Could the Omicron Variant Cause Colleges and Graduate Schools to Go Fully Remote Again?

12/21/2021 Update

An update on Omicron after recently speaking with more people, in both the medical and senior university administrator perspectives.

It would seem much more possible, because of the contagious and vaccine-avoidant properties of Omicron — one study shows that antibodies in vaccinated people are about 40 times worse at neutralizing Omicron than the original virus — that both universities and graduate schools could go remote. Additionally, as one university administrator pointed out to us, the age group of most university students largely didn't get vaccinated until August, meaning that as things stand right now they cannot get the booster until February/March. We very well might see a number of colleges go fully remote until that date. This is now the most prominent discussion point at both colleges and graduate schools, and will continue to be so until decisions are made.

In respect to law schools, every law school is not just monitoring the data, but likely what other law schools are doing. So if one law school decides to go remote for a period of time we would expect a number of others to follow. For law school admitted student programs, my best guess is that those will be fully remote at many law schools, unless Omicron sweeps through at such an incredible rate that it essentially burns out by February, which is a possible scenario.

We will keep trying to find out more as colleges and graduate schools make decisions.


Original post

As scientists race to unravel how serious of a global health concern the Omicron variant is, a rash of media attention has us now being asked, "Could Omicron lead to colleges and graduate schools going fully remote?" Let's look at the possibilities from what we know so far.

What is Omicron?

Omicron is a mutated variant of the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Mutations occur quite frequently, but mostly are of little concern because they do not demonstrably alter the virus such that it avoids the growing body of preventive and therapeutic interventions. Omicron, however, is different, and representative of a significant enough mutation, much like Delta, to become both widespread and of concern. As of yesterday, Monday, November 29, the World Health Organization stated that the global risk posed by the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus was “very high.” This is because of the high number of mutations — up to 32 variations in the spike protein — which, per the WHO, means “there could be future surges of Covid-19, which could have severe consequences.”

Could this severity cause colleges and graduate schools to go remote?

While possible, at this state it would seem very unlikely, and there are several reasons for this.

  1. Political will for "lockdown-like" measures is at its lowest since the COVID-19 pandemic began. This includes colleges and graduate schools, where formerly hyper-cautious schools are now balancing student desire to be in person and stakeholder push for the same. Fiscal concerns for colleges will now come into even larger play in this decision-making, and that would largely tip toward in-person, barring a worst-case scenario.
  2. Vaccines are now available. While we may be a week or two away from knowing how preventive the current vaccines are against Omicron, the early best stabs from the medical community are twofold positive: (1) they should have at least some net efficacy in preventing transmission, and (2) even if not, the fact that they have been developed already means tweaks to the current vaccines for boosters would be rapid.
  3. Therapeutics continue to get better. Monoclonal antibodies and Fluvoxamine (an SSRI) have proven to work and reduce the duration and severity of symptoms. An oral anti-viral also appears to be coming soon that shows even more promising effectiveness from the early data. What this means is that the Omicron variant would not only have to evade the vaccine, but also highly developed treatments. So far there is no reason to believe this would happen in a 1-2 punch.
  4. Severity of illness in the college/graduate school age group remains low. While we do not know yet, evolutionary virology trends would lead one's best guess to be that the virus would continue to mutate to be more contagious but with less severe mortality. A virus wants to spread but not kill the host; classically the common cold does just this. Omicron may very well be more contagious and replace Delta as the dominant strain, but cause less severe health outcomes.

What is the worst case?

At this stage, it seems very unlikely, but if Omicron were to fully be able to slip through vaccinated individuals and therapeutics, and produce more severe health consequences, yes, colleges/graduate schools now have the ability to nimbly go remote. But for the above reasons and from the experts we have heard from, this is not what most expect. Certainly vulnerable populations of students, staff, and faculty may have more leeway in opting to go remote, but that same choice will likely exist for students to stay on campus and in the classroom. And we will know much more in just a few weeks.

-Mike Spivey