Universities closing over omicron variant making mistake, medical expert suggests

Dr. Marc Siegel said it's 'premature' for U.S. colleges to be closing and announcing remote classes for next semester

One medical expert suggests it's "premature" for U.S. colleges to be closing and announcing remote starts to the spring 2022 semester.

Several colleges and universities across the country decided to shut down their campuses amid a rise in coronavirus cases and growing fear over the omicron variant, which some experts predict will become the pandemic's predominant variant in the United States. 

Harvard University announced Saturday that students will study remotely for the first three weeks of January due to a "rapid rise" in coronavirus cases. Other colleges such as Yale University and Penn State University haven't announced a remote start to the spring 2022 semester but have told students to be prepared for a change if it's necessary.

Dr. Marc Siegel, Fox News medical analyst and professor of medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center, said it's "very premature" for colleges to discuss plans to shift to remote learning for the spring 2022 semester.

He said that universities are a "built-in quarantine situation" that allows for rapid testing and additional measures, such as making sure everyone has a COVID booster vaccination.


FILE - This Nov. 13, 2008 file photo shows the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. The Ivy League school is the alma mater for seven chief executives who led their companies’ IPOs in 2014, more than twice the amount of the next-highest schools in the rankings, according to figures from Equilar, an executive compensation data firm. (AP Photo/Lisa Poole, File)

Harvard University (AP)

"Since it's a university, if you look at it completely medically, it's a built-in quarantine situation," Dr. Siegel said. "What do you got at a university? The ability to quarantine people, the ability to study a whole population, the ability to rapidly test everyone, the ability to make sure everybody is vaccinated."

Dr. Siegel said there's "no proof" that sending students back home decreases the spread of the coronavirus.

"There's no proof whatsoever that lockdowns have actually helped COVID and that sending college students home from school decreases the spread of COVID. What do you mean they're home? What do you think they're doing? What are they doing? They are probably spreading it within their household, within their zip code. I'm not convinced that closing schools decreases national spread of this virus. Where's the proof of that?," the doctor wondered.

He also said that the number of campuses closing just before winter break is not a good sign that they will reopen in the new year.

However, Dr. Siegel isn't entirely convinced that the motivations behind these closings are medical. He argues they're more about the threat of a lawsuit.

"In other words, what motivates a university to close? It's probably a liability, right? That's not a medical issue," Dr. Siegel said. "They're thinking of if we get too many cases and somebody's kid gets sick, and we get blamed for it. But I think that that's the mindset, pretty much."

Yale University sign located along Trumbull Street in New Haven, Connecticut (iStock)

There are a lot of unknowns about the omicron variant, and Dr. Siegel said that it isn't known how severe of an illness the omicron variant causes. 


Dr. Siegel says that while there are more breakthrough cases in the omicron variant than with other variants, the vaccine still provides protection and will likely result in a mild case.

"So the fear quotient here is way too high for a virus that actually looks milder. And we have actual tools against this virus. We got rapid tests. We've got vaccines that work, boosters that work. And we've got an emerging antiviral that works. But we need it. We need it pronto," Dr. Siegel said.

While most American colleges haven't made the decision to shift to remote operations once students are set to return in January, several have sent students home prior to winter break and have shifted finals online.

Princeton University has taken a similar approach and announced on its website that all final exams will either be given remotely or, if a faculty member chooses, as a "take-home" test.

Cornell University West Campus (iStock)

Cornell University announced Dec. 14 that it is shifting to "Alert Level Red," which includes canceling all university activities involving undergraduates, closing libraries to students, closing fitness centers and moving all final exams to a remote format. The university also canceled a Dec. 18 ceremony honoring December graduates.


Dr. Siegel emphasized that because universities offer a "built-in quarantine situation," viral spread will increase once students return home. .

"You can monitor people, see how many cases there are, isolate the cases you have, test up the wazoo, make sure everybody is vaccinated. Once you send them out of there, you no longer have that ability and that should increase viral spread, not decrease it," Dr. Siegel said.