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Virtual Town Hall Addresses Return to Campus, Community Concerns

On Wednesday, May 13, President Thomas F. Rosenbaum and Provost David A. Tirrell convened a virtual town hall to update the community on the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on campus and on Caltech's plans and planning for the resumption of activities.

The online panel discussion, which drew more than 1,600 members of the Caltech community, also included Jennifer Howes, executive director of student wellness services; Jim Cowell, associate vice president for facilities; Kaushik Bhattacharya, vice provost; and Julia McCallin, associate vice president for human resources, who all helped address community questions submitted in advance.

Rosenbaum called the turnout "a wonderful statement on the engagement of the Caltech community," then turned to questions about a return to campus.

"The resumption of activities on campus will not occur all at once," he noted. "It will progress through stages, with research activity slated to resume first in a modulated form."

"We are committed to basing our decisions on data and to doing all we can to mitigate risk," he added.

Tirrell expanded on Rosenbaum's statement, and said that the reopening of the Institute will be "a reengagement of the campus; not a single event," and emphasized that there is as yet no specific timeline for that reengagement. He then described the five planning committees convened to help guide the campus's executive policy group in its decisions regarding resumption of activities: a research committee, chaired by Bhattacharya; a committee on instruction, chaired by Stacey Scoville, administrator to the provost, that engages staff from student affairs as well as faculty members and others; a testing subgroup to investigate short- and long-term testing options for the community, chaired by Rustem Ismagilov, the Ethel Wilson Bowles and Robert Bowles Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering; a workplace resumption committee, led by McCallin, to address human resources and legal aspects of the reoccupation of campus; and a student affairs planning group led by Dimitris Sakellariou, assistant vice president for student affairs operations.

Howes spoke about health monitoring options for those returning to campus and noted that this is a "critical component of our overall risk mitigation strategy, not only for the campus community, but also as we think about our community members staying safe in their own environments." She said the Institute is exploring ways to use smart thermometers and symptom tracking apps that could be integrated into the monitoring strategies, and to secure a point of care testing system that would "enable us to quickly test anyone who presented or became ill while at work or in residence."

Howes also discussed resource issues related to frequent COVID-19 testing of the campus community; noted that more research is needed "to understand how specific and sensitive" the 12 different FDA-approved antibody tests might be, and whether they will be recommended for the Caltech community; and talked about contact tracing for those who have tested positive for COVID-19.

In response to questions about individual risk mitigation efforts, especially the use of face coverings, Cowell explained that campus policy requires each person to act in accordance with the county orders and thus mandates cloth or other face coverings for all people in campus buildings, in addition to recommended risk reduction protocols such as physical distancing and handwashing.

"To facilitate this," Cowell said, "Caltech will provide two reusable cloth face coverings as an initial outfitting for each person on the campus." Caltech will also provide disposable single-use face coverings for visitors and community members who may not have a face covering with them.

In addition, Cowell noted, the Institute will follow CDC guidelines for workspace disinfection, and will assess the HVAC systems of all buildings to maximize the amount of outside air circulated in those structures that are not already ventilated with 100 percent outside air.

Bhattacharya addressed questions about strategies to keep population density low, particularly in laboratory spaces. "We are asking every research group to look at what is relevant to their scientific needs and to create schedules that balance epidemiological information with scientific needs," he said.

McCallin followed with a more general review of the recommendations and factors under consideration for the return to onsite offices, and reiterated that the process will be staged, and slow. "Many of you can probably expect to continue to telecommute if you are able to do that now," she said.

Rosenbaum then addressed a number of community questions related to the decision timeline for fall term academic instruction. "We will make a decision about the shape of the fall quarter as soon as we have enough certainty about the public health situation, but no later than the beginning of July," said Rosenbaum, calling this "the hardest part of thinking about full resumption of activities, because of the nature of the residential experience, especially the close living quarters in undergraduate residences."

To close the meeting, Tirrell thanked the community for "a remarkably effective response" to the COVID-19 crisis, a sentiment Rosenbaum had expressed as well, earlier in the meeting.

"We have pulled together to keep the Institute moving forward," Rosenbaum said, "even as the whirlwind of the coronavirus pandemic has altered our lives and often increased our burdens. I am proud of how we have supported each other as a community and how our COVID-19 research on campus and at JPL will help the world."

Although the hour-long format did not allow for all questions and concerns to be addressed, an expanded FAQ on Caltech's return to campus will be posted on shortly, and updated as the situation and plans evolve. A transcript of the town hall is also available.

Written by Jon Nalick