This month marks a full year since the COVID-19 pandemic upended higher education and forced Caltech to stop most on-campus operations and move to remote instruction. However, thanks to increasing rates of vaccination and a more promising public health situation on the horizon, the Institute has announced plans that will slowly allow more individuals to return to campus—first primarily through an increase in numbers in research laboratories and then through summer research programs—in anticipation of students resuming on-campus living and learning in the fall.
Caltech president Thomas F. Rosenbaum and a group of senior leaders looked back on the Institute's response to COVID-19 and outlined plans for a measured return to campus during a Zoom town hall meeting on March 24. "I look forward to seeing all of you back on campus," said Rosenbaum, the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. "It will be a progression, but it will be a welcome change. I want to thank everyone for all they've done to let Caltech thrive, even in the most difficult circumstances you can imagine."
Vice President for Student Affairs Kevin Gilmartin noted that in preparation for each new term this academic year, Caltech outlined plans for undergraduates to return to campus residential learning but that guidelines in Los Angeles County have prevented those proposals from coming to fruition. Now, though, public health trends and vaccination efforts indicate a likely return to campus for the fall. "I want to say to our students that your presence here is very much missed," said Gilmartin, the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English and Allen V.C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair for Student Affairs. "This pandemic experience has brought home to us the importance of everything you bring to our research and learning community. Your energy, your intelligence, your creativity are very much a part of what we do."
A fall return to campus will begin with a limited reopening this spring and summer. With the start of the spring term, undergraduate students living in the Pasadena area will be able to reserve indoor music practice rooms, spring student-athletes may resume some outdoor training activities, and research labs will soon expand their allowed capacity. Summer will provide a crucial opportunity to stage a limited reopening of the residence halls, Gilmartin said. Caltech plans to provide scaled-down in-person versions of longstanding residential research programs including the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF) and WAVE Fellows programs. In partnership with the Caltech's Center for Diversity and Inclusion, Student Affairs will also offer dedicated programming and support to incoming students through the Freshman Summer Research Institute (FSRI) and Graduate Student Research Institute (GSRI). Then, in accordance with evolving public health guidelines, the Institute will prepare to welcome all undergraduates back to campus in the fall.
The 2021 commencement ceremony will remain a virtual event, Gilmartin said. This decision was made because public health rules would prevent the Institute from welcoming the full community back to campus in June. However, Caltech is planning a fall 2021 in-person celebration to honor not only this year's graduates but also those who completed their degrees in 2020. "While the timing and details are still in the works, the event will be open to friends and family, and we'll include the traditional hooding ceremony for our PhD degree recipients and an opportunity for all students to walk across the stage and be recognized in the presence of the gathered Caltech community," he said.
More on-campus research activities will soon resume as well, said Provost David Tirrell, the Ross McCollum-William H. Corcoran Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. Caltech has received permission from the City of Pasadena to expand research labs and facilities from 25 percent capacity to 50 percent, which will happen as soon as Caltech's divisions complete guidelines for a safe return. To make that research expansion possible, more Caltech staff will return to campus in the coming months, though staff members who can continue to complete their work from home will continue to do so for the time being.
Caltech's reopening plans depend upon not only the prevalence of COVID-19 cases across the community and Los Angeles County but also ongoing vaccination efforts. Tirrell noted that the Institute vaccinated 1,100 people during an on-campus clinic offered in collaboration with Vons Pharmacy on March 19. While the COVID vaccination is not yet a requirement for returning to campus, Tirrell said that could change when all populations are eligible to receive the vaccine. Tirrell and other Caltech leaders stressed the importance of vaccination for all students, faculty, and staff, and the importance of providing the Institute with an updated vaccination status to help advance plans for a safe, measured return to campus.
"Our understanding of the extent of vaccination across the Caltech community, including our undergraduate students, is going to be critical to our effective planning in the weeks and months to come," Gilmartin said.
Margo Steurbaut, vice president of administration and chief financial officer, said the past year brought unprecedented challenges to the Caltech community. "For most of us, our fulltime jobs did not go away," she said. "In fact, the pandemic has made them harder. Numerous people assumed additional duties throughout this challenging time." During this difficult year in which the community's health and safety took priority, Caltech successfully converted the majority of classes to an online format and continued its research program.
Rosenbaum agreed, pointing out a few of the positives that emerged from a most unusual year. The use of remote learning and teaching technologies, for example, creates the opportunity for a hybrid model of instruction, research, and work that draws from the best of virtual and in-person experiences.
"None of us wants to be totally virtual," he said. "The interactions between students, between faculty and students, and between colleagues sitting down over a cup of coffee is enormously valuable. However, we've demonstrated now that we can also reach across the world effectively. I've given lectures in the last couple of months to audiences in Trieste and in Seoul, South Korea without leaving my living room, which has been great. Those sorts of abilities are actually to be prized and to be built upon."