COVID-19 Report

View a PDF copy of the report.

Findings on Caltech’s COVID-19 Response

August 31, 2020

Authors  Affiliations
Fayth Tan Graduate Student Council (GSC) Board of Directors (BoD); Chair of GSC COVID-19 Response Subcommittee; Caltech for Affordable Healthcare (CAH)
Krystal Vasquez Founder of the Caltech Disability Coalition; GSC COVID-19 Response Subcommittee; CAH
Lev Tsypin GSC COVID-19 Response Subcommittee; CAH
Group Endorsements
Caltech for Affordable Healthcare (CAH)
Graduate Student Council (GSC) Board of Directors (BoD)
Individual Endorsements Affiliations
Dawna Bagherian GSC Vice-Chair 2018-19; Founder of Chen Institute Women in Neuroscience; Socialists of Caltech (SoC); CAH
Ashay Patel PMA Student Advisory Board Vice-Chair; SoC; CAH; GSC Health Co-Chair
Jane Panangaden SoC; CAH; GSC BoD
David Miller G4 in BBE
Oliver Stephenson GSC BoD
Cora Went GSC BoD; Cofounder of Women in PMA; CAH
Tamara Pico Postdoctoral Scholar, GPS
Ana Moiseyenko G2 in BBE
Charles Xu SoC; CAH
Charles Guan GSC Advocacy Chair
Jonathan Michelsen GSC BoD
Kevin Mei GSC BoD
Justin Ngheim G2 in GPS
Katherine Rinaldi G6 in Chemistry; GSC Strategic Communications Chair; CAH
Aaron Markowitz SoC
Bryce Hickam G3 in CCE
Sophie Hourihane G1 in Physics

Interactive Table of Contents

1 Executive Summary

2 Introduction

2.1 Caltech for Affordable Healthcare

2.2 SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19

2.3 COVID-19 and and a timeline of Caltech’s response

2.4 Successes of Student Activism in Shaping Caltech’s COVID-19 response

3 Matters of Equity and Accessibility in Reopening Decisions

3.1 Anonymous reporting for violations

3.2 Provisions for vulnerable members of the community

3.3 Coercive and irresponsible institutional measures

3.4 Pandemic-related financial support

3.5 Childcare

3.6 Accessible remote instruction and TA responsibilities

4 Examination of Information and Policies Provided by Caltech

4.1 May 13, 2020 town hall

4.1.1 Testing

4.1.2 Shutting down campus

4.1.3 Local health guidance

4.1.4 Issues of pressure to return to campus

4.2 May 21, 2020 reopening guidance

4.2.1 Lack of coordination for safety plans at the lab, building and divisional level

4.2.2 Air handling within the building

4.2.3 Emergency plan

4.2.4 Communications at a building level

4.2.5 Informal solutions for resolving researchers’ concerns about returning to campus

4.2.6 Gradual reopening process

4.3 July 20, 2020 town hall

4.3.1 Testing and quarantine

4.3.2 Graduate laboratory rotations

4.3.3 Post-town hall questions

5 Needed Information and Policies

5.1 Committee and task force reports

5.2 Committee responsibilities and roles

5.3 Testing and quarantining of domestic travelers

5.4 Resources available for employees

5.5 Criteria for in-person courses

5.6 Contingency plan for campus shut downs

5.7 Expectations and support for matriculating graduate students

5.8 Undergraduate RA responsibilities

5.9 Plan for instructors, TAs, or RAs getting sick

5.10 Expectation for reporting and enforcing hygiene policies

5.11 Undergraduate research activity

6 Caltech’s response relative to that of other institutions

6.1 Testing for COVID-19

6.1.1 Testing upon request

6.1.2 Testing upon request, regardless of symptoms

6.1.3 Re-entry Testing

6.1.4 Regular surveillance testing

6.2 Scientific rationale for COVID-19 response decisions

6.2.1 Preventing outbreaks on campus

6.2.2 Scientific disease modeling

6.2.3 Quantitative thresholds for further action

7 Calls for Action and Conclusion

7.1 Call for transparency

7.2 Call for policies

7.3 Call for representation

7.4 Conclusion

Appendix A: Open Communications

Appendix B: Caltech Faculty and Administrative Committees

Testing Working Group

Training and Information Strategies

Committee on Reconstituting On-Campus Research

Committee on Reconstituting On-Campus Instruction

Infectious Disease Task Group (members unknown)

COVID-19 Working Group

1 Executive Summary

The purpose of this report, and of the other open letters and initiatives spearheaded by members of Caltech for Affordable Healthcare, is to center the safety and interests of the most vulnerable members of our community, including the chronically ill and disabled among us. We understand that if we fail to earn broad support for our work, we will fail the very people for whom we are advocating. In this spirit, we make an attempt below to compile a comprehensive account of Caltech’s COVID-19 response, our assessment of the policies, guidances, and statements that have been issued to date, and of our proposals for how to proceed given our situation.

We appreciate and acknowledge the multifarious challenges that the pandemic has brought: hiring freezes create a contracting academic job market that puts extra pressure on senior graduate students and postdocs; grant renewals demand data; tenure clocks tick on; political machinations both undermine public health responses and the stability of international researchers’ lives in the US; COVID-19 threatens the most vulnerable members of our community and is known to bring about chronic illness in people who did not have pre-existing health conditions; the Institute has its own budgetary goals and priorities that it seeks to defend against potential economic downturns. It is natural that every group on campus has its own primary motivations and concerns, but these do not have to stand in contradiction to each other. In the pages below, we hope to candidly show how these interests can be aligned to allow Caltech to emerge as a healthier institution on the other side of this pandemic.

The logic that motivates this report can be summarized as follows:

  1. The safety of high-risk members of our community should inform all policy decisions and guidelines. They are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and COVID-19 may cause chronic illnesses in people who do not currently have pre-existing health conditions.
  2. Caltech (then named Throop College) failed to prevent students from contracting the Spanish Flu in 1918-1919 (four undergraduates died), and Caltech’s current policies and degree of transparency are not sufficient to prevent this from happening again to members of our community.
  3. COVID-19-related planning and policies should be informed by all affected parties, and particularly disabled and chronically ill students, which will enable the Institute’s strategy to be representative of the community’s interests. Much of our advocacy and proposals have been dismissed by the administration as something that they have already been discussing. If this is true, it demonstrates that student work on this front is valid and that the administration shouldn’t be conducting these discussions behind closed doors, as this wastes everyone’s time.
  4. While in-person instruction has been prohibited by LA County and California Departments of Public Health for the Fall term, it is not clear what provisions will be in place for the Winter and Spring. We assert that we need to take the time that we have now to establish safe and equitable policies in anticipation of the possibility that there will be in-person instruction while the pandemic persists.
  5. When campus shut down in March, labs that were able to show that their research was related to SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19 were deemed essential and continued their work. By the same logic, student work in evaluating and assisting in Caltech’s COVID-19 response should be considered essential and officially welcomed. In this way, students who have no real way to continue their research would have a formal way to contribute to Caltech and their programs at this time.

We acknowledge that there are many people on campus actively working on COVID-19 response. Because a lot of that work has not been made publicly available or accessible, we can only examine the limited information that we have been provided. As such, we would be glad to be shown evidence that the state of Caltech’s COVID-19 response is better than we have found it to be. Based on the information available to us, however, we believe that returning to campus for non-essential in-person activity is not safe. The infection rates (locally, nationally, and globally), combined with the lack of comprehensive administrative transparency and response plans, result in a hazardous working environment. We believe that the information and policies that have been provided by Caltech’s administration do not meet the levels of public transparency or compliance to public health policy that would be sufficient to prevent a SARS-CoV-2 outbreak on campus. As such, we assert that the presence of students, staff, or faculty on campus is not a tacit release of the Institute from its responsibility to maintain and ensure our safety. Consequently, we believe that no further or additional steps toward reopening should be taken by the institute until the issues we raise below are resolved and that steps already taken should be rapidly reversed if and when there is evidence of an imminent outbreak.

The sections below cover our understanding and analysis of Caltech’s COVID-19 response on the different scales of our community. We provide an account of how the collective action of the student body has already had success in catalyzing improvements in Caltech’s pandemic response and practices. We state our position on core matters of equity and accessibility. We then detail the information and policies that Caltech has released, and at which points we find them insufficient. We go on to describe policies and information that we believe Caltech is missing, and which would be necessary for a safe reopening. Next, we discuss how Caltech’s response compares to the standards of other institutions. Finally, we draw a roadmap for further student action. We believe that if Caltech were to address the inadequacies of its COVID-19 response that we have identified, then it may become possible to advise a further return to in-person activities. To summarize our findings in brief, we believe that the Caltech administration:

  • Has not sufficiently considered matters of equity and accessibility in its reopening plans

    • Our proposals include: a well-publicized and committed system for anonymously reporting violations; no requirement for medical documentation or disclosure to prove disability, chronic illness, or high-risk status; direct consultation with members of our community who identify as disabled or at high risk for COVID-19; no waivers that would relieve Caltech from responsibility; and no assumption that an individual’s presence on campus is a tacit consent to increased risk of infection; provisions for caregivers in need of childcare; clarification of TA responsibilities in ensuring that online course materials are ADA Title II compliant, including the necessary training and compensation for this additional labor
  • Has not communicated transparently or demonstrated evidence-based policy-making

    • Our proposals include: releasing reports from all established task groups; publicizing epidemiological models used in policy implementation; opening consultations with public health experts that include representatives of all members of our community (this could include meetings with the Pasadena Public Health department and public-facing epidemiologists); committing to regular meetings between the administration, faculty, and students; clear statements of steps and recourse for students who decline in-person activity for concern for their safety or that of people they live with
  • Has not sufficiently adhered to commitments it made in its May 13th COVID-19 town hall or the recommendations of the Committee on Reconstituting On-Campus Research

  • Has provided insufficient guidance regarding procedures for domestic travelers

    • Our proposals include: a quarantine policy for all travelers across state boundaries, as well as for those travelers who change residences via public modes of transportation across regional boundaries, coupled with broad and frequent testing
  • Has not provided enough information regarding how instructional and residential policies will be determined for upcoming terms, including Winter and Spring, which may yet have in-person instruction

  • Has not provided sufficiently concrete criteria for the determination of in-person courses for future terms (e.g., Winter and Spring) while the pandemic persists

    • Our proposals include: strategies for equitable decisions regarding which courses are taught in-person; a requirement that all in-person courses have an option to participate in a concurrent online version
  • Has not provided contingency plans for emergency campus shut downs

    • Our proposals include: concrete communication policies including how the information will be distributed on the Institute, Division, Option, and building levels.
  • Has not provided sufficient guidance regarding expectations for incoming students, particularly international students

    • Our proposals include: providing an accessible database of available rotation projects; further clarification of expectations of degree progress for matriculating students

We discuss all these points and others. We consider reopening campus to any greater extent without addressing all of these issues unconscionable. We consider proceeding with the current status quo not sufficient to prevent an outbreak or to ensure safety and equity for the most vulnerable members of our community.

2 Introduction

2.1 Caltech for Affordable Healthcare

Caltech for Affordable Healthcare (CAH) is a graduate student-led organization, comprising a broad cross-section of campus by division and cohort. CAH was established out of the Socialists of Caltech (SoC) in response to the Caltech administration announcing that graduate student health insurance premiums were increasing and coverage was decreasing, effective the upcoming academic year. CAH succeeded in securing several concessions from the administration: specifically, in response to the GSC and CAH’s activism, there will be no decrease in the number of fully-covered mental health visits and no increase in copay for office visits, both of which had been recommended by either Human Resources or the Faculty Health Committee. In the course of this and continuing advocacy, CAH has partnered with other student organizations on campus, most notably the Black Scientists and Engineers of Caltech (BSEC), SoC, and the Graduate Student Council (GSC). In the context of the pandemic, CAH has taken an autonomous role under the purview of the GSC health subcommittee.

2.2 SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19

SARS-CoV-2 is the novel coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19. It is highly contagious, spreading primarily through expelled droplets during breathing, speech, sneezing, and coughing and secondarily via contaminated surfaces. SARS-CoV-2 can be spread by asymptomatic individuals. While young people are more likely to be asymptomatic, COVID-19 can lead to lasting and chronic disease beyond the period of active infection in all people. Severe cases of COVID-19 have been found to damage the lungs, heart, kidney, and brain. The factors that are associated with more severe infection and worse long-term outcomes include age, concurrent transient or chronic illness, disability, poverty, and race. Unlike for the seasonal flu, there are no current vaccines or antiviral medications available against SARS-CoV-2.

2.3 COVID-19 and and a timeline of Caltech’s response

When campus shut down on March 18th, the daily new COVID-19 cases in LA County averaged around 200. On April 23rd, the President and Provost of Caltech emailed a campus-wide notification that a graduate student had contracted COVID-19. In the same email, they noted that the community would receive future such notifications on the coronavirus.caltech.edu website and via the Caltech Ion newsletter. On May 13th, 2020, by which time the number of new daily cases in LA County had increased five-fold, the administration held its first (virtual) town hall. In it, the Provost addressed the considerations that Caltech had for reopening. Notably, he stated that the administration expected that the rate of infection would have declined by the time of the town hall, that the “evolution” of this rate “will figure prominently in any timeline” for reopening, and that reopening “will need to have in place adequate processes for testing our community, both symptomatic individuals and some degree of broader random sampling, so that we understand what the penetration of the virus has been in our community.”

On May 21, 2020, the Committee on Reconstituting On-Campus Research issued its report with recommendations. In it, they underscored that the resumption of research should comprise a series of reversible steps that could be taken back in response to worsening public health conditions. The next day, the President and Provost announced that the following weeks will lead to the first step in the phased return to on-campus research, following the recommendations of this report. On June 2nd, the President and Provost announced that the return to campus for non-essential work may begin, pursuant to specific lab plans approved by a cognizant departmental chair, a training video, and mandatory self-reporting of symptoms and activity. At that time, new daily cases remained steady.

On July 14th, 2020, by which time average new daily cases in LA County had risen to over 3000, the GSC subcommittee on COVID-19 response issued an open letter detailing Caltech’s insufficient communication and transparency after having learned that there had been seven new cases on campus that week. This prompted a response from the administration on July 16th: a new dashboard on coronavirus.caltech.edu, an opt-in email notification system, and the announcement of a town hall for July 20th. At the town hall the Executive Director of Student Wellness Services stated that Caltech plans “to test all incoming students upon their arrival.” She also stated that all students in Caltech housing who are traveling internationally will be required to quarantine for two weeks, either in their primary housing or in Caltech-designated rooms.

On July 27th, 2020, the GSC subcommittee on COVID-19 response issued an open letter detailing our concerns regarding movement in and out of the Catalina apartments, informed by reports from graduate students in Caltech housing. This again elicited a response in two days, consisting of a message from the Vice President of Student Affairs that was sent to us directly, in which he affirmed our concerns, and an email from the Housing Office to Catalina Apartments residents, which addressed the majority of points that we raised. On July 28th, the President and Provost wrote to the Caltech community and acknowledged “the sobering rise in the number of COVID-19 cases in LA County and across the nation.” On August 7th, California released its first COVID-19 Industry Guidance for Institutes of Higher Education (IHEs), states that:

  • IHEs should “”[p]rovide all staff opportunities for telework, and students opportunities for virtual learning, independent study and other options, as feasible, to minimize transmission risk;”
  • “Implementation of this guidance as part of a phased reopening will depend on local conditions including epidemiologic trends (such as new COVID-19 case and hospitalization rates consistently stable or decreasing over at least 14 days), availability of IHE and community testing resources, and adequate IHE preparedness and public health capacity to respond to case and outbreak investigations;”
  • “In counties on the State County Data Monitoring List for three consecutive days [this includes LA County], indoor gatherings are prohibited” for IHE-specific student activities.

On August 10th, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health issued an order that further precludes in-person instruction, stating that

[c]olleges and universities in Los Angeles County will not be able to resume all in-person academic instruction, at this time. Institutions may continue to offer in person training and instruction for essential workforce for required activities that cannot be accomplished through virtual learning. All other academic instruction must continue to be done via distance-learning.

Faculty and other staff may come to campus for the purpose of providing distance learning, and other activities related to the purposes above, as well as maintaining minimum basic operations. The institution must comply with all relevant portions of this protocol to maximize safety for all employees.

On August 13th, the President, Provost, Vice President of Student Affairs, and Dean of Undergraduate Students issued a statement announcing that fall instruction will be remote-only. While having no in-person instruction makes a lot of things simpler, with regards to the pandemic, there are still pressing issues that the institute must address. These range from ensuring that online instruction is ADA compliant to continuing to protect the health and safety of researchers on campus. It is therefore incumbent upon us to assess the adequacy of the aggregate policies that Caltech has in place right now, so that we may proceed into the Fall term from a place of transparency, clarity, and safety.

2.4 Successes of Student Activism in Shaping Caltech’s COVID-19 response

In the course of our advocacy on behalf of the Caltech community, prior to this report, we have received a pattern of several responses from the administration: broad announcements without acknowledgement of our work; emails to or meetings with our representatives in which we are told that the administration had been considering many of our stated concerns and proposals; private statements that the administration would prefer to engage with students on an individual basis regarding their situations; statements that because there are individuals or groups who disagree among the graduate student body, our input is invalid. It is notable, as we list below, that the substantive improvements in Caltech’s clarity, on the institutional level, in its COVID-19 response and policies have all been announced following our public voicing of student concerns. Taken together, these facts imply several things: 1) If the administration has indeed been considering the same concerns that we have been raising, this validates our ability to identify pressing problems and propose actionable solutions; 2) If we and the administration are considering the same issues, there is no need for the administration to do so behind closed doors; 3) If Caltech’s response follows our calls for change, then collective student advocacy is an effective tool on our campus. Thus, it is incumbent upon the student body to continue this work by acknowledging its successes, raising ongoing issues, and holding the administration accountable.

Open communications between the GSC and the administration are provided in Appendix A. So far, our advocacy has achieved or catalyzed: opt-in email notifications regarding new cases on campus, building-wide notifications with more information about new cases, corrections to inconsistent reporting on coronavirus.caltech.edu, the launch of the COVID-19 dashboard on coronavirus.caltech.edu, explicit move in/out instructions for the Catalina Apartments, and more regular communication from the administration to the campus community.

Notably, this report, even as an early draft, has been effective in bridging student and faculty perspectives and helped to formulate the new communication policies in BBE. This is a testament to the potential of students and faculty to come to a consensus and effect administrative change. We encourage this document to be used as a foundation for future collaborations between members of our community.

In the following two sections, we discuss the present information and policies that the administration has provided. We include proposals for how they should be improved in order to prevent outbreaks on campus.

3 Matters of Equity and Accessibility in Reopening Decisions

As it stands right now, Caltech’s institutional stance on returning to campus is framed as a personal decision, requiring individuals to balance risks and comfort. However, we urge Caltech to consider:

  1. The disparities in COVID-19 health outcomes, specifically amongst marginalized groups represented on campus (e.g. racial and ethnic minorities, socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, and those with disabilities and/or chronic health conditions),
  2. The inherent inequalities in our society that will allow some of us to proceed with on-campus research and learning, while others are forced to remain at home, and
  3. The deeply hierarchical system of academia that puts trainees in a vulnerable position to coercion.

Recent events have prompted the Caltech administration to consider the role of privilege and power in science, and we believe this is a good opportunity for them to make good on their promises and follow through by centering the interests of the most vulnerable members of our community in policies.

3.1 Anonymous reporting for violations

We believe that Caltech should acknowledge that there is an inherent power imbalance between faculty and their trainees. As such, trainees are vulnerable to coercion (regardless of intent) from faculty to return to the lab, violate safety protocols, or conduct experimental work at inappropriate hours. We trust that the administration understands that during the pandemic, this imbalance of power is also a public health risk. In response to concerns, Caltech has suggested, on multiple occasions, that graduate students should communicate related issues to members of their thesis committee. However, we believe that this process is not sufficient, especially if thesis committee members are also pushing or “encouraging” students to return to the lab. Furthermore, any system put in place requires a promise that meaningful action will be taken should anyone submit a complaint.

We understand that there are avenues through Human Resources and the Safety Office to report violations. At minimum, administration should formally publicize these avenues instead of encouraging trainees to communicate with faculty after many students have pointed out that they are not comfortable doing so. Furthermore, it will not be possible to trust the institutional system without guarantees that meaningful action will be taken should any of us pursue a complaint through these avenues.

3.2 Provisions for vulnerable members of the community

There is a rising concern that, as Caltech continues its phased reopening, students and employees who are at an increased risk for complications from COVID-19, or are the designated caretaker of someone who is, will feel pressured to disclose medical or familial information in order to continue remote work. Disclosing these types of information is, at the best of times, a risk-benefit analysis, where the risks often result in stigmatization and discrimination. The explicit or implicit expectation to disclose medical information is problematic for two main reasons: (1) Due to systemic inequalities in the US medical system, there are many barriers that prevent people from obtaining medical documentation ranging from clinical bias to financial barriers, and (2) there are likely many vulnerable members of our community that would consider themselves (or their family members) at increased risk despite falling outside of the CDC’s designated “high-risk” categories, including, but not limited to, those with undiagnosed medical conditions, mental health conditions, or accessibility needs that require frequent contact with surfaces or essential workers.

Because of the reasons stated above, organizations such as the Accessible Campus Action Alliance have released reports stating that “the most health and equity-centered approach is to allow online teaching with built-in accessibility features for all faculty and students,” which is echoed by the CDC’s stance that “virtual-only learning options, activities, and events” are considered the lowest risks to students, faculty and staff. We propose the following to ensure safety and equitable instruction and research for the Caltech community:

  1. Caltech should not require the disclosure of medical or familial information in order to qualify for remote participation in on-campus activities such as research or instruction. Caltech should issue a public statement clearly stating that those who feel unsafe returning to campus will not be required to participate in-person, regardless of having a medically documented condition;
  2. Caltech should consult directly with faculty, staff, and students who consider themselves disabled or at increased risk to COVID-19. It is not enough to only consult the Caltech Accessibility Services for Students (CASS) and corresponding offices for staff/faculty (HR DLAU and Provost), especially if communications with these offices are not transparent to the rest of the community.

3.3 Coercive and irresponsible institutional measures

As different institutions have attempted to reopen, they have come to realize that they cannot do so without the labor of their graduate students and staff. Despite misgivings and reluctance from the workers involved, universities have coerced and pressured students and staff into returning by leveraging their stipends and health insurance. In the case of Boston University, university policy asserted that student responsibilities such as teaching could not be completed remotely, and, as such, graduate students must return to campus or take a leave of absence, which would result in losing stipend support and insurance coverage. Using stipends and health insurance as leverage against already financially precarious graduate students to return to campus is unacceptable. We call on Caltech to decisively denounce these coercive and dangerous measures that would force us to choose between our safety and our livelihoods and health. We ask that Caltech live up to its promise to support the health and well-being of its community by:

  1. Guaranteeing stipend support for all continuing graduate students;
  2. Guaranteeing the extension of postdoctoral contracts or funding the remainder of expired contracts;
  3. Addressing the sudden rise of health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket expenses, including deductibles and maximums, particularly for individuals who require expensive medications and treatments.

Much institutional energy has also been spent trying to avoid legal responsibility in the case of a COVID-19 outbreak on campus. Some universities have already coerced returning students into signing liability waivers, attempting to argue that the school population was aware and therefore consented to the risks of returning to campus. Some university presidents have also lobbied Vice President Pence and Education Secretary DeVos to shield themselves from legal liability in the case of COVID-19 outbreak on campus. By doing so, university administrators acknowledge that opening campuses comes with the very real risk of increasing deaths and damage from COVID-19. By seeking to divest themselves of institutional responsibility, those universities have shown us where their true priorities lie. We ask that Caltech demonstrate that health and safety is truly its top priority by taking full responsibility for its community. In order to do so, Caltech must avoid irresponsible legal strategies by:

  • Refusing to support federal protections from legal liability
  • Rejecting legal waivers that would cause employees and trainees to forgo their right to pursue legal action against the institute
  • Not equating our presence on campus to our implicit agreement to accept the risk of infection

This is not an all-inclusive list.

3.4 Pandemic-related financial support

Graduate students, postdocs, and staff face increased financial pressure during the pandemic. This pressure affects both junior and senior positions due to factors including, but not limited to, rising cost of living, student loans, unanticipated travel expenses, and medical costs. This intersects with issues of health equity and power dynamics between supervisors/PIs and their workers/students and leads to a further risk of coercion. Caltech has the ability to assuage these concerns, thereby lending substantive support to the most vulnerable members of our community. We propose that Caltech:

  • Make the Emergency Fund more transparent by explicitly stating that it is not necessary to disclose personal medical information to apply and clarifying the per-student maximum funds available;
  • Keep the premium pass-through to students at its previous amount of $546 for the 2020-21 academic year to ensure that no member of the community will forgo medical treatment due to financial barriers.

3.5 Childcare

While campus reopens, many childcare facilities remain closed. The Children’s Center at Caltech has been repeatedly shut down after its own mini-outbreaks of COVID-19. Caltech should recognize that this disproportionately impacts the careers of caregivers, especially women. Institutional support to parents can be provided in the following ways:

  • Increase financial assistance through the Caltech Childcare Assistance Program, which could enable those with children to hire private caretakers and instructors
  • Organize small learning co-ops, so that “pods” of parents can take turns caring for and teaching children while others can have the opportunity to work
  • Organize a series of panels and discussions where parents can discuss how they have been balancing work and childcare

The most commonly reiterated sentiment amongst parents in the Caltech community, however, is a relatively simple ask: that there should be someone in Caltech administration or one of the relevant institute task forces actively and visibly working on this issue. This should include surveying what other institutions are doing to advocate for and support parents, as well as listening and acting on community feedback.

3.6 Accessible remote instruction and TA responsibilities

The majority of courses will be taught remotely for the first time this academic year. This poses many new challenges in course creation, and requires work that students are normally not tasked with, such as recording and editing lectures. Furthermore, it is critical that online instruction is accessible, at least to the standards of the ADA (Title II), including captioning, image descriptions, etc. TAs are not trained to uphold these standards, and we call on Caltech to compensate them for extra labor, place the responsibility on the faculty instructors, and/or require instructors to partner with the CTLO in order to accomplish this. This challenge is heightened due to the lack of clarity throughout the summer regarding how many and which courses will be taught remotely; course staff have not had sufficient time to adapt their materials. We expect that instruction will take much more work than in regular years and ask that the administration make it clear what the duties of TAs comprise, how they relate to the time they can commit to their other work, and the boundaries they are allowed to set to balance the competing commitments to teaching and research. We propose that instructors, faculty, and TAs be required to meet and agree prior to the start of the courses about the duties of the graduate students for the term. To ensure that the students are not coerced into an untenable amount of labor, we propose that a mediator from the CTLO or another person that the students select be present at the meeting.

4 Examination of Information and Policies Provided by Caltech

We hold Caltech to the highest standards of evidence-based policy-making and open communication, as these are core values of our institution and of the scientific endeavor in general. The information and policies that the Caltech administration has provided address some baseline questions, but are incomplete and do not stand up to rigorous assessment. These lapses are easy to identify and remedy, as we demonstrate below. Proceeding into the Fall without shoring up this guidance will be dangerous for our community.

In this section, every topic is followed by a summary of the institutional statement and then our analysis. The basic structure is:

Topic

  • Institutional statement

    • Analysis

4.1 May 13, 2020 town hall

4.1.1 Testing

  • There was a stated focus on procuring tests for symptomatic people, given the current constraints in public availability.

    • It took until Aug 6 for tests to be available to all symptomatic members of the Caltech community, not just students. While we understand that testing enough to reopen safely could be difficult due to shortages and delays, peer institutions implemented regular surveillance testing as part of their reopening strategy in a much shorter window of time.

      • LA County has one of the most persistently high rates of COVID-19 transmission in the country; testing should have been a greater focus in the plans to bring researchers back to campus.
  • The Executive Director of Student Wellness Services on entry testing: “This is not a panacea. And it tells us really only the status of those individuals on the day that they are tested.”

    • This echoes CDC guidelines around entry testing for institutes of higher learning.

      • Increasingly, it is clear that the CDC is vulnerable to political pressure. Internal guidance obtained by the New York Times from the CDC’s own experts suggests that university and school reopenings would be one of the highest risk cases for the spread of the coronavirus. However, this guidance has not been released.
      • CDC guidelines have also been described by multiple public health experts as insufficient to reopen safely.
  • There was an acknowledgement that some form of broader random sampling is needed in testing, but given the situation nationwide, testing at that scale is not available yet.

  • The Executive Director of Student Wellness Services mentioned procuring a point of care machine, exploring partnerships with local labs and establishing higher throughput lab capacity on campus.

    • Fulgent Genetics partnership was established as of Aug 6, but any further movement on regular testing is unclear.
  • In response to questions about asymptomatic testing and whether it is possible that campus community members are positive but asymptomatic, the Provost admitted that “It’s certainly true that we don’t know whether some of our community members might be carrying the virus unless we’ve tested them” and mentioned a “health monitoring system” to “sensitize all of us to our own health conditions.”

    • The health monitoring system materialized in the form of the Caltech managed web application for symptom tracking.

      • Symptom tracking, while one tool to help detect COVID-19, is not a substitute for regular surveillance testing, and should not be conflated with it.

4.1.2 Shutting down campus

  • The Executive Director of Student Wellness Services spoke about the rapid closure of campus in the Spring as a learning experiences, as “we will have some additional things in our toolbox that will help us respond” in the case of a future shutdown.

    • No details were given as to what those things might be, and this continues to be unclear at the end of August.

      • No mention was made of quantitative thresholds on campus or any metric of virus spread in the local community.

4.1.3 Local health guidance

  • Multiple panelists reassured the community that they will comply with state health department guidelines and work with local health authorities

    • While we appreciate this commitment to public health, we are not and have not been privy to the discussions that Caltech had with public health authorities.

      • In this town hall, there was a sentiment expressed that decision makers would not want to overwhelm the community with information.
      • However, we believe that information used to make decisions which involve the health and safety of our community should be made public, perhaps not in a mass email, but by publicly releasing meeting minutes on coronavirus.caltech.edu or posting summaries of the issues discussed at these meetings.

4.1.4 Issues of pressure to return to campus

  • To address issues of trainees feeling pressure to return to campus, the Provost suggested a “candid conversation with their supervisor” and acknowledged that not everyone may be comfortable doing so. Alternatives that were suggested amounted to going to “thesis committee members, your thesis committee chair, your option representative, and the division chair.”

    • While we appreciate the Provost’s acknowledgement that not everyone may be comfortable speaking directly to their supervisor, the alternatives presented involve the same complicated power dynamics. For example, trainees might fear that they are jeopardizing their careers by speaking out against their supervisor to their supervisor’s colleagues. This is why we are advocating for a third-party mediated solution for resolving these situations.

4.2 May 21, 2020 reopening guidance

4.2.1 Lack of coordination for safety plans at the lab, building and divisional level

  • The guidance states that “[e]very laboratory building manager/administrator should assess and develop a plan for the building including common spaces” and “[e]ach faculty member or laboratory leader should develop their own plans and standard operating procedures (SOPs).”

    • Most of the guidelines put forth are relatively vague, leaving individual labs to make plans.

      • There were no guidelines about how much input individual researchers should have in creating a lab operating plan—the GSC COVID-19 Response committee has received feedback that, while some plans were created in open discussion with the rest of the lab, some plans were unilaterally created by the PI without lab input.
      • There is also no formal mechanism for coordinating and sharing plans between labs. This is inadequate especially for open-plan buildings, as labs at least on the same floor should adhere to the same guidelines.
      • Different divisions implementing different measures without communicating with one another has led to a patchwork response. We believe that the COVID-19 response could be greatly strengthened institutionally if divisional guidelines were shared between divisions, not just within them.

4.2.2 Air handling within the building

  • The guidance explicitly calls for building managers and PIs to consider “air-handling capability within the building”.

    • While HVAC data is formally available for some buildings, this information has not been generally made available for most of the community, and some ventilation data proved to be unusable.

      • The most detailed information provided was at a floor level, while researchers are concerned about air flow at a room level.

4.2.3 Emergency plan

  • The document states the necessity of establishing “a continuity plan describing critical functions, evacuation, communication etc. in preparation for any emergency”.

    • Due to HVAC system malfunctions in multiple buildings, building managers have had to ask researchers to leave the building, yet this seems to have been done reactively, with no proactive plan released by the Institute.

      • Given the rolling power outages that have affected campus and may affect campus again, buildings should release evacuation and safety guidelines adapted to the pandemic situation as well.

4.2.4 Communications at a building level

  • The guidance recommends that within an individual building, “a robust communications plan” should be developed “so that all individuals working in a given building receive and read information in a timely manner”.

    • Based on multiple instances of confusion reported by individuals on campus, it is clear that the present communication plan is inconsistent across different divisions.

      • Reports of illness have been forwarded from the Director of Student Wellness Services to building managers and division chairs, who have then forwarded them to the relevant PIs.
      • However, due to the interdisciplinary nature of Caltech’s research, there are researchers who belong to one division, but work in a building(s) from another division. Inconsistencies between divisional and building mailing lists resulted in researchers not being informed about reports of illness at their workplace in a timely manner.
      • Cases at the Athenaeum and the childcare center were announced to whole campus, but building level information for researchers was not.
      • There needs to be a streamlined process of disseminating information, made public to the entire community, that is consistently adhered to, so that researchers trust that they are receiving the relevant information.
      • We have received reports of people trying to find out the identities of symptomatic individuals. We do not condone this behavior. We believe that it might stem, at least partially, from inconsistencies in communication (including previous reporting inconsistencies on coronavirus.caltech.edu), multiple forwarding steps in email chains, and a general climate of opaqueness around reporting illness. This has fostered paranoia and mistrust around institutional reporting practices. Transparency in reporting standards would go a long way in alleviating concerns and reduce invasive behavior.

4.2.5 Informal solutions for resolving researchers’ concerns about returning to campus

  • The guidance recommends that “[f]aculty members and laboratory leaders should engage in a dialogue with laboratory members without reservation or retribution about the safety measures in the laboratory”

  • Additional disputes should informally resolved by consulting with their Division Chair, Dean of Graduate Studies or Vice Provost for Research

    • This recommendation does not address the power imbalances inherent in trainees having these discussion with PIs or other faculty members.

      • Informal resolution is sometimes not sufficient, especially in situations of coercion.
      • The GSC COVID-19 Response committee has received multiple reports of people feeling coerced into returning to the lab, and even of individuals who felt as if they were being encouraged by their supervisors to break COVID-19 safety protocols. Some of these reports are anonymous; in others, respondents requested anonymity if their experiences were shared. If trainees are not comfortable discussing their experiences fully with their peers, they certainly would not be comfortable doing so with faculty or division chairs.
      • How will Caltech guarantee that trainees with concerns will not be subject to repercussions or backlash from their superiors?

4.2.6 Gradual reopening process

  • The report describes reopening as a “progression of reversible steps”

    • There are no concrete criteria for reversing the reopening process, rendering this guideline unenforceable.

      • There are also no clear guidelines for what these incremental steps are, beyond moving from only essential work to allowing some amount of on campus research to be performed.

4.3 July 20, 2020 town hall

Note: While much of this town hall deals with reopening campus to undergraduates and undergraduate instruction, we will not cover sections about these issues as LA County guidelines precluded the possibility of in-person instruction.

4.3.1 Testing and quarantine

  • The Executive Director of Student Wellness Services stated that all incoming students would be tested upon arrival, and that the Institute is in the process of acquiring a point-of-care machine.

  • With regards to quarantine, the Executive Director of Student Wellness Services stated that “[t]hose living off-campus should make appropriate arrangements to enable them to isolate if they become ill or quarantine if they’re exposed to illness” and that “[w]e encourage families to consider this need for these arrangements when making plans to live off-campus and in the surrounding community.”

    • While we are glad to have received confirmation that incoming graduate students will be tested, since this last communication to all of campus, there has been no update on regular testing (besides a July 28 announcement of a “pilot program” to test “several hundred employees with campus-based responsibilities that require interaction with other members of the community”. This occurred at the same time as Caltech reported 7 positive cases in 14 days. To provide context on the severity of the situation, California Department of Public Health guidelines state that “If more than five students, faculty, or staff on a campus test positive for COVID-19, the campus administrator should consult with local public health officials for guidance on closing the campus.”

      • In terms of quarantine and isolation, many researchers live in shared accommodations off-campus. This is due to the high cost of living in Pasadena, as the average rent for an apartment is around $2500, while a monthly graduate student or postdoctoral salary is around $3000 – $4500 a month. Researchers, especially those with families, encourage Caltech to consider the fact that the decision to live in housing where family members cannot effectively isolate is due to financial pressures, not their lack of foresight. If Caltech wishes to ensure that workers on campus are able to safely isolate without putting themselves in financial jeopardy, the Institute should, either through the emergency fund or other means, cover costs needed for members of the Caltech community to isolate in hotel rooms or other temporary accommodations if and when the need arises.

4.3.2 Graduate laboratory rotations

  • In terms of information given about graduate rotations, the Dean of Graduate Studies stated that “We are working with these options to determine what may be accommodated given limitations on laboratory density and our current health and safety protocols.”

    • While we are glad to hear that active discussions are taking place, given limited density and distancing measures, there should be basic safety measures published for labs to adhere to when training new graduate students if they are performing research on campus.

4.3.3 Post-town hall questions

  • In the initial email sent out to announce the community town hall, it was stated that questions not addressed during the town hall would be addressed later online.

    • While it seems that some questions submitted were later responded to, some question submissions never received a response.

      • The criteria for which questions were answered after the town hall are unclear.
      • The questions that were answered received replies on an individual basis by email, and those answers were never publicized.

5 Needed Information and Policies

The vacuum of missing information looms beyond the shortcomings of the guidelines and policies that the Caltech administration has provided. If the administration wishes us to support the resumption of in-person activity on campus, we require that they address each of the lapses in their policy-making that we detail below.

5.1 Committee and task force reports

Caltech has created at least five COVID-19 response committees, but only one of them has publicly issued any of its findings. We call for the release of reports from all the committees, and particularly of the Testing Working Group and Infectious Disease Task Group. Right now, when new daily cases are rising and campuses nationwide prepare to reopen, it is essential to have broad testing, as the Committee on Reconstituting On-Campus Research had concluded in its May 21 report. The campus community needs to be informed about testing capacity and prospects in order to decide whether to take the next step in reopening. Without testing and with rising cases, the only reasonable course of action is to reverse the steps we have taken, as the Committee on Reconstituting On-Campus Research had recommended.

5.2 Committee responsibilities and roles

Much of the Caltech community has felt that the process has been relatively opaque, including many of the faculty we have consulted. This has led to confusion over who is responsible for coordinating the COVID-19 response, or specific aspects of COVID-19 response, on campus. Concerns and questions are therefore not brought to the relevant parties, and potentially never heard by those who could implement change. In the interest of transparency and clarity, we call on Caltech to release all the names of individuals who are serving or have served on any COVID-19 related task force, and to provide the rationale for choosing these people to serve on the task force. We believe that this information will provide needed context for the Institute’s decisions, and more clearly demonstrate the reasoning behind the current response.

5.3 Testing and quarantining of domestic travelers

In the July 20th town hall, the Executive Director of Student Wellness Services stated that “[w]e plan to test all incoming students upon their arrival.” However, at the time of that statement, the turn-around for testing that Caltech provides is at least 10 days, which meant that domestic travelers would be free to work while not knowing their test results for almost a whole quarantine period. While the testing turnaround appears to have improved with the recent partnership with Fulgent, it remains the case that false negatives are very high and a two-week quarantine is a much more effective bulwark than an individual test. Caltech is now requiring that international travelers quarantine for 14 days upon arrival, and that all graduate students who will live in Caltech housing first quarantine for one week in undergraduate housing and one week in their permanent housing. This is a marked improvement over the July policy, and we urge Caltech to institute a quarantine policy for all travelers arriving on campus that cross state boundaries or use public transportation like airplanes/trains/buses to travel between regions of the state like counties, regardless of where they will be living or when they travel, unless it can provide a guarantee of frequent and broad testing that would overcome the rate of false negative results and issues with sensitivity.

5.4 Resources available for employees

We advocate for the health and safety of all members of our community. We do not know the training, benefits, and support that have been extended to all employees on campus, and we were not permitted to administer a campus-wide survey to ascertain this information. Since we do not know what has been provided, we ask Caltech to publicize their efforts and procedures on this front and make the following recommendations:

  • Provide COVID-19 specific training to all employees
  • Provide ample personal protective equipment to all employees
  • Provide employees hazard pay
  • Continue to pay employees their regular salary even if the pandemic prohibits them from working regular hours
  • Provide all employees clear information regarding where they can get COVID-19 testing
  • Explicitly state who pay for the testing and treatment if an employee is exposed to the virus on campus
  • Announce whether Caltech allows employees to quarantine or self-isolate for 14 days without repercussions to their job or income regardless of whether the employee has sufficient accrued sick days
  • Announce whether employees must use accrued sick or vacation days to stay home in response to the pandemic.

5.5 Criteria for in-person courses

While Fall instruction will be all online, Caltech has not provided a concrete policy for how it will determine which courses will be taught in person in future terms (e.g., Winter and Spring) during the pandemic. We propose that, barring broad and regular COVID-19 testing on campus, the only courses to be taught exclusively in-person must be: 1) necessary for a student to graduate this year, 2) impossible to teach remotely, and 3) able to be taught following strict adherence to public health guidelines. These three points cannot be judged unbiasedly by the primary course instructor, so we contend that the validity of these criteria be determined by consensus of all the teaching staff for the course and the chair of the affiliated department. We ask that the administration provide a clear agreement or disagreement (with explanation) regarding this policy.

Furthermore, we pose the following question: if a student is required to attend an in-person course and is either at high risk themselves or lives with someone who is at high risk, what recourse do they have to decline in-person attendance? Caltech should publicize the steps that such students have available to them, rather than take care of this question case-by-case. The institute should not require medical documentation or for the student to register with the Accessibility office.

5.6 Contingency plan for campus shut downs

There is a real possibility that campus will have to shut down again depending on the course of the pandemic. We urge Caltech to define what criteria would invoke a shut down. For effective communication, this will require concrete plans for how the shut down strategy will be communicated on the scales of the Institute, divisions, options, and buildings. If students are again asked to de-densify Caltech-owned housing and move, we ask that Caltech address how the costs of travel and moving will be paid and/or defrayed.

5.7 Expectations and support for matriculating graduate students

Different divisions have different expectations for first-year graduate students. For example, some divisions have rotations and some do not. Since rotations may not be feasible in all labs, the administration must provide clear guidance regarding what will be considered degree progress for all matriculating students. While each option has its own traditions, we believe that this guidance should stem from a coordinated cross-divisional strategy. This would help to prevent broad confusion among students from different programs who work in the same labs. To this end, we propose that Division chairs work directly with students to develop this strategy. For example, in the cases of options/divisions that use rotations, this policy must include a consideration of students who may not be able to complete their rotations in their first year, and what that means for required course work and candidacy. To enable students to select and plan for rotations, we recommend that division chairs require faculty to provide concrete lists of available rotation projects this academic year, and for these to be published online. This requirement would allow for clear communication between matriculating students and labs regarding potential rotations and their order.

5.8 Undergraduate RA responsibilities

Undergraduate presence on campus during the Fall term will be minimal, which allows us to plan for the following terms. If there is a possibility of resuming on-campus instruction prior to the end of the pandemic, there needs to be clear guidance in place regarding the responsibilities of URAs. The preemptive provision of such policies will reduce the risk of post-hoc blaming of students. As an example of a scenario that must be planned for: if students throw a party in their dorm, what is the responsibility of a URA? Is it to risk their own health by entering a room, where people may not be taking any social-distancing precautions, in order to prevent over-drinking? Or is it to their own safety, at the risk of the students? While Caltech has provided its policies regarding undergraduate health and hygiene, Caltech needs to clarify the roles of potential URAs in the context of these policies. Otherwise, they will not have enough time prior to the start of the Fall term to decide if they consent to the job.

5.9 Plan for instructors, TAs, or RAs getting sick

To our knowledge, there are no established plans for how Caltech will plan for when instructors, TAs, or RAs falling ill that are specific to COVID-19. We are aware that there are protocols for graduate RAs to cover for each other when they get sick during normal times, but it is not clear to us how well this corresponds to a pandemic. We believe that it is necessary for Caltech to compose and publish these policies to enable students, instructors, TAs, residents, and RAs to formulate contingencies for education, health, and safety on campus. We propose that every course and residence be required to provide a clear COVID-19-specific plan for what measures will be taken if an instructor, TA, or RA fall ill. This requirement should be enforced by the affiliated academic chair and dean of graduate students for courses and the residential life coordinator and dean of undergraduate studies for residences.

5.10 Expectation for reporting and enforcing hygiene policies

While the Office of Residential Experience (ORE) has provided its undergraduate and graduate health and hygiene policies, this document does not include sufficient information about reporting and enforcement. It is not clear who is responsible for identifying and reporting non-compliance to the policies. It is also not clear how equitably or systematically these policies will be enforced. We ask that ORE clarify and publicize these procedures on an accessible website. There are several points that merit further exposition: Who is expected to report instances of non-compliance, to whom, and using what platform(s)? Would this be anonymous? What burden of proof will be required to demonstrate non-compliance? Answers to these questions require a precise response and explanation.

5.11 Undergraduate research activity

Caltech has not provided any guidance regarding whether there is an expectation for undergraduates to pursue laboratory research if they return to campus during the pandemic in the Winter or Spring. In anticipation of changing policies, we ask that the administration make its planning on this matter clear and specify who has the authority to permit undergraduate research. We propose that this not be relegated to individual PIs, but be determined in coordination between all the lab members, the affiliated chair, and dean of undergraduate studies.

6 Caltech’s response relative to that of other institutions

6.1 Testing for COVID-19

In a recent study led by Caltech researchers who are on the student and faculty COVID-19 response committees, we assessed readiness of institutes of higher education (IHEs) to reopen based on how they are implementing testing programs on campus. We examined four aspects of IHE response strategies:

  1. If testing upon request was available on campus
  2. If requested testing was reserved for people who were symptomatic, or administered regardless of symptoms
  3. If returning members of the community were re-entry tested/tested upon arrival
  4. If regular surveillance testing was going to be carried out at all

6.1.1 Testing upon request

Caltech provides testing on campus through Student Wellness. Until the Aug 6 partnership with Fulgent Genetics, turnaround times were reportedly up to 12 days long. We understand that turnaround times now are 24h-48h. While we are glad that this partnership has accelerated results, it took 4 months to establish a rapid turnaround system.

6.1.2 Testing upon request, regardless of symptoms

For the second aspect, until August 6th, testing on campus had been reserved for symptomatic students and their close contacts (defined by the CDC as those within six feet of the individual for at least 15 minutes). After August 6th, testing upon request was extended to all symptomatic members of the community and their close contacts. However, asymptomatic testing is not yet available on campus, to our knowledge. Asymptomatic spread has been established as a driver of COVID-19 transmission, and testing of asymptomatic members in the community is necessary to prevent outbreaks.

6.1.3 Re-entry Testing

As for the third aspect, details regarding Caltech’s re-entry testing remain unclear. We are glad to know that arriving graduate students in the Catalina apartments will be tested, and hope that this practice will be extended to all researchers returning to campus. At the time of the release of our preprint at the beginning in August, Caltech was a statistical outlier (Figure 1), being the institution with the highest per-capita endowment with no concrete re-entry testing plan. We reiterate that we are glad to see that there was movement on this issue, but given that the arrival of some population of incoming students was all but certain, we hoped for more transparent planning and communication. Many students, particularly those in shared Catalina apartments, tried to get clarification around quarantine and entry testing without avail for months.

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Figure 1. Box-and-whisker plots comparing the per capita endowments at various institutes of higher education to their re-entry testing plans. Caltech is shown as an outlier with a very large per capita endowment and an unclear plan at the time of publication of the pre-print study.

Furthermore, other institutions have shown logistical unpreparedness even after having announced their re-entry testing plans well in advance. For example, despite stating that all students would be tested upon arrival, Cornell University’s execution of re-entry testing was far more disorganized than on paper. As of now, we are unaware of any contingency plans formulated by Caltech in anticipation of complications, such as incoming students missing testing appointments or having to find off-campus housing at short notice, given the current uncertainties of travel.

6.1.4 Regular surveillance testing

Regular surveillance testing is a question regularly brought up by members of our community and has been a central ask in the advocacy of the GSC’s COVID-19 Response Committee. We have seen virtually no updates on the status of regular surveillance testing on campus. This is despite the fact that the Caltech Childcare Center has already experienced multiple cases and announced that they would test all employees regularly as a result.

The implementation of regular, widespread testing is crucial for containing outbreaks on campus. Multiple public health experts (including Dr. Deborah Birx and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who are members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force) and a number of papers strongly advocate for the importance of surveillance testing, used in conjunction with other control measures, in preventing outbreaks on campuses and within their surrounding communities. (We note that we are already seeing outbreaks in some colleges that brought back undergraduates to campus.) The University of Southern California, after beginning to screen their community on a regular basis, has found 1 asymptomatic case for every 2 symptomatic cases (as of August 28, 73 symptomatic students and 31 asymptomatic cases were identified through USC’s testing program). While email notifications from the Executive Director of Student Wellness have continually reassured us that cases on campus are not connected and therefore do not constitute a cluster (defined as 5 or more related cases), the results from USC show that this claim cannot be reasonably supported without asymptomatic testing of the broader community.

6.2 Scientific rationale for COVID-19 response decisions

Guided by the list of questions posed by Prof. Carl T. Bergstrom of the University of Washington regarding a university’s response to the pandemic, we request more details regarding the scientific rationale behind decisions made by the Institute.

6.2.1 Preventing outbreaks on campus

First, it is apparent that Caltech’s current plan for testing does not meet scientific standards to keep R < 1. Research has established that every person on campus should be tested at a minimum of twice weekly, regardless of symptoms, to be able to detect cases early enough to prevent an outbreak. In comparing hundreds of institutions, we saw that our peers, such as Harvard and MIT—elite private universities like ours—are able to implement this strategy and are not resource-constrained in doing so. Even smaller institutions (e.g. Colby College and Middlebury College) and large public universities (e.g. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) have gone to great lengths to produce sufficient testing on campus. The President of North Dakota State University, having moved instruction online after only a week of in-person instruction, recently admitted that widespread surveillance testing was needed to contain outbreaks, and that using only symptomatic testing was not sufficient.

6.2.2 Scientific disease modeling

It is unclear which, if any, models the Infectious Disease Task Group or the Testing Working Group at Caltech are using to inform their recommendations. Other universities have publicized that they are using modelling to formalize their assumptions about campus reopenings. The University of California, San Diego, publicly released a preprint detailing the assumptions and parameters used in creating their model. Caltech has advertised student efforts to model COVID-19 case rates around the US, and so clearly recognizes the public and scientific value of using modeling to inform decisions during the pandemic. We urge the relevant decision makers on campus to commit to scientific transparency and release the relevant modeling that supports the guidelines currently used on campus.

6.2.3 Quantitative thresholds for further action

Due to the rapid response needed to effectively contain outbreaks of COVID-19, our first open letter called for publicly released thresholds at which Caltech would take response measures, whether on a building or campus-wide level. These thresholds have either not been set or communicated to the broader community.

At an institutional level, Middlebury College has set out such guidelines (Figure 2) during their reopening planning process, taking into account not only the campus situation but also the severity of the pandemic in the surrounding community.

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Figure 2. A sample table of the quantitative metrics that Middlebury College determined. The purpose of this table is to define conditions for different responses to the pandemic. These metrics include an analysis of both the campus and the surrounding community.

As campuses have reopened and seen rapid widespread transmission of COVID-19, New York State has become the first state to give quantitative guidelines for college-related closures. Colleges that see 100 infections, or have infections equivalent to 5% of their population, must close and move to entirely remote instruction for two weeks while the situation is assessed.

There are now statewide and institutional precedents for setting quantitative rubrics that define further actions in response to the pandemic. Broad reassurances from Caltech that administrators are monitoring the situation are not sufficient for us to feel secure in our health and safety. Caltech needs to publicly demonstrate the forms of risk assessment it is performing by releasing similar guidelines.

7 Calls for Action and Conclusion

7.1 Call for transparency

While we have been able to identify and study multiple facets of Caltech’s COVID-19 response, there remain many things that are opaque to non-administrative members of our community. Given the shortcomings we have identified in the published guidelines and policies, the lack of task force reports, information about employee support, and plans makes it impossible to trust that all of the health and safety interests of our community are adequately represented. While these things are missing, we cannot recommend a return for on-campus activities. Hence, we call upon Caltech to:

  • Release reports from all institute task forces and committees regarding COVID-19 response, research resumption, testing, and fall reopening
  • Provide the names of every person who served on any committees involved in the decision making in Caltech’s COVID response and the reasons for which these people were chosen to serve on those committees
  • Detail steps and recourse for students and TAs who decline or refuse in-person instruction for their safety in future terms (e.g., Winter and Spring)
  • Provide details of training, benefits, and support provided to all employees on campus
  • Provide a public database of all remote rotation projects available
  • Discuss building information and commit to reassessing buildings that do not have useful information available
  • Clarify privacy and report standards for campus notifications
  • Release of all policies sufficiently in advance to allow for informed consent on behalf of students, researchers, TAs, and RAs

7.2 Call for policies

Caltech has released a number of guidelines and policies, but we do not find them sufficiently detailed to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak on campus. The shortcomings range from quarantine requirements for travelers to explicitly defining the responsibilities of TAs and RAs to contingency planning for another campus shutdown.

We urge Caltech to implement the following policies:

  • Mandatory testing and quarantine of all travelers, domestic and international, who cross state boundaries or use public transit, such as airplanes, trains, or buses to travel across state regions like counties
  • Clear procedures for determining which courses will be taught in person in the case that students return to campus during the pandemic (e.g., in Winter or Spring)
  • Criteria for campus shutdowns
  • Plans for TAs, instructors, or RAs contracting COVID-19
  • Undergraduate research activity expectations in the case that students return to campus during the pandemic (e.g., in Winter or Spring)

We urge Caltech to clarify and expand upon the following policies and guidelines:

  • TA and RA responsibilities during the pandemic, including critical information regarding ADA compliance in online instruction
  • Reporting responsibility and burden-of-proof for non-compliance to health and hygiene policies
  • How student costs of a campus shutdown will be addressed
  • Publicize avenues to anonymously report violations and guarantee that meaningful action will be taken in response

7.3 Call for representation

Faculty and administrators have voiced the concern that, after a point, researchers run out of work to do remotely, that they cannot advise people to stay at home and do nothing. This is given in the context of the increasing danger of the pandemic, which requires policy adjustments more rapidly than standard faculty and administrative committees can provide. Concurrently, there is demonstrable evidence that students are able to identify pressing problems and propose actionable solutions. As we have argued, there is also a need for transparency in Caltech’s policy-making and enforcement. This points to a clear resolution: The administration should formally state that students researchers are allowed to work on COVID-19 response as a valid part of their jobs. When the campus shut down, labs that shifted their research to subjects relevant to SARS-CoV-2 were allowed to remain open, as this was determined to be essential work for our society. It only stands to reason that work toward addressing the pandemic on our campus is essential and should be supported at all levels of our institution.

We urge the Caltech administration to do the following:

  • Acknowledge the work and contributions that student organizations have made and the improvements that resulted from their activism
  • Commit to weekly meetings with the GSC subcommittee on COVID-19 response
  • Establish as a policy that researchers can direct their work toward on-campus COVID-19 response without repercussions for their stipends, degree progress, or contracts; this could be in the form of academic credits and/or paid positions analogous to TAships

7.4 Conclusion

Caltech faces a threat that it has not seen since the 1918 flu, during which three freshmen and one sophomore on the Throop College campus contracted H1N1 and passed away. Admitting the shortcomings of Caltech COVID-19 response is not a condemnation to the same, or worse, fate as 100 years ago; rather, it is a candid view of the challenges we face and a necessary step toward overcoming them. But this step must be followed by immediate commitments and actions in order to be meaningful. As members of this community who care about it deeply, we want to see Caltech proceed into the fall and winter in a way that leaves it a healthier institution. To this end, we know that collaboration between students, staff, faculty, and the administration is paramount. In this last section of our letter, we called for the transparency, policies, and representation we believe are necessary for us to construct a good path forward, and we described how they would enable us to address the concerns that have already been voiced by members of our community.

Caltech is an institution, and, at a time when many members of our community have lost faith in US institutions, it is not sufficient for the administration to convey its intentions and policies unidirectionally. It is simply not realistic for these communications to be well-received by the general student body. One example is the message of “silver linings”, which even when well-intentioned is dismissive of the realities of suffering on campus. It remains the case, however, that the administration is able to see much more of the “game board” and is better able to appreciate all the rapidly moving pieces than are individual students, faculty, and other staff. So long as we are given piecemeal information, trust will not be restored and residential life, instruction, and research in the fall will, at best, falter. At worst, members of our community will suffer long-term damage to their health and/or die preventable deaths.

The stresses of responding to the pandemic are very personal and exasperating for people at all levels of Caltech. It is understandable when administrators lose patience after having to answer to repeating or increasing demands. They are people who no longer represent only themselves as individuals; they also represent the institution. This means that, in addition to the weight they normally carry, they have the responsibility to rebuild community trust. This duty can plant the seeds of resentment, for example when an administrator feels personally challenged by advocates. This is why we should not be having antiparallel conversations between the administration and student groups or individuals. Rather, we need a direct and prolonged engagement between the administration and advocate organizations that represent the community and its trust. It is in this context that we urge both the administration and the student body to take stock of the inadequacies we have identified and calls for action we have made above. We hope that this document serves as a part of the foundation needed for constructing a healthy Caltech.

 

Appendix A: Open Communications

14 July: GSC COVID-19 Subcommittee sends first open letter to the Caltech administration regarding transparency of COVID-19 communications

16 July: The Executive Director of Student Wellness Services sends an email regarding the Tracking and Reporting of COVID-19 on campus. This communication discussed:

  • Tables and numbers for coronavirus.caltech.edu and whether the case was reported in the last 14 days
  • Opt in email notification for new cases
  • More detail regarding how contact tracing is being carried out
  • Testing: “Student Wellness Services collects specimens for students who are symptomatic or who are identified as close contacts; these specimens are processed offsite by LabCorp. We recognize that Caltech community members who are currently referred to testing resources through their private insurance, primary healthcare provider, and county testing sites are having difficulties accessing testing in a timely fashion.”
  • Second Town Hall regarding Fall reopening is announced for 20 July

27 July: The GSC COVID-19 Response and Advocacy Committees send their housing open letter to the Caltech administration regarding safety measures in the Cats

29 July: Update from the Dean of Graduate Students about remote matriculation and international students

29 July: The Vice President of Student Affairs replies to the GSC Chair and the GSC COVID-19 Response Subcommittee Chair

29 July: Email from graduate housing on safety protocols for departures and arrivals

Appendix B: Caltech Faculty and Administrative Committees

Testing Working Group

  • Grace Fisher-Adams, Director of Research Compliance
  • Ryan Eskin, Associate General Counsel
  • Jennifer Howes, Executive Director of Student Wellness Services
  • Rustem Ismagilov, Ethel Wilson Bowles and Robert Bowles Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering; Director of the Jacobs Institute for Molecular Engineering for Medicine

Training and Information Strategies

  • Elizabeth Callihan, Division Operations Officer
  • Shayna Chabner, Chief Comms Officer
  • Jennifer Howes, Executive Director of Student Wellness Services
  • Leslie Maxfield, Director, Academic Media Technologies and Communications
  • Lauriane Quenee, Campus Biosafety Office

Committee on Reconstituting On-Campus Research

  • Chair: Provost Kaushik Bhattacharya
  • Ralph Adolphs, HSS
  • Elizabeth Callihan, Division Operations Officer, CCE
  • John Eiler, GPS
  • Ryan Eskin, Associate General Counsel
  • Jennifer Howes, Executive Director, Student Wellness Services
  • Rustem Ismagilov, CCE
  • Jared Leadbetter, EAS/GPS, Chair, Institute Biosafety Committee
  • Karen Lencioni, Director, Office of Laboratory Animal Resources
  • Lauriane Quenee, Institute Biosafety Officer
  • Doug Rees, Dean of Graduate Studies
  • Ellen Rothenberg, BBE
  • Jonas Zmuidzinas, PMA

Committee on Reconstituting On-Campus Instruction

  • Chair: Stacey Scoville, Administrator to the Provost
  • Jin Chang, Chief Information Officer
  • Regina Colombo, Senior Assistant Administrator, Office of the Provost
  • Marionne Epalle, Division Operations Officer, EAS
  • Ali Hajimiri, EAS
  • Cassandra Horii, Director, Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach (CTLO)
  • Ron Kong, Associate Chief Information Officer
  • Leslie Maxfield, Director, Academic Media Technologies and Communications
  • Kate McAnulty, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies
  • Betsy Mitchell, Director of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation
  • Niles Pierce, BBE/EAS
  • Christy Salinas, Registrar
  • Jennifer Weaver, Associate Director for University Teaching, CTLO
  • Cindy Weinstein, Vice Provost, HSS
  • Kristin Weyman, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Students

Infectious Disease Task Group (members unknown)

COVID-19 Working Group

  • Chair: Barbara Wold, BBE
  • Dianne Newman, BBE/GPS
  • Pamela Bjorkman, BBE
  • Niles Pierce, BBE/EAS
  • Lior Pachter, BBE
  • Kai Zinn, BBE
  • Grace Fisher-Adams, Director, Office of Research Compliance
  • Jennifer Howes, Executive Director of Student Wellness services
  • Jost Vielmetter, BBE
  • Michael Elowitz, BBE
  • Mitchell Guttman, BBE
  • Andre Hoelz, CCE