As the Omicron surge spreads across the country, sending Covid-19 case counts to new heights and disrupting daily life, some universities are preparing for a new phase of the pandemic — one that acknowledges that the virus is here to stay and requires a rethinking of how to handle life on campus.
Schools are asking: Should mass testing be allowed? Is it necessary to track contact? What about tracking the number of cases — and posting them on campus dashboards? Do classes have to be moved if there is a sudden spike in cases?
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 spike of cases as a crisis to the reality of living with it daily. There has been some backlash in some cases.
“I think we’re in a period of transition, hopefully to an endemic phase,” Martha Pollack, president of Cornell University, said. “I say hopefully because with this pandemic, we don’t know what’s coming next.”
Many universities are still cautious. They are delaying the in-person classes and advising students that Omicron could cause massive case counts. They encourage, if not require, students to get booster shots. Many of them are giving out KN95 masks and self-testing kits. The majority of them are following the recommended protocols for isolation and quarantine for a shorter time than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Some universities believe that sudden spikes of cases don’t need to be as disruptive, as they were during earlier waves. E. Gordon Gee, president of West Virginia University, stated that it would be a strategic error to make short-term, reactive decision like closing down schools.
“I think there is a rush to do something immediate, and that kind of is a panic push, which I don’t like,” he said. “We’ll never go back to where we were, those days are done. This is life. We have the Omicron, we have the Delta, next year when you and I take a flu shot, we’re going to take it with a dose of Covid vaccine.”
Some universities are even easing away from the strict rules regarding isolation and quarantining. Harvard is instituting what it calls an “isolate-in-place policy,” meaning that students who test positive would, with some exceptions, stay in their dorm rooms, even with roommates. A school email suggests having “a conversation” about how to handle things if a roommate got sick.
“That’s messy, that’s really messy,” said Milagros Costabel Bionda, a first-year student. “We also have shared bathrooms.” Harvard declined to comment.
The University of Wyoming announced recently that its Covid approach was moving from “containment to management,” abandoning the mass testing it instituted last year. According to Chad Baldwin (associate vice president for communications, marketing), the school tested 10,000 people in four days last fall.
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, might actually do more harm than good. Laramie is home to approximately 12,000 students.
“We feel like we have managed our way through this pretty well,” Mr. Baldwin said. And with Omicron, he added, “we’re facing a virus that appears to be less dangerous for most people — and we’re encouraged.”
However, public health experts caution that campus officials should not be too quick.
“You’ll hear that people are tired of the restrictions and the regulations, and it is concerning to 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 in on Omicron and Delta.”
Ms. Taylor stated that her organization is waiting for new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A spokesperson for the agency stated that recommendations were imminent.
At University of California, Davis, Chancellor Gary S. May faced a strong negative reaction after a Dec. 30 statement in which he characterized the Omicron variant as “milder” and suggested a shift to “living with Covid-19 at an endemic level.”
Classes were due to resume in person on January 10. But a petition signed by 7,500 people, referencing Dr. May’s use of the term “endemic,” accused the university of “not prioritizing the immuno-compromised, the disabled, unvaccinated people, children, those who live with people from any of these groups, or the general health of the public.”
Most in-person classes were delayed until January 31. “People were sharing their concerns, and the campus leaders listened,” said Julia Ann Easley, a spokeswoman for the university, who also noted a growing Covid-19 case count on campus.
Rice University, which has 8,000 students, moved many classes this month to remote instruction and encouraged students not to return to campus until late January. Rice University, which has 8,000 students, recently required all employees and students to receive booster shots.
Yet its president, David W. Leebron, sees his campus, in Houston, soon entering what he called a “posture that recognizes Covid-19 as endemic.”
“What this means going forward is generally fewer restrictions that inhibit our activities,” Mr. Leebron wrote in a message to the Rice community. He envisions greater gatherings and less isolation.
Mr. Leebron noted in an interview that there has not been a serious Covid case within the campus community in months, and that he worries about the pandemic’s fallout.
“Across campus, there are mental health issues,” he said. “If we have a disease that, for college-age vaccinated people does not pose a serious risk, those other factors need to be taken into account.”
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Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. is trying to shift the focus away from case counts. The university has used a color-coded system — green, yellow, red — to flag the rate of infection. After an alarming increase in cases in December, the university moved final exams online.
The university has retained the color-coding for this semester but has modified the guidelines so that it recognizes that almost everyone is vaccinated. This includes 99.9% of students and 100.0% of the faculty.
She said that the goal now is not to close down, but to keep as much open as possible. This includes a brief period this winter of remote learning and indoor mask mandates. During the buffer period students will be asked not join large groups.
“A fully vaccinated population is a different beast, and we have to sort of learn to live differently,” Dr. Pollack said.
Risa L. Lieberwitz is the president of the Cornell chapter of American Association of University Professors. She said that a change in tactics was acceptable.
She was worried about faculty who were unable to teach online due to valid health reasons.
She pointed to a message to faculty saying that “full-time remote teaching is not an allowable substitute for in-person instruction.” This belied the notion that faculty members could ask for exceptions, she said. “I don’t think that’s an adequate response when we are in the middle of a pandemic.”
Several public colleges are changing the way they count cases.
The University of Florida discontinued its Covid dashboard at the end of the year, and transferred the data handling to the state, which it said in an email to faculty could provide a more “sustainable approach,” as the virus “becomes endemic.”
West Virginia University announced that they will no longer report testing data, quarantine data, or isolation data for the spring semester 2022 semester. However, it will continue to report Faculty, staff, and students have higher vaccination rates than elsewhere in the state, at 92 percent for staff and 82 for students as of mid-December.
“It’s not anything that we’re doing to hide, quite the contrary,” said Dr. Gee, the president. “We’re following the data that the C.D.C. and the public health department says matter the most.”
Senior Youssef Georgy said that campus is much more relaxed now than it was one year ago. This was when professors lectured behind Plexiglas shields. Virus testing was widespread and sporting events were canceled.
This year, besides classroom and common-area mask requirements, “everything’s pretty much free range,” he said. “Other than masks, you don’t really feel the presence of a pandemic.”
Source: NY Times