Emory University President Gregory Fenves and University administrators hosted a virtual town hall on Jan. 6 to address the temporary shift to remote learning until Jan. 31 to mitigate the spread of the highly-transmissible Omicron variant. 

Alongside Fenves, School of Medicine Associate Professor Zanthia Wiley, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Ravi Bellamkonda and Associate Vice President and Executive Director for COVID-19 Response and Recovery Amir St. Clair spoke about semester changes. 

Fenves opened the discussion by acknowledging the frustration felt among many people in the Emory community.

“I want to emphasize the temporary shift so that we can maintain academic continuity of students amid the Omicron surge,” Fenves said. “I understand your concerns, I hear your concerns and I understand your frustration in this difficult period that is affecting everyone at Emory.”

He expressed confidence that the University can successfully adapt to a remote start to the academic semester.

“We have proven that we can learn and teach remotely at a high level,” Fenves said. “It’s not the same as the in-person teaching and learning experience that is so important to an Emory education, but by going to a temporary shift, we will be able to weather the next three weeks and return to campus for in-person teaching on Jan. 31, and that is with the health and safety conditions permitting, which I am confident they will.”

Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Ravi Bellamkonda said that the University “fully expects” to see positive cases on campus during the Jan. 6 virtual town hall.

School of Medicine Associate Professor Zanthia Wiley said the growing case numbers behind the Omicron surge influenced the University’s decision to move classes to a remote format and encourage students to stay at home.

“This is our largest peak with respect to COVID with epic numbers of cases,” Wiley said. “This Omicron variant is highly transmissible. Georgia has one of the highest test positivities in the United States.”

Wiley’s and her colleagues predict the peak case counts during the Omicron surge will occur between Jan. 15 and the end of the month. Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Ravi Bellamkonda said that the University “fully expects that we will have positive cases on campus.” 

“We anticipate that because of how infectious Omicron is, positive numbers will be higher than previously,” Bellamkonda said. “We anticipate that larger fractions of classes might test positive.”

Although classes will start the semester online, Executive Director for COVID-19 Response and Recovery Amir St. Clair noted that students will be able to move back into dorms and the campus will continue to operate.

“It’s really important to note that our campuses remain open,” St. Clair said. “Emory continues to provide services, facilities are still available to use and our class schedules remain the same.”

During the Q&A session Fenves was asked about his confidence that in-person learning will resume on Jan. 31, which the University previously announced would happen “should conditions permit.”

“While I am confident we will resume on Jan. 31 for the rest of the semester, we have to be aware that the conditions can change in ways we do not even know yet,” Fenves said. “In the short term, I do believe we will be back on Jan. 31 for the rest of the semester.”

Wiley answered a question about the efficacy of masks and boosters against protecting people from the spread of the Omicron variant.

“Hands down, without a doubt, the best activity we can do with respect to the Omicron variant is by masking, getting vaccinated and ensuring that we get our boosters,” Wiley said.

In accordance with the remote start, Emory shifted to an orange operating condition on Dec. 28. In this stage, nonacademic gatherings and nonessential events are limited. St. Clair discussed the COVID-19 metrics used to make this decision.

“The University moved to the orange operating condition based on the prevailing evidence and data across these safety indicators,” St. Clair said. “Moving to an orange operating condition reflects the shift in these COVID-19 metrics as well as the subsequent guidelines needed to help limit COVID-19 in our campus community.”

St. Clair said students with more severe symptoms will continue to be moved to the Emory Conference Center Hotel and that those with mild or no symptoms will follow isolate in-place procedures while also providing needed medical support services.

Bellamkonda clarified that facilities including the libraries and Woodruff Physical Educational Center would remain open during the remote start. 

“The idea is to be open and functional,” Bellamkonda said. “The experience in January will be different, but our hope is to get back to the vibrant community that we are.”