Our Omicron Semester

Photos by Marc Campos and Sam Leigh

As variant surge subsides, Oxy springs forward with in-person activities

With some strategic adjustments to the academic calendar and testing and masking protocols in response to the surge of the Omicron variant of the COVID-19 virus, Oxy welcomed students back to campus in January for the start of spring semester.

The decision to delay the start of the semester by one week, until January 24, and hold the first week of classes remotely before resuming in-person instruction—announced by President Harry J. Elam, Jr. on January 6—appears to have been a sound one.

Kyle Dosa '22 and his teammates wore N-95 masks in a 96-60 rout of West Coast Baptist on January 3.
As expected with the highly transmissible Omicron variant, the number of positive cases among students, faculty, and staff increased in comparison to the small numbers seen last fall, says Marty Sharkey, vice president of communications and institutional initiatives and co-chair of the College’s COVID Operations Group. But Oxy’s campus positivity rate of 7.4 percent the first week of January had dropped to 2.2 percent by the week of January 29, he notes.

“Delaying the start of in-person classes and staggering the return of students, rather than bringing them back all at once, enabled us to better regulate campus density and to assess where the surge is heading,” Sharkey says. “We’re encouraged by the drop in case numbers we’re starting to see in Los Angeles County.”

As of January 29, new COVID cases countywide had declined 45 percent from the previous week, with a daily positivity rate of less than 10 percent and an almost 10 percent drop in hospitalizations, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.

Despite those encouraging numbers, there will be no change in the preventative measures in place at Oxy for the time being—including regular surveillance testing for faculty, staff, and students on campus and the mandatory use of masks while indoors. “Even with our 99 percent-plus vaccination rate and booster requirement, we can’t afford to let our guard down,” Sharkey says.

The College’s carefully calibrated approach, guided by the campuswide COVID Operating Group, reflects a shift in attitude toward the pandemic, based on the emergence of effective vaccines and the lessons learned during the 2020-21 academic year. “Rather than shutting down until the virus disappears, we will resume an in-person residential experience knowing that this return depends on developing flexible, safety-conscious, preventative measures of living responsibly with the realities of COVID,” Elam said in his January 6 message.

An example of that flexibility is the spring semester calendar. Even though classes began one week late, after a handful of small schedule changes, the semester will still have the same number of instructional days as originally planned. Spring athletic competitions are being held, with schedule changes in individual sports taking place dictated by specific circumstances. Music programs are moving ahead, utilizing classroom tents for practice and rehearsals.

“Our guiding principle is to support in-person instruction and activities this semester, and a safe and healthy environment for everyone,” Sharkey says.

More information about Oxy's pandemic response and COVID data can be found here

Top photo: Tigers outfielder Tom Stoodt '23 takes batting practice on Anderson Field on January 27.