
“Quarantine will be in effect. Meaning, a more traditional quarantine of staying put for five days and then wearing a mask for five additional days if you’re not boosted following that eligibility,” said Dean of Students Eleanor Daughtery.
Those who have their boosters will not be required to quarantine in the case of a positive contact for the spring, according to Daughtery.
“If you’re fully vaccinated and a close contact, which means we’re discussing quarantine for you, we’re going to test you around days 5 and 7, and then if you become symptomatic see what that is, and take the necessary steps we need to take,” said Daughtery.
- The university is getting some COVID tests from the state.
UConn will be receiving some home tests from the state, said Delello.
“Working with our colleagues and partners in the Office of Emergency Management and the State of Connecticut, we have procured availability for over 8,000 antigen tests. We will be receiving 400 to 500 weekly starting the week following next week,” said Delello.
The university intends to use at least some of these tests to continue survey tests for those who are not fully vaccinated, said Delello.
“Our goal will then be to not only reinstitute testing for those that have exemptions or deferrals, but also create some type of outreach to all of our campuses, including our regional campuses with some of these at-home antigen tests that people will have access to.”
- Faculty and staff members are no longer required to report test results to Human Resources.
Whereas last semester, employees were required to report a positive COVID-19 test result to the UConn Health COVID call center, this semester, no such requirement exists.
“So with the employees, with the new guidelines and the antigen tests that are being made available, cases that are positive or negative will no longer need to be reported to HR,” Delello said.
The expectation is that employees will discuss their COVID status with their managers instead. Part of this is due to the fact that the COVID call center was often overwhelmed, explained Delello. These new guidelines mean that UConn’s COVID dashboard may not fully represent the spread of COVID on campus.
“Since our employees will no longer be calling the UConn Health call center, many reportable tests will not make their way back to HR. And with the antigen home tests, there will be no requirement to report those test results to HR under the new guidelines,” Delello said.
- Finally, if the university decides to keep online classes, we’ll know by next week.
Though several university officials at the town hall stated that they weren’t planning on extending the online course period, Lejuez said any changes to the current plan will be announced by early next week.
“What we will need to do is communicate as things get closer just to ensure that we’re providing good communication with you. You can expect something by the end of the week before or the beginning of that week, right around the 23rd and 24th,” said Lejuez.
According to Delello, UConn Health will be coming out with further guidance for employees this week. More information about the status of COVID at the university can be found on UConn’s COVID dashboard.
Though UConn is hoping to get back to in person learning by February, this doesn’t mean that COVID is going away as a threat. In the employee town hall, Delello fielded a question about whether the university is considering any long term planning for the pandemic.
“There’s certainly been a lot of conversation and yes, we do have some introductory plans that we’ll be working through in a more complex way. Many, many conversations, many, many employees and managers have responded to us with their own ideas, and we’re reviewing each and every one of those.”