Welcome to the spring semester! I hope that everyone despite the disruptions and challenges of COVID has had some time since the end of last semester to relax, reflect and recharge. I deeply appreciate the work that all of you have done to support our university and students in the last year. From my conversations with students, I know that they were very happy to be on campus and learn in person last semester. The success of last fall was a demonstration of the resilience and creativity of the Lehigh community as we focused on what are essential aspects of higher education.
As we begin the spring semester in this new year, the current spike from the omicron variant of COVID-19 is presenting a different set of challenges. Omicron has spread rapidly in our community and across the country. However, due in part to high vaccination and booster rates, serious complications have been less common than might be expected. That said, COVID is still a significant concern. Across the country, as university communities have re-gathered for the spring semester, positivity rates and case counts have been extremely high, which we cannot ignore. Given what we see elsewhere, we expect that about 10% of Lehigh students will test positive upon arriving on campus. Recent messages to campus have described how we are adapting our testing, isolation, quarantine and contact tracing approaches to reflect the most recent changes in the nature of the pandemic and the guidance we receive from health experts.
To reduce the disruptions associated with what we expect to be high case counts in the early part of the semester, we have shifted most instruction to be online for the first week, and we continue to have policies in place to prevent the spread of the virus on campus, including the requirement of masks in all public spaces. If we are mindful of our mutual safety in the next few weeks as students arrive and gather we can expect that case counts will decline later in the semester, allowing us to relax restrictions and enjoy a more normal campus environment. Faculty, please work with students as you have in the past to be sure that they can continue to make progress academically even when they test positive and need to isolate. Students must have confidence staying home when they are sick will not impede their academic progress and will, in fact, help ensure our ability to continue in-person activities throughout the spring.
Like last semester, we have created a dashboard that tracks the number of students in every class who test positive. If more than 30% of students in your class test positive, you can shift to remote instruction until cases fall below this threshold. If you do make a shift, you must inform your students, your chair and your dean’s office of this change. When students request any change in deadlines or indicate that they missed class due to being in isolation, you may choose to ask them to provide documentation in the form of the notification of their positive test that they received from the Health and Wellness Center. We have changed the duration of required isolation to 5 days, per CDC guidance, which should reduce the disruption that students experience in their academic work.
Please continue to be mindful of your own health. More than 40 faculty or staff have reported testing positive for COVID since January 1st, and I am sure that there will continue to be more cases this spring. If you test positive, contact Christine Wolfe (at 610-861-8080 ext. 23504 or Christine.Wolfe@lvhn.org) to report your results and get information about contact tracing and isolation procedures. Testing will be available for faculty and staff as it was last semester, and instructions were sent on January 14th describing how anyone covered by Lehigh’s health insurance can get free at-home rapid antigen tests.
I know that members of our community are experiencing a wide range of emotions right now. People are tired of dealing with the risks of COVID, and at the same time are tired of the restrictions and want to move on to leading a normal life. Despite our frustrations, we must continue to protect the most vulnerable among us, including those at high risk of serious illness from COVID and families with young children who are not yet eligible to be vaccinated. Our approach has been a balancing act, trying to adjust and reduce risk while at the same time trying, when possible, to get some things back to “normal” and do the things we love doing. I am aware that, for our dedicated faculty and staff, providing our students with an exceptional Lehigh experience is one of those things. Thank you, as always, for your hard work and commitment to making this possible.