As the Omicron wave spreads across the country, sending the number of Covid-19 cases to new heights and disrupting everyday life, some universities are preparing for a new phase of the pandemic – one that recognizes that the virus has a lasting character. and that a rethinking of how to deal with campus life.
Schools Ask: Should Mass Testing Still Happen? Should there be contact tracing? What about tracking the number of cases – and posting them to campus dashboards? And if there’s a spike in cases, should classes go remote?
Universities from Northeastern in Boston to the University of California-Davis have begun to discuss Covid in “endemic” terms — a shift from reacting to each peak of cases as a crisis to the reality of living with it on a daily basis. And in some cases there has been a backlash.
“I think we’re in a transition period, hopefully into an endemic phase,” said Martha Pollack, president of Cornell University. “I say hopefully because with this pandemic, we don’t know what’s coming.”
Most universities are still cautious. They are delaying the start of in-person classes and warning students that the number of cases could explode because of Omicron. They encourage, if not require, students to take booster shots. Many are handing out self-test kits and KN95 masks. And for the most part, they follow basic quarantine and isolation protocols, albeit for shorter periods of time, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Still, some universities are also saying that spikes in cases need not be as disruptive as they were in the earlier waves of the pandemic. E. Gordon Gee, the president of West Virginia University, said at this point that making short-term reactive decisions such as closing classrooms would be a strategic mistake.
“I think there’s a rush to do something immediately, and those kinds of panic attacks, which I don’t like,” he said. “We will never go back to where we were, those days are over. This is what life is all about. We’ve got the Omicron, we’ve got the Delta, next year when you and I get a flu shot, we’re going to take it with a dose of Covid vaccine.”
Some universities are even relaxing what were once strict rules on quarantine and isolation. Harvard is introducing what it calls an “isolate-in-place policy,” meaning students who test positive, with few exceptions, stay in their dorm rooms, even with roommates. A school email suggests having “a conversation” about how to handle things when a roommate gets sick.
“That’s messy, that’s really messy,” said Milagros Costabel Bionda, a freshman. “We also have shared bathrooms.” Harvard declined to comment.
The University of Wyoming recently announced that its Covid approach was moving from “containment to management” and halting the massive testing it initiated last year. Last fall, the school tested 10,000 people over four days, according to Chad Baldwin, associate vice president for communications and marketing.
But this semester, he said, the university’s health advisory panel concluded that Omicron was so widespread that mass testing, by gathering people in one place, could actually do more harm than good. The public university, in Laramie, serves approximately 12,000 students.
“We feel like we got through this pretty well,” said Mr Baldwin. And with Omicron, he added, “we’re dealing with a virus that seems less dangerous to most people — and we’re encouraged.”
Still, public health experts caution that campus officials should not act too quickly.
“You will hear that people are tired of restrictions and regulations, and that worries me,” said Gerri Smith Taylor, co-chair of the Covid-19 task force for the American College Health Association. “I don’t think we have all the data on Omicron and Delta.”
Ms. Taylor said her organization is waiting for new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A spokeswoman for the agency said recommendations were imminent.
At the University of California, Davis, Chancellor Gary S. May received a strong backlash after a Dec. 30 statement characterizing the Omicron variant as “milder” and proposing a shift to “living with Covid-19 at an endemic level.” “. ”
Classes were expected to resume in person on January 10. But a petition signed by 7,500 people, citing the use of the term “endemic” by Dr. May, accused the university of “not prioritizing the immunocompromised, disabled, unvaccinated people, children, those who live with people from one of these groups, or the general health of the public.”
Most personal classes have been postponed to January 31. “People shared their concerns and campus leaders listened,” said Julia Ann Easley, a university spokeswoman, who also noted a growing number of Covid-19 cases on campus.
Rice University, with 8,000 students, moved many classes to distance education this month and encouraged students to delay returning to campus until the end of January. And, like many schools, students and staff recently had to take booster shots.
Still, the president, David W. Leebron, sees his campus, in Houston, quickly adopting what he called an “attitude that recognizes Covid-19 as endemic.”
“What this means going forward is generally fewer restrictions that impede our operations,” Mr Leebron wrote in a message to the Rice community. He envisions larger gatherings and less isolation.
Mr Leebron noted in an interview that there has been no serious Covid case within the campus community in months and that he is concerned about the impact of the pandemic.
“There are mental health issues all over campus,” he said. “If we have a disease that doesn’t pose a serious risk to vaccinated college-age people, those other factors need to be considered.”
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Cornell University, in Ithaca, NY, is trying to shift the focus from the number of cases. The university has used a color-coded system – green, yellow, red – to mark the degree of infection. After an alarming spike in cases in December, the university closed part of its campus and moved final exams online.
For this semester, the university has kept the color-coding, but changed the guidelines to recognize that nearly everyone has been vaccinated, including 99 percent of students and 100 percent of faculty.
The goal now isn’t to close, she said, but to stay open as much as possible. This means, among other things, a short period of distance learning and mask mandates indoors this winter. Students will be asked not to socialize in large groups during the buffer period.
“A fully vaccinated population is a different beast, and we kind of have to learn to live differently,” said Dr. pollack.
Risa L. Lieberwitz, chair of the Cornell Division of the American Association of University Professors, said a change in tactics was reasonable.
But she was concerned that teachers who had valid health reasons for teaching online would be hurt.
She pointed to a message to the faculty stating that “full-time distance education is not a permissible substitute for in-person instruction.” This belies the idea that teachers can ask for exceptions, she said. “I don’t think that’s an adequate response if we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”
A few public colleges are rethinking case counting.
The University of Florida shut down its Covid dashboard at the end of the year, handing over data processing to the state, which she said in an email to the faculty could offer a more “sustainable approach” as the virus ” becomes endemic”.
West Virginia University has announced it will stop reporting testing, quarantine, and isolation data before spring 2022. But it will keep reporting vaccination rates for faculty, staff and students, which are much higher on campus than in the rest of the state as of mid-December: 92 percent for faculty and staff and 82 percent for students.
“It’s not something we do to hide, quite the contrary,” said Dr. Gee, the president. “We’re tracking the data that the CDC and the public health department say is most important.”
Youssef Georgy, a senior, said the atmosphere on campus is much more relaxed than a year ago, when professors gave lectures behind Plexiglas screens, virus tests were rife and sporting events and mass gatherings were canceled.
This year, in addition to the mask requirements in the classroom and common area, “everything is pretty much free-range,” he said. “Except for masks, you don’t really feel the presence of a pandemic.”