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U.S. Colleges Returning to Online Learning As Increase in Omicron Cases Cancels Campus Life

U.S. Colleges Returning to Online Learning As Increase in Omicron Cases Cancels Campus Life

With COVID-19 cases surging just as students are about to return from winter break, dozens of U.S. colleges are moving classes online again for at least the first week or so of the semester — and some warn it could stretch longer if the wave of infection doesn’t subside soon.

Harvard is moving classes online for the first three weeks of the new year, with a return to campus scheduled for late January, “conditions permitting.” The University of Chicago is delaying the beginning of its new term and holding the first two weeks online. Some others are inviting students back to campus but starting classes online, including Michigan State University.

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Many colleges hope that an extra week or two will get them past the peak of the nationwide spike driven by the highly contagious omicron variant. Still, the surge is casting uncertainty over a semester many had hoped would be the closest to normal since the start of the pandemic.

So far, more than 70 colleges across 26 states are starting the term online, and others say they are considering it. Many making the move now use quarter systems that start earlier than those with semesters. Many of those shifting online are in recent virus hot spots, including George Washington, Yale, and Columbia on the East Coast, along with Wayne State University in Detroit and Northwestern University near Chicago. The list also includes most of the University of California campuses and Rice University in Houston. At the University of California, Riverside, students can return on Monday but face two weeks of online classes. They are also being asked to sequester for five days while they undergo two rounds of virus testing.

Some other colleges are delaying the new term without offering remote classes. Syracuse University pushed its semester back a week, citing projections that the first three weeks of January will be “the most challenging of this surge.”

Still, other schools are pressing ahead with in-person learning, saying the health risks are low with masks and booster shots. At Northeastern University in Boston, one of a growing number of schools requiring boosters, students are returning as planned. Officials said the school is shifting its focus from preventing all cases to warding off serious illness or hospitalization.

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