Over the past month—as public health restrictions around COVID-19 have eased in response to decreases in infections, hospitalizations, and deaths as well as increases in community vaccination rates—Caltech has been able to begin gradually expanding on-campus operations and activities, starting primarily with in-person research. If current trends continue, the Institute expects to further increase laboratory density and expand access to performing arts and athletic facilities before moving toward reopening on-campus residences to undergraduates participating in summer research programs. The Institute is preparing for a full return of the residential learning experience in the fall.
[Please note that, for the time being, the Institute still requires that all employees who can work remotely continue to do so.]
In order to ensure a safe environment for those students, staff, and faculty who may be returning to campus for the first time since last March, the Institute has implemented a number of safeguards. These include regular COVID screenings; reduced and restricted dining options; and guidelines for social distancing, the use of face covers, and other preventative hygiene measures.
Jennifer Howes, assistant vice president for student affairs and wellness, says Institute officials have worked closely with the Pasadena Public Health Department to review these reopening protocols.
"Our approach has prioritized a deliberate, and in some cases more conservative, move to increased operations to ensure we are able to sustainably return the community to engagement with campus services and activities," she says. "From the surveillance testing program to supporting vaccination clinics, prioritizing outdoor dining, and promoting mitigation measures across the Institute, we look forward to welcoming members of the community back to campus."
All members of the community who report to campus are required to adhere to all preventative health measures, which include maintaining a minimum of 6 feet of distance from individuals outside of your household, wearing a face covering, and regularly washing your hands with soap and water for a minimum of 20 seconds or using hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. Those who report to work or otherwise access campus facilities are required to participate in surveillance testing, attest to their health, report all locations visited, and log close campus contacts for every day they are on campus or at a Caltech-managed offsite facility, all through the COVID-19 Web Reporting Application.
Lauriane Quenee, campus biosafety officer, says that because divisions, labs, and business units operate in unique ways, division leaders, lab directors, and supervisors will develop and implement their own plans and communicate them to their employees: "Caltech employees should communicate directly with their supervisors to understand the specifics of their operations at Caltech moving forward."
Student Wellness Services is providing a critical component of the campus risk mitigation plan by offering two types of COVID-19 tests, each available free of charge to members of the community as part of an ongoing effort to proactively screen for and mitigate the risks of infection within the Caltech community.
The first form of testing is available for symptomatic individuals or those known to have been exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The second form of testing the campus has implemented is a mandatory screening of all asymptomatic individuals who report to campus or access campus facilities. This includes all faculty, staff, postdoctoral scholars, and students working on campus, regardless of their vaccination status. Learn more here.
Other campus facilities, including Dining Services and the Athletic Center, have reworked their physical spaces and procedures to prepare for a larger number of patrons.
Jaime Reyes, director of Dining Services, says the Red Door Marketplace and Chandler Café are now open for take-out, with multiple changes designed "to provide a safe environment for people coming into our buildings."
To that end, masks are required, patron capacity has been reduced to 25 percent, markers on the floor every 6 feet help maintain social distancing, hand-sanitizing stations have been added, and new signs designate traffic flow to minimize personal interactions. Moreover, self-service is curtailed, all food orders are provided in to-go containers, and staff at the registers are protected by Plexiglass shields.
As of April 15, the Braun Athletic Center is allowing only those students and employees who are working on campus (and their households) to use the facilities by appointment only. Available outdoor activities include swimming, tennis, and basketball, with exercise bikes and other fitness equipment available in tented areas. Limited-enrollment group fitness classes are available under the tent as well. Limited indoor options are also available, including cardio equipment and weight rooms (by appointment and with limits on the number of users at any time).
Certain restrictions are in force, with no locker-room use, towel service, or drinking fountains, although water filling stations are available. Masks must be worn indoors, and new traffic flow patterns, marked by signs, must be observed.
Betsy Mitchell, director of athletics, physical education and recreation, says that if the new procedures prove successful, the center should be able to reopen to all members by appointment on May 1, regardless of whether they are working on campus regularly.
Also beginning on May 1, Performing and Visual Arts (PVA) spaces including the Music House, Frautschi Hall, Ramo Auditorium, and the TACIT House, will reopen for students under instructor supervision. Students must remain at least 10 feet apart and may not share equipment. The spaces will be sanitized after each use. View the Music House protocol.
John Onderdonk, interim associate vice president for facilities, notes that custodial services are continuing under strict campus COVID standards implemented at the beginning of the pandemic and that the Institute is following City of Pasadena reopening protocols. All building HVAC systems have been running continuously with air filters have been upgraded to the highest filtration levels compatible with existing systems. In new buildings and renovations, air handling units are equipped with ultraviolet lighting to sterilize airborne microbes.
Additionally, campus technicians have been optimizing the introduction of outside air in HVAC systems, measuring air flow in about 700 research, education and residential spaces across campus to help inform occupancy levels [See related story: Measuring Ventilation to Quantify COVID-19 Risk]. Also, on-demand ventilation controls and ventilation schedules have been disabled to increase air flow.
Students, staff and faculty say they are happy to regain access to the campus after a long stretch at home.
Nayla Abney, a senior in chemical engineering and member of the women's soccer team, says, "This whole year has effectively been online, and not what I envisioned for my senior year. When I got the email that we had in-person practices, I was happy to get a slice of normalcy in this weird year. To be able to practice with my team for these last few weeks has given me something to treasure."