Dear Rice Community,
With the end of the semester behind us and the New Year less than a week away, we write to tell you about our thinking on the evolving pandemic, the current surge in cases and plans for the start of the spring semester. Rice will start the semester as scheduled on Jan. 10, but with some modifications based on the recent surge, as we detail below.
We’ve entered a new and different phase of the pandemic, one that requires us to revisit and revise our COVID policies and operational decision-making in light of the information currently available. While there remains much to learn about the new omicron variant, our knowledge of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is much better than 22 months ago when the pandemic began in Houston. In many ways we face a much different threat. We now have effective vaccines and booster shots, as well as pharmaceutical treatments for those who contract the virus, and we understand far better how to protect ourselves with public health measures like wearing masks and improving building ventilation.
Most public health experts believe there will not be a clear end to the pandemic as COVID-19 transitions into more of an ongoing endemic condition that is always with us, but generally significantly less life threatening with available vaccines and treatments. This understanding embodies the evolving situation at our university. Because of the substantial medical and public health advances in fighting the pandemic – and the protective personal choices made by the vast majority of our community – the virus, to our knowledge, has not caused serious illness in the Rice population during the past year.
We must also recognize and take into account the toll that our pandemic risk mitigation policies and personal choices have taken on both the broader wellbeing of our community and our ability to execute our mission at a high level, and we must adapt accordingly. The Rice community has demonstrated we can live with the virus in a relatively safe manner, and that will remain so with the omicron variant. For that reason, we will begin to shift our policies to a posture that recognizes COVID-19 as endemic and facilitates our ability to deliver the best education and opportunity to our students, while still taking reasonable precautions. What this means going forward is generally fewer restrictions that inhibit our activities. It also means reducing certain public health measures such as those used in the isolation and quarantine of cases, which will be less necessary for those who have been fully vaccinated.
Over the past week or so, a new surge, fueled by the omicron variant, has arrived in our city and on our campus. While we’ve had many breakthrough infections, we are not aware of anyone in our community who has become seriously ill. There is emerging evidence of what we should expect from the rapidly spreading omicron variant. It’s extremely contagious -- two to three times more than the delta variant. It’s better at evading immunity conferred by past infection or vaccination without a booster, and the incubation period from infection to the onset of symptoms is much shorter. People who contract this variant, especially if vaccinated, generally experience less severe symptoms than people who’ve contracted the other variants. Some experts predict the current wave will recede substantially by the end of January.
Despite the increase in COVID-19 positive test results, we intend in this context to have as normal a semester as possible. We will start the spring semester on time on Jan. 10, but instruction will generally be online for the first two weeks, and we will encourage all who can to remain remote during that time. With the rapidly spreading omicron variant, the shift to a more endemic posture requires time for the remainder of our community to get their booster shots, without which we would be less able to assure the health of people on campus. These booster shots are critical, because in light of the rapid spread of the omicron variant, it probably will not be possible to maintain the full quarantining policies we have previously implemented. Moreover, many of our employees will be dealing with school and child care issues and other logistical problems during this time. We need to lower the population density on campus for the first two weeks of the semester and allow time for everyone who is eligible to get their booster shots. This will also enable us to take into account any new information that emerges over the next two to three weeks.
The following policies will be in effect starting on Jan. 10:
- Vaccine boosters will be required for all employees and students, effective Jan. 10, if it has been at least six months since you finished your two-shot Pfizer or Moderna regime. If you had the Johnson & Johnson (Janssen) vaccine, you are not required to wait six months and you should get boosted with a second dose of vaccine as soon as possible. This requirement applies to all employees and students who come to campus, unless they are granted a medical or religious exemption. There is strong evidence that if you get a booster shot, you are far less likely to be infected with any of the SARS-CoV-2 variants including omicron – and if you become infected, you are much less likely to become seriously ill. As a reminder, the booster shot takes two weeks to be fully effective, and you must update your vaccination status with your booster information here.
- Courses will generally be delivered online for the first two weeks of the semester, and in particular, classes with over 50 students must be delivered online. Faculty teaching classes with 50 or fewer students have the option to deliver their courses in person during this time, but they must make accommodations for students who do not attend in person by recording their classes for asynchronous delivery or otherwise providing instruction for those who are remote. Faculty who plan to teach their course in person during these weeks must inform their dean by Jan. 3.
- Indoor gatherings, including classes, are limited to 50 people through Jan. 24.
- Masks must be worn indoors at all times based on our policy, which can be found here.
- Students are strongly encouraged to delay returning to campus – including, if possible, to university undergraduate housing – for two weeks, until the weekend of Jan. 22-23. If this is not feasible or is unduly burdensome for you, you may choose to return earlier. No approval process is required, but if you can, please delay returning to campus.
- Research activities can continue, and research facilities and services will remain open.
- Staff should work remotely to the extent possible until Jan. 24. Supervisors should provide maximum flexibility for all employees.
- We intend to return to general in-person course delivery on Jan. 24 unless the situation in Houston deteriorates substantially or new information suggests that is inadvisable.
These policies continue our general approach of being “flexible, nimble and adaptable.” We know this announcement raises many questions that require detailed answers, and also imposes some burdens. Additional communications with more information will be forthcoming later this week.
We want to thank our faculty, staff and students for enabling Rice to continue delivering the best in education and extraordinary research accomplishments over the past year. This has been a time of tremendous stress and uncertainty for all of us. The constraints we have endured have been very challenging and have impacted us in very different ways. But together, we have accomplished so much we can be proud of. And even as so many of us have labored under a variety of burdens, our community has shown concern and generosity to others. Our staff provided a safe and comfortable environment; our faculty continued delivering the education our students seek; and our students showed energy, compassion and true commitment to keeping our community safe. Thank you.
We wish you a joyful winter break and look forward to seeing all of you, in person, in the New Year. And please, don’t delay getting your booster shot.
With warmest regards and best wishes for the New Year,
David Leebron, President
Reggie DesRoches, Provost