Professors at the University of Washington may choose to conduct their classes remotely until Jan. 28, President Ana Mari Cauce said in a new letter to students and staff. The increased flexibility is a response to the ballooning number of omicron-driven COVID-19 cases in King County, the state and the country.

Professors who do choose to conduct in-person classes must accommodate students participating remotely, said Cauce. Practicums, lab-based and clinical instruction should be prioritized for in-person learning.

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“This flexibility will help manage various Omicron-related disruptions, including increased numbers of student absences,” said Cauce.

Friday’s announcement highlights the highly fluid and unpredictable environment surrounding coronavirus infections, especially since the omicron variant became dominant. After conducting all classes remotely in the 2020-21 school year, the university cautiously returned to traditional instruction in the fall. But as case counts climbed, the UW announced in December it would return to remote learning for the first week of the new year.

Since then, COVID infections have reached their highest number since the beginning of the pandemic, shattering records previously set by the delta variant. King County is now averaging over 3,000 cases a day and saw more than 5,000 cases reported on some days this week. Hospitalizations and deaths are climbing as well.

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“Over the course of the week, we have continued to monitor the spread of the Omicron variant in our region and the challenges it is causing, which include significant stress on our health-care system and increased cases and positivity rates in our University community,” Cauce wrote.

Cauce encouraged students and staff to wear well-fitting masks, test when symptomatic and get vaccinated and boosted.

Washington State University is planning to continue in-person instruction, officials said at a town hall meeting Thursday. Western Washington University began courses remotely last week and is scheduled to return to in-person classes Monday.

A snowstorm and four pass closures last week caused WSU to cancel classes this Monday and Tuesday, so students would have ample time to return to Pullman. As of mid-day Saturday, a WSU update held to that timeline, while state road workers were striving to reopen Snoqualmie Pass sometime Sunday.

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Staff reporter Mike Lindblom contributed to this report.