At town hall, Yale leaders address student questions about semester ahead
Yale President Peter Salovey and fellow Yale leaders answered student questions about COVID-19’s impact on the spring semester at a Jan. 20 virtual town hall, emphasizing a theme: thoughtful actions now can minimize disruptions in the coming months.
In December, public health concerns stemming from the omicron wave of the COVID-19 pandemic led Yale to delay the start of the spring semester by one week, until Jan. 25, and to shift classes online for two weeks, through Feb. 4. The university also updated health and safety measures, requiring a vaccine booster shot for students who are eligible, for example.
With thousands of students returning to campus in the weeks ahead — and some Yale College and graduate students already back in New Haven as of Jan. 14 — many had questions about how classes, student life, and research activities will resume.
Joining Salovey at the town hall event, which was hosted by the Yale College Council (YCC), were Dr. Stephanie Spangler, vice provost for health affairs; Marvin Chun, dean of Yale College; Melanie Boyd, Yale College dean of student affairs; Dr. Madeline Wilson, chief quality officer of Yale Health; and Dr. Sandy Bogucki, professor emeritus of emergency medicine at Yale School of Medicine.
The group fielded more than a dozen questions students submitted in advance or during the event. YCC health and safety director Jordi Bertrán Ramírez and YCC senator Michael Ndubisi moderated the event.
“The goal of this is not to add to the anxiety of COVID-19, but to clarify many of the issues that we have been facing,” Bertrán Ramírez said.
Student questions cut across all aspects of campus life during the COVID-19 pandemic: requirements for vaccine booster shots and masking; mental health resources for students; policies for gatherings, dining, sports activities and musical performances; and the prospects for an in-person commencement in the spring.
Salovey explained Yale’s rationale for delaying the start of the spring semester and having classes begin online. He said the delay — and the staggering of students’ return — helped mitigate the public health threat posed by the highly contagious omicron variant, both to the campus community and the surrounding New Haven community.
The president said the strategy is working so far, with COVID-19 positivity rates on campus recently dropping from more than 10% to about 3% and indications that the omicron wave may have crested in Connecticut.
“I thought this was a small sacrifice to produce a better outcome for the rest of the semester,” Salovey said. “The new cases we’re seeing for people here are already decreasing.”
He also said preliminary plans are being made, pending a change in the course of the pandemic, to hold in-person commencement ceremonies in May for both the class of 2022 and the class of 2020 — which was unable to have an in-person commencement.
Chun addressed the importance of providing mental health resources to students throughout the semester. He pointed both to mental health resources provided by Yale Health and to the relatively new Yale College Community Care Program, which provides further mental health and wellness resources.
“The most important thing I can do for your mental health is to do everything I can to restore in-person learning and campus life, with dining halls open and extracurricular activities, and of course [for you to] be able to engage in student seminars, labs, and all the activities you’re here at Yale for,” Chun said.
He also explained that while faculty members have been urged to record their lectures all semester, there are no plans to offer online classes beyond Feb. 7.
Spangler, the university’s COVID-19 coordinator, answered questions about booster shots and vaccination.
She noted that booster shots re-establish a person’s immunity level in the face of the COVID-19 virus. The booster also substantially improves a person’s protection against hospitalization and serious illness from the virus, reduces the time that a breakthrough infection might last, and reduces the amount of time a student would need to be in isolation after being infected, she said.
“Our overarching intention is to have meaningful interactions on campus,” Spangler said.
Boyd offered information about Yale’s suggestion that students returning to campus choose take-out options at local restaurants, rather than in-person dining. She noted that indoor dining — as well as dining in a crowded outdoor space — creates a greater risk for infection both for students and for the larger New Haven community.
There were several questions devoted to public health guidelines surrounding the performing arts, sports, and student gatherings.
Bogucki said student gatherings will require pre-approval until Feb. 21. She also noted that policies surrounding sports activities and performing arts activities are varied, depending on the specific activity involved. Another factor in allowing such activities is whether or not they will be supervised by a faculty or staff member, she said.
Chun noted that more residential college common spaces should re-open to students as COVID-19 infection rates continue to decrease.
Boyd told students that re-opening the dining halls “is the next priority” for campus officials. But at the moment, she said, there is no hard date for when the dining halls will re-open.
The final question during the virtual town hall was about building community at Yale in 2022. What can students do to help make that happen?
Boyd smiled at this question. “This is what’s so impressive about Yale students,” she said. “I watch you all of the time, making connections, building communities, doing it digitally, doing it in real life. … You all are really great at connecting with each other. It is one of the many, many things we love about you.”