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Howard University moves some classes online as coronavirus cases rise

University officials cited a desire to preserve in-person graduation

Howard University will move many of its classes online for the final weeks of the semester, officials announced this week. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Howard University will move many of its classes online for the final weeks of the semester, one of the more dramatic measures an area campus has taken in recent days to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The move follows an increase in the school’s positivity rate, which rose from 2 percent to roughly 5 percent over the past week, officials said in a message to the campus Wednesday. Leaders pointed to the BA.2 omicron subvariant, now the dominant strain of the virus in the United States, which has been shown in studies to be more transmissible than previous variants.

Undergraduate classes at Howard will be taught virtually until April 22, officials said. Students in lab courses will complete the final week of sessions as scheduled, with strict masking measures in place.

Students will also take their final exams online.

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Graduate and professional students, however, and those in fine arts programs, will continue their classwork in person, leaders added.

Howard’s residence halls will remain open through final exams, which are scheduled to end May 3. Officials are advising that social gatherings be held outdoors.

The decision to go virtual came, in part, from Howard’s desire to preserve its plans to hold in-person graduation events next month, Wayne A.I. Frederick, the university’s president, said Thursday during a scheduled address to the campus. The university held a socially distanced, in-person ceremony last year, but the event was open only to graduates.

This year’s ceremony is scheduled to take place May 7, with friends and families of the graduates in attendance. Academy Award-nominated actress and alumna Taraji P. Henson will deliver the commencement address.

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“I don’t want us to get into the last week of April with a high infection rate that may threaten having an in-person commencement,” Frederick said. “That’s why I’m taking the measure to go virtual now, so we can try to suppress the infection rate, especially among seniors.”

While the university has enforced an indoor mask mandate throughout the pandemic, the District ended its requirement March 1.

“Since D.C. raised the mask mandate, this was something that we were concerned about, in terms of the impact,” Frederick said. “The reality is that obviously we’re living in a city where we’re mobile, we’re going back and forth.”

The most recent round of testing on campus detected 211 positive cases, the highest caseload since a spike in January. Those sickened include 198 students and 13 faculty members, according to the most recent testing data which was collected between April 2 and 8.

Frederick on Thursday said there are now more than 200 students currently in some form of quarantine.

Georgetown, Johns Hopkins temporarily restore some covid measures

Howard’s decision to move some classes online harks back to the early days of the pandemic, when universities regularly pivoted between virtual and in-person learning as caseloads rose and fell. Schools have largely avoided the need to move classes online since the prevalence of coronavirus vaccines.

But rising caseloads throughout the Washington region have pushed some campuses to revert to old public health policies.

American, Georgetown and George Washington universities recently pulled back short-lived mask-optional policies and are again requiring face coverings in most indoor spaces.

Elsewhere in the region, Johns Hopkins University — which has continued to enforce a mask mandate in classrooms — reinstated mask policies in dining facilities and residence hall common areas. Undergraduate students on the Baltimore campus will also be required to undergo twice-weekly testing until at least April 22, officials said last week.