The University of Washington announced Tuesday it will implement remote learning for the first week of the winter quarter due to growing concerns about the rapidly spreading omicron variant.
The university told students, staff and faculty that most classes will be held online Jan. 3-9 as they continue to track the spread of new infections.
“A week of primarily online classes will help minimize disruptions caused by the omicron variant and enable more people to receive a vaccination booster prior to in-person classes,” said a Tuesday message from UW President Ana Mari Cauce and Provost and Executive Vice President Mark Richards.
UW, the letter stated, is “committed” to a return to in-person education on Jan. 10, but will adjust plans as necessary. The university said it will continue to monitor factors like hospital capacity, disruptions to support services like K-12 schools and child care facilities, as well as potential changes to local, state and federal policy.
UW spokesperson Victor Balta said Tuesday the university’s medical experts are confident classroom transmission will remain low due to the university’s high vaccination rate, mask policies and other safety measures.
Clinical instruction and research will continue in person, and facilities like housing and libraries will remain operational and open during work hours. Some lab courses may also have an in-person option during the first week.
UW also encouraged students, staff and faculty members to seek a booster dose as soon as possible and said the university will align its vaccine requirement with any change the state might make regarding boosters.
The additional week will also allow people to monitor for symptoms and test after traveling and gathering during the holidays.
“We recognize the news in recent days — and even this announcement — may spark both concern and a sense of déjà vu,” the announcement stated.
UW spent all of the 2020-21 school year online as the pandemic persisted — flaring up in multiple outbreaks linked to the school’s Greek Row parties. In October 2020, the Interfraternity Council, a student-run body governing fraternities, suspended one fraternity and put another on probation for flouting new rules.
Students had just returned to in-person learning for the first time since the pandemic began this fall.
Associate professor David Ziff at the UW School of Law said he was not surprised by the university’s decision after seeing other universities adopt similar measures. Schools across the U.S. are altering plans for the new semester in the face of the new variant, including DePaul, Harvard and Stanford universities.
“I’m numb and flexible at this point,” Ziff said Tuesday.
Cases are surging in many parts of the country and on school campuses. Infections have increased 93% in King County in the last seven days, according to the county’s data dashboard. UW infections among students, staff and faculty have recently doubled from 50 to 101 between the week of Dec. 5 and the week of Dec. 12, according to the school’s coronavirus data dashboard. In the last 10 days, 105 COVID-19 cases have been recorded.
In a news briefing Tuesday morning, state health leaders urged eligible people to seek a booster shot “immediately” as omicron cases continue to increase statewide.
While it’s still too early to make broad projections about how quickly omicron will spread this winter and where in the state it’ll hit hardest, infections have been on the rise in the past few weeks, according to state epidemiologist Dr. Scott Lindquist.
The news brought some relief to assistant professor Amelia Wirts in the Philosophy Department at UW. Starting in January, she is slated to start teaching an entry-level class to about 150 undergraduates.
While students have been diligent about getting vaccinated and wearing masks, those measures may not be enough against the omicron variant, she said.
Josephine Ensign, a professor at UW’s School of Nursing, said she anticipates and hopes online learning will be extended past the initial week. Next quarter, she is scheduled to teach health policy to 120 registered nurses, including those who will work in hospitals.
Between the shortage of frontline workers and burnout, Ensign said she was worried even before omicron about her students potentially having to take time off from work if exposed.
“I’ve been through this now for two years. I know how to teach effectively online,” she said.
Seattle Times staff reporter Elise Takahama contributed to this report.