Returning to In-Person Classes Next Week, Flexibility and a Look Ahead

January 25, 2022

Dear Students, Faculty and Staff,

As the end of the month approaches, I am writing to affirm that Seattle University will resume in-person instruction for most programs on Monday, Jan. 31. 

Our decision to remain remote until Jan. 30 was based on two factors: uncertainty about the nature and trajectory of the Omicron variant and a desire to limit the disruption of our students’ educational experience during what promised to be a wave of infections unlike any we had yet seen during the two years of this pandemic. When we decided on Jan. 3 to delay our return to in-person instruction, we were experiencing a rapid increase in COVID cases among members of our campus community as well as in the broader Seattle community. During the first two weeks of the new year, we saw more positive cases among Seattle University students, faculty and staff than we had during the entire fall quarter.

Today, as we had expected and hoped would be the case, the number of cases within our university community has dropped to manageable levels and continues to decline. And, while the Omicron variant is still very much with us in the wider Seattle community, its rate of transmission in King County is also rapidly declining. According to data from the King County Department of Health, new COVID infections are down nearly 40% over the past seven days, and hospitalizations are down 10% over the same period.  The worst of the Omicron wave seems to be behind us, and we expect that decline will be even more pronounced by this time next week.

I know that these past few weeks have not been easy for anyone. I am deeply grateful to all our students, faculty and staff for adapting to these changing circumstances during the first few weeks of this term. I am particularly grateful to those who have been on the front lines serving our campus community, during these past few weeks and throughout the pandemic. 

For some of us, the extension of online learning has been a source of frustration and anxiety. For some of us, this transition back to in-person instruction will be unsettling. I have heard from all of you. One thing we have learned during COVID is that we all experience this pandemic differently. Members of our diverse community have different needs and risks. As we return to in-person instruction, we will work to accommodate you and to protect the most vulnerable among us.

With that in mind, let me share a few details on this transition and some thoughts on how I see our university responding to COVID as we look a bit further out. But first a brief word on the beginning of this academic term.

The Return to In-Person Learning on Jan. 31

As was true of our decision to offer virtual instruction through this week, the available data is informing our decision to return to primarily in-person classes next Monday. Some graduate-level programs will remain virtual. Exceptions to this return to in-person instruction will be determined on an individual basis in consultation with deans and the Office of the Provost, and the mode of instruction will be communicated to students by the faculty member.

Keeping Each Other in Mind

Our continued commitment to being a fully vaccinated campus is our best defense against the virus and a big part of the reason we are able to return to in-person instruction. We expect that members of the campus community will be up to date on their vaccinations by getting a booster vaccination as soon as they become eligible. Boosters are highly effective against severe illness from the Omicron variant.

We also know that face coverings, particularly well-fitting, high-quality masks are crucial to reducing the spread of the virus. In anticipation of next week’s transition to in-person learning, the university is working to expand its supply of ASTM-rated surgical (or procedure) masks as well as KN95s, with priority for the latter given to those members of our campus community whose roles put them at a heightened risk for exposure. More information on this will be shared later in the week.

With 80 percent of our undergraduate students currently on-campus and the expectation that our residence halls will be near capacity within the week, testing continues to be another key component of our COVID response. All students in traditional residence halls are currently required to test weekly. Students in on-campus apartment-style housing are encouraged to test weekly. All students are required to have a COVID test prior to return to campus, ideally within 72 hours and submit their results no later than Feb. 4.

In addition to surveillance testing, diagnostic testing remains important. Community members should test if they are experiencing symptoms or have a known close contact. In addition to test kits now being covered by health insurance, tests are also available at no cost from the federal government and the Washington State Department of Health. (We understand that the DOH’s inventory of test kits is currently out of stock, but more will be available soon.)

Maintaining Flexibility in Accommodations Important

This pandemic, while touching us all, is impacting each one of us differently. Transitioning back to a more fully in-person educational and campus experience, while embraced by many, may create new complications and anxieties for some. Please be especially mindful of those who are struggling and in need of support and bring the same spirit of flexibility that so many showed this fall to the weeks ahead as we work through the tail end of Omicron.

As we return to the fall’s previously approved flex-work plans, staff supervisors are encouraged to work with staff on creative ways to balance the commitment we make to our students with work arrangements that contribute to their wellbeing. HR is always a resource, but staff and supervisors are encouraged to work cooperatively on these plans. Staff are encouraged to reach out to your division leader or dean if you feel your health-related circumstances are not being reasonably addressed.

Looking Ahead

As our experience of COVID enters a new phase, we are beginning to hear public health experts change their orientation from managing a “pandemic” to living with an “endemic” virus. As a campus community we have the know-how, the experience and the will to adapt to the virus in all its forms and phases. If we continue to chart our course with equal measures of scientific rigor and reasonable flexibility, we will be able to overcome whatever COVID (or any other public health challenge) may throw our way.

Once again, thank you for caring for one another and for being a part of this remarkable university community. I look forward to the remaining weeks of this academic term and to seeing you again in person soon.


Eduardo M. Peñalver