Rice University turns to online classes

Rice University, a private institution in Houston, has done its best to build a wall against the delta variant that is engulfing Texas.

Stephanie Saul and Sophie KasakoveThe New York Times
Published : 21 August 2021, 07:15 AM
Updated : 21 August 2021, 07:18 AM

Unlike the state’s public universities, which cannot mandate vaccines or masks, Rice said it expected students to be vaccinated against the coronavirus — adopting language that stopped short of violating Texas law — and imposed stringent requirements for being on campus. It requires students and faculty members to wear masks indoors.

But as the virus surges in Houston, Rice became the second university in the state to shift classes online. On Thursday, the university announced that it had delayed the start of the fall semester two days until Aug. 25 and that classes would remain online through Sept. 3. Students may stay on campus, but those who had not yet arrived were encouraged to remain at home.

It also said that people in the Rice community had tested positive for the virus despite a 98.5% vaccination rate for students.

“I’ll be blunt: The level of breakthrough cases (positive testing among vaccinated persons) is much higher than anticipated,” Bridget Gorman, the dean of undergraduates, wrote in a letter to the school’s 8,000 graduate and undergraduate students. The university did not release figures on the breakthrough cases.

More than 12,000 people are hospitalised with the coronavirus in Texas, where officials have prohibited mask and vaccine mandates, and where Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, recently tested positive, despite being vaccinated.

“We’re in a hot spot right now,” said Rice President David Leebron, who described the decision to move temporarily to remote classes as a way of giving the university time to assess the results of its recent testing.

“Having new information of concern, as people worry about breakthrough infections, as people with children are worried around those issues, we wanted to have a little bit of time to gather data and look at it more carefully,” he said.

Rice, known for its strong science curriculum, had adopted tough anti-coronavirus protocols, even as it worked to keep its campus open during the pandemic.

Leebron announced in May that all students who returned to campus for the fall semester were “expected” to be vaccinated. Those granted medical or religious waivers would be tested weekly.

Rice has also required face coverings indoors for students, staff and faculty, even advising faculty members to mask while lecturing.

Detailed advice included specifics on mask construction and fit. “A face mask must be multilayered, fit snugly against the sides of the face and under the chin without gaps and completely cover the nose and mouth,” the university said, adding that it was preferable to have a “moldable nose piece to ensure a snug fit.”

Rice’s stringent protocols had led to a low coronavirus positivity rate even before vaccines. And Leebron announced last year that the disease’s low prevalence on campus was evidence that Rice could operate safely.

A. David Paltiel, a public health expert at Yale, said the new cases at Rice were not a sign that the university’s strong mitigation plans had failed, pointing out that even places with high vaccination rates would have cases.

“It will test everyone’s resolve when the case numbers start climbing on the dashboards,” Paltiel said in an email. “But let’s try to focus on the outcomes that matter: total infections, hospitalisations, ICU use and death. The Rice campus is likely to be among the very safest places in Houston.”

Rice was the second Texas university to announce a move to remote learning. Last week, the University of Texas at San Antonio said it would begin with mostly remote classes, citing the city’s high infection rate.

Northern Illinois University reached an agreement with its faculty this week that the school would move to remote classes if the coronavirus positivity rate rose to 8%. And professors at a number of other colleges around the country have requested a move to online classes as they brace for the possibility of coronavirus outbreaks.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where classes began this week, hundreds of faculty members have signed a petition requesting remote classes for at least a month.

Christopher M Johns-Krull, a professor of physics and astronomy at Rice who also serves as speaker of the faculty senate, said the university was evaluating data on the newly discovered cases, as well as performing contact tracing.

“We wanted to put a pause on this to make sure,” Johns-Krull said. “Pushing things online allows us to spread out the arrival of students and allows us to have less mixing.”

With its urban campus, Rice is surrounded by a community where the coronavirus is surging. As of Wednesday, Houston area schools had reported that nearly 3,000 students tested positive for the virus. Hospitalisations have also risen again in the state, nearing last year’s peaks, but Abbott has resisted calls for new mandates and doubled down on his ban.

Freshman orientation at Rice began Aug 15, with regular classes scheduled to begin Aug 23. The delayed in-person classes came as a disappointment to students who had looked forward to a semester resembling normalcy.

Jacob Duff, a sophomore who had come to campus as an orientation week adviser, said that advisers and arriving students had not immediately been tested for the coronavirus. He criticised the university for what he viewed as a failure, as well as for not providing a dedicated building for students who needed to be quarantined. Instead, he said, there was one room in his dormitory for quarantined students.

In a statement, Leebron said the university had not required immediate testing because of the high vaccination rate among students, but it had required testing within the first week.

As for a separate dorm for quarantined students, he said, Rice had never used more than 10 quarantine beds at a time — so a full dorm seemed unnecessary — and is now using empty residence hall and hotel rooms.

On Thursday, Rice notified students that it had instituted a return-to-campus testing requirement regardless of vaccination status.

“The Rice administration had the entire summer to realise that the delta variant would be an issue,” said Duff, a music major from Georgia.

But, at the same time, he said, it was hard for anyone to know what kind of precautions to take.

“None of us thought it would be like this,” he said.

Kendall Vining, president of Rice’s student association, had been preparing to return to campus after more than a year of virtual learning. Then, she got the word that students had tested positive.

Now, with additional breakthrough cases a possibility, she is worried that the delay may be longer than two weeks.

“That’s what this is looking like for me: another semester of virtual learning,” said Vining, a senior, who has decided to remain at home in Louisiana until in-person classes resume.

“I’m scared of these long-term effects that we don’t know,” she added. “I’m just scared of getting sick, period.”

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