Delayed Starts & Booster Mandates: A Mixed B-School Response To The ‘Omicron Semester’

Had it been a more typical semester, students at Rice University would have likely spent much of Saturday (January 22) inside, discussing business trends and issues with their instructor and a full room of classmates. That’s the way it was starting to look at the end of last fall, as the business school started returning to more pre-pandemic operations.

And it’s how Peter Rodriguez, dean of Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business, feels it best fulfills its promise to its students.

“We believe, based on our experience, that the quality of the learning experience is much higher when you have the ability to dialogue about issues in business, especially those around leadership decisions and strategy. You can’t quite accomplish that in the same way online,” Rodriguez tells Poets&Quants.

“It’s also true that, over a long period of time, the connections amongst students are weaker if we can’t be in person. And that diminishes the experience.”

Peter Rodriguez Rice Jones Dean

Peter Rodriguez

A FOCUS ON MANAGING, NOT CONTAINING, THE VIRUS 

But January was anything but normal for Rice and business schools around the country – even by pandemic standards. Omicron, the latest variant of the Coronavirus, is magnitudes more contagious than Delta which was magnitudes more contagious than any other previous variant.

It hit business schools fast and hard, just as they were preparing to welcome students from around the country back to their campuses after winter break. Rice reverted back to remote learning for the first two weeks of the spring semester, before resuming in-person classes today (January 24.) The hope was to give omicron a chance to burn itself out while the school prepared to enter a new stage of Coronavirus response: One that focused more on management than on avoidance or containment.

“With the requirements we have in place now, we feel much more comfortable being able to ensure a safe campus,” Rodriguez says. “Therefore, we’re probably going to be a little bit more lenient about mask requirements and capacity constraints than we have been in the past …  Based on what we see and based on the advice we’ve gotten from medical experts and the Texas Medical Center, we think the second half of February will look much more normal. We hope that by then we are back to doing more in-person activities and back to delivering classes in a way that we think works best.

“My gauge is that the university is ready, for the most part, to treat COVID more as a management issue and something we will live with rather than something we will try to avoid.”

THE OMICRON SEMESTER

Despite hopes that they’d be returning to pre-pandemic modes of operation, business schools this month are navigating a slippery return to campus in omicron’s explosive spread. Students are testing positive at a higher rate than any other time during the pandemic and sparking clustered breakouts on campuses.

Harvard University, for example, reported 970 new infections the first week of January, even before the full student population had reported back to campus. Its case count was 140 the first week after Thanksgiving. Duke University, home of the Fuqua School of Business, reported 714 positives and a 4.5% positivity rate its first week of testing while Northwestern University, home of the Kellogg School of Management, had 936 positives – nearly half of those were undergrad students (439) while another 351 were graduate students.

A student wears a surgical mask in a classroom at Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Business.

A student wears a surgical mask in a classroom at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business. (Courtesy photo)

In response, business schools, following the lead of their home universities, responded in one of three ways: They delayed their spring start dates, moved instruction online temporarily, or charged ahead with in-person learning as scheduled, relying on ramped up testing and a re-commitment to masking indoors.

Last week, Poets&Quants examined the semester or quarter plans of the top 25 business schools to see how they were responding to the “omicron semester.” Most (but not all) now require vaccines and 19 require booster shots. Almost all require masks indoors. We found that four schools delayed their semester or quarter start dates while 19 moved instruction online for a set period of time. Seven schools resumed in-person instruction as scheduled. (See table below and on page 2).

One thing seems clear: Even as schools ramped up their responses for this omicron surge, there is a change coming in how schools deal with coronavirus: One focused more on management, rather than containment.


Next page: Delayed starts and online pivots in omicron response

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