As reported cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant continue to rise across the country, Emory University President Gregory Fenves announced on Dec. 28 that spring semester classes would begin in a remote format for undergraduate, graduate and professional school students. The University is hoping to return to in-person learning on Jan. 31. 

Emory also made several changes to their COVID-19 policies in preparation for students’ return to campus. These changes, which came just two weeks before the start of classes, left students with unanswered questions about logistics of the shift, some of which were addressed during a Jan. 6 virtual town hall.

During the town hall, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Ravi Bellamkonda said the surge of Omicron cases is expected to decrease at the end of January, so students should still plan to return to in-person learning by Jan. 31. 

“Under President Fenves’ leadership, we are very, very committed to having our campus open, our libraries open, to be fully functional,” Bellamkonda said. “We have zero intention, unless absolutely, absolutely, absolutely mandated by some safety concern, to extend this any further.”

The Emory Wheel reached out to Executive Director for COVID-19 Response and Recovery Amir St. Clair, Executive Director of Student Health Services Sharon Rabinovitz and Dean of Student Life Enku Gelaye for answers to some of the most pressing questions students asked online and in class group chats. 

The below Q&A includes a combination of email and live interviews. It has been edited for clarity and length.

After Emory University President Gregory Fenves announced on Dec. 28 that spring semester classes would begin in a remote format for undergraduate, graduate and professional school students, many in the Emory community questioned the decision. (The Emory Wheel/Gabriella Lewis)

The Emory Wheel: Why did the University choose to make classes virtual if there was little to no on-campus transmission in previous semesters?

St. Clair, Gelaye and Rabinovitz: National projections point to a significant increase in cases in the United States over the coming weeks, with regional forecasts predicting a COVID-19 surge in Georgia during January due to the highly transmissible Omicron variant. The decision to move to remote instruction, even with requirements for vaccines and previous evidence of low on-campus transmission, is due to the anticipated COVID-19 surge that the highly transmissible Omicron variant presents across our community. While we do not anticipate serious illness among our students given high vaccination rates and the booster requirement, we must be prepared for a large number of infected students due to Omicron’s high positivity rates.

Given these conditions, the primary driver of Emory’s decision is to allow for academic continuity of our students. The temporary shift to remote classes, we believe, is the best way to ensure our students have continuity in their classes and progress academically. If classes were in-person during this surge, students testing positive — and we have to plan for many positive cases — would be unable to participate in-person, which would be more academically disruptive than temporarily beginning the semester with remote classes.

TEW: Will the University refund students for dining plans/housing if they indicate they aren’t coming back on campus until classes start in person?

St. Clair, Gelaye and Rabinovitz: Students will continue to receive course credits and make academic progress toward their Emory degrees, and there will be no changes to tuition and fees as a result of moving to a remote format. For questions about student accounts including tuition, fees, and room and board, please contact the Emory Student Accounts and Billing Office.

TEW: How will the quarantine process change?

St. Clair: The first change in the isolation quarantine is that we will reduce the isolation period down to five days for those who are asymptomatic on day five. 

The second change is largely dependent on creating new quarantine guidelines based on an individual’s booster status. The short of it is, if you are boosted, you will not need to undergo a quarantine period. Lots of caveats still. It’s not a catch all. 

The third change is that Emory will begin to layer in isolate-in-place protocols to help supplement its isolation procedures. For students who live on campus and test positive, there will now be two different types of isolation procedures. We will still have the Emory Conference Center Hotel be an isolation location for those students who have severe symptoms or are at high risk, and we will still move students in the hotel so we could provide them that necessary and important medical and support services. But we will also now be implementing isolate-in-place procedures for all other students who have mild or no symptoms.

TEW: Can you clarify what “isolation in place” means? 

St. Clair: Isolate-in-place means that for students who live in our residence halls, they would be asked to basically isolate in their location. We will provide them very clear instructions and guidelines as to what that means, what we want them to do and what we ask them not to do, where they can go and where they shouldn’t be going during this period of isolation … Their roommate will not need to isolate-in-place. If they’re not COVID positive, if they’re not demonstrating symptoms, they will still be able to have a normal kind of activity and routine.

TEW: Has the Omicron variant’s lower hospitalization rates, particularly for vaccinated individuals, influenced Emory’s decision to remain virtual or in-person?

St. Clair, Gelaye and Rabinovitz: The decision to move to remote instruction is due to the COVID-19 surge that the highly transmissible Omicron variant presents and to allow for academic continuity for our students. Such a drastic increase in cases, even though our community is largely protected from severe illness, would significantly disrupt academic continuity, overwhelm important resources dedicated to maintaining our mission, and threaten our ability to protect our most vulnerable campus members. 

TEW: What is the reasoning behind canceling in-person classes but keeping the dorms open? 

St. Clair, Gelaye and Rabinovitz: By having campus open but moving to a largely remote format for courses, it allows students to remain engaged and keep pace academically while avoiding the likely inevitable disruption to their academic continuity that beginning the semester with in-person courses would bring. 

Making this temporary shift to a remote start allows us to reduce density through a protracted return to campus and implement important modifications to our COVID-19 response model that will better serve the academic mission and campus experience in the future.

TEW: Will the University ramp up its COVID testing facilities in preparation for a potential spike?

St. Clair, Gelaye and Rabinovitz: Emory University will continue to offer both asymptomatic screening and diagnostic testing services for its campus community.

All asymptomatic students, faculty and staff are encouraged to utilize Emory’s free asymptomatic screening testing, with hours and locations posted on Emory Forward. Information on diagnostic testing for those who are sick or exposed can be found on the “What Do I Do Page” on Emory Forward.

Unvaccinated students moving into the residence halls will also be required to test upon arrival to campus. Within 24 hours of moving into campus housing, unvaccinated students will need to conduct a screening test on campus, and then again 3-5 days later.

Unvaccinated students, faculty and staff will continue to be required to conduct weekly COVID-19 screening testing. Anyone unvaccinated, who will not be on campus during a given week(s), must fill out a testing exemption form.

TEW: Would you recommend fully vaccinated students sign up to get themselves tested regularly, or would that be using up resources that need to be allocated for unvaccinated students?

St. Clair, Gelaye and Rabinovitz: We continue to encourage anyone who is asymptomatic, student, faculty or staff member, to utilize Emory’s screening testing sites. We have a robust capacity to be able to support members of our community who want to get a test.

TEW: During virtual learning, which facilities will be open? Gyms? Libraries? Shuttles?

St. Clair, Gelaye and Rabinovitz: Campus remains open and services such as the libraries, shuttles and other campus resources will be available. Please note, some facilities and services may be making modifications during this period of remote learning, so students should review the websites for these spaces for further information and instructions.

TEW: What criteria will the University use in deciding if to extend online longer, and if it is extended, when will we know?

St. Clair, Gelaye and Rabinovitz: Our plan is to resume in-person classes on Jan. 31, and we have high confidence in being able to do so at this time. Emory’s decision making will continue to be informed by prevailing public health guidance as well as the COVID-19 metrics and indicators listed on Emory Forward. The COVID-19 pandemic, though, has taught us that no certainties exist and plans are subject to change based on health conditions, so we must leave open the possibility that this surge lasts longer than projected.

TEW: Why isn’t Emory doing a vaccine clinic for boosters like they did for the first doses?

St. Clair, Gelaye and Rabinovitz: Vaccine distribution at both the national and regional levels are much different than what we experienced in early 2021 as part of the initial vaccine rollout. Supply of the booster shots are more readily available across a wider range of distribution sites, with more options afforded to members of our campus community than before.

And in addition to the community resources available to campus members, COVID-19 vaccines and boosters for students can be obtained through Student Health Services in limited capacity. We are also exploring hosting booster clinics on campus in the near future and hope to be able to share more information in the coming weeks.”

TEW: Will there be an option to go remote full-time after the start of in-person classes?

St. Clair, Gelaye and Rabinovitz: There is no plan at this time to have an option for full-time remote status after the start of in-person classes.

TEW: Should students remain home for virtual classes?

St. Clair: We know that some students need to return to campus and we’re able to support those students that need to. But for really everyone else, we’re encouraging all students to remain at home if they’re able to do so for this period of time, and then to really use their own risk assessment to evaluate when is the appropriate time for them to return back to campus if it needs to be before the end of this remote period.