Colleges Go Back to Drawing Board—Again—to Fight COVID-19

Faced with rising infectivity and a new COVID-19 variation, college campuses across the U.S. are once more thwarted by their efforts to move towards normalcy. Some require booster shots and mask mandates to extend social gatherings. In some cases they even revert back to online classes.

Schools that had hoped to ease safety precautions this spring were hit hard by the threat from the omicron variant. Many are now telling students that they need to be ready for the next term of testing, masking and, in extreme cases, social isolation.

Cornell University shut down campus activities Tuesday. Final exams were moved online after students who tested positive for the omicron variant over three days. In a campus message, President Martha Pollack said there was evidence of the omicron variant in a “significant” number of samples.
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“It is obviously extremely dispiriting to have to take these steps,” Pollack wrote. “However, since the start of the pandemic, our commitment has been to follow the science and do all we can to protect the health of our faculty, staff and students.

Hours later, Princeton University moved its exams online and urged students to leave campus “at their earliest convenience” amid a rise in cases.

Princeton and Cornell both have student vaccination rates greater than 98%.

After a fall with few coronavirus cases, officials at Syracuse University were “feeling pretty good” about the spring term, said Kent Syverud, the upstate New York school’s chancellor.

“But omicron has changed that,” Syverud said. “It has made us go back and say, until we know more about this variant for sure, we’re going to have to reinstate some precautions.”

Syracuse made it clear last week that all students and workers must have COVID-19 booster shot before they can start the spring term. When students return from school, they will have to undergo a series of virus testing. Officials also are considering whether to prolong the mask mandate.

Many things are still unclear about the threat posed by the omicron variation. The most COVID-19 cases are being reported in the United States as well as other countries.

However, colleges are preparing for all possible outcomes and booster shots may be their only hope. More than 20 colleges have issued booster shot requirements in recent weeks, and others say they’re thinking about it. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is encouraging boosters for individuals aged 17 and above. Pfizer, last week, announced that boosters of the COVID-19 vaccine could offer protection against omicron, even though they are less effective than the first two doses.

COVID-19 is required in hundreds of colleges. Some suggest that boosters may be an option.

However, most booster mandates to date have come from the Northeast’s small liberal-arts colleges. The list does include some larger universities such as Boston University as well as those farther away like the University of New Mexico and Notre Dame in Indiana.

University of Massachusetts at Amherst is among the first universities to mandate boosters. This means that all students need shots, unless there are religious or medical exemptions.

“The boosters are our best protection,” said Jeffrey Hescock, co-director of the university’s Public Health Promotion Center. “This demonstrates that we take public health seriously, and our students do too.”

A recent online petition arguing against the booster mandate—citing 97% of students vaccinated and few on-campus cases—has attracted a few dozen signatures. But Emily O’Brien, a freshman at UMass, said the booster shot is a reasonable demand. While she had already planned to obtain a booster, O’Brien stated that mandating will increase the uptake of students and avoid future lockdowns.

“If the past six months have shown anything, it’s that lots of people won’t bother to get vaccines—especially younger healthy people—if they don’t have a requirement to,” said O’Brien, 18, of Bedford, New Hampshire.

UMass will also require masks at the start of spring term, and it’s sending students home with a rapid test to be taken near the end of winter break.

Colleges are already preparing for disruption in next semester due to campus epidemics that occurred within the week following Thanksgiving.

Middlebury College in Vermont has switched to remote instruction amid an increase in students and advised them to depart early for their winter break. The University of Pennsylvania had a surge in cases and banned social events indoors last Thursday.

On Friday, Tulane University in New Orleans warned that a campus spike includes “probable” cases of the omicron variant, confirmed in at least one student last week. Officials at Tulane University in New Orleans responded with a renewed mask mandate and increased virus testing.

Wake Forest University, West Virginia University, and Penn State are some other colleges which have increased mask requirements for next year.

To avoid spreading the virus, some schools delay returning to campus for at least a month. DePaul University Chicago, Southern New Hampshire University, and DePaul University Chicago announced recently that students would be taking classes online for two weeks prior to returning on-campus after the holiday break.

In a letter to students, DePaul’s president, A. Gabriel Esteban, said the school will “cautiously start winter quarter so we can sustain a robust college experience the remainder of the academic year.”

For two weeks, Stanford University students will be forbidden from hosting parties and other large events when they return to campus in January. They’ll also be tested once a week and continue to wear masks indoors as requirements to attend in-person classes. Russell Furr, associate vice president for environmental safety and health, stated the precautions are designed to prevent virus transmission, but they don’t limit student experience.

“This is something we’ve grappled with throughout the pandemic—how do we get a balanced approach?” Furr said. The goal is to avoid the strict lockdowns seen early in the pandemic, when student mental health “really suffered,” he added.

At some colleges, there’s still cautious hope for a normal semester. University of Central Florida officials told professors that in-person attendance can be required in the spring.

In a campus message, interim provost Michael D. Johnson warned that if the omicron variant takes off, “we may need to change direction yet again.”

Another concern is omicron’s timing—even without a new variant, there were worries of more outbreaks as colder weather drives people indoors, said Anita Barkin, co-chair of a COVID-19 task force for the American College Health Association.

To avoid new cases, the association recommended recently that colleges increase their vaccination rates.

“The message in all of it is, we need to remain vigilant,” Barkin said. “There is certainly pandemic fatigue and people are tired of the pandemic—but it appears that the pandemic is not quite tired of us.”


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