Berkeley universities

Colleges Resume In-Person Classes Amid Omicron

Colleges across the country that are turning to distance education and delaying the start of the spring semester may have grabbed the headlines, but they are in the minority. The vast majority of institutions are returning to in-person learning as scheduled.

According to data from Davidson College’s College Crisis Initiative, nearly 90% of colleges and universities are returning students to campus. Likewise, 98% will start on time, based on data from a sample of 502 institutions.

“There are a good number of institutions that bring students back on time,” said Rylie Martin, deputy director of the College Crisis Initiative, or C2i. “Many are maintaining COVID mitigation strategies starting in the fall semester, which means having masking mandates inside, requiring either re-entry testing once students return to campus, or tests before coming back. “

Martin added that vaccination warrants or inducements to get vaccinated are also common.

Make the decision

Across the country, different campuses make different decisions, even within the same system. In the University of North Carolina system, for example, some colleges are postponing the start of the semester or moving away temporarily while others are moving forward, notably North Carolina A&T University, one of many. historically black colleges returning in person.

“Public health experts believe that, like other colleges and universities, we should expect an increase in Omicron variant infections at A&T in North Carolina,” the university said in a press release. “With this understanding, along with the belief that students learn best when they can experience the university in person, we are moving cautiously and cautiously with plans for the spring semester 2022.”

Likewise, in the University of California system, most colleges will see a remote semester start, but the University of California at Berkeley plans to resume classes in person. Unlike many other UC institutions, UC Berkeley has a quarterly academic calendar, which gives it the time advantage; classes should not start before January 18th.

“We plan to learn from the experiences of other colleges and universities as they resume operations weeks ahead of us,” UC Berkeley spokeswoman Janet Gilmore wrote in an email. “And, of course, we continue to follow science and emerging directions, in general.”

But even some colleges with earlier start dates are returning to in-person classes as scheduled, including the University of Michigan, which welcomed students to campus this week.

Michigan professor and health director Dr Preeti Malani said colleges are now in a much different situation than when the pandemic first hit the United States. Vaccines, mitigation strategies and the benefit of hindsight contributed to the university’s decision.

“In March 2020, medical and public health aspects were the only consideration; the other issues – equity issues, learning issues and economic issues – were secondary, ”said Malani. “Now we are two years away. We have learned a lot about how to run a campus during a pandemic. We have become creative, innovative and also agile. We don’t know what next week will look like and the week after, but we can watch very closely; we can continue to communicate.

Sweet Briar College in Virginia has also factored the lessons it learned during the pandemic into its decision to bring students back for in-person classes despite the creeping variant of Omicron. President Meredith Woo said three lessons that emerged during the pandemic motivated the decision: Sweet Briar’s space, both indoors and outdoors, allowed students to spread out in full security ; students have demonstrated their readiness to follow safety protocols; and the college has proven to be nimble and can pivot quickly.

“These three lessons gave us confidence that even as the nature of this particular pandemic changes, we could deal with situations as they arise with effective mitigation measures in place,” Woo said. .

Dawn Stewart, vice president of student affairs and director of athletics at Otterbein University in Ohio, said campus-wide immunization mandates and confidence in ongoing mitigation strategies have prompted the school to move forward with in-person classes despite concerns about COVID-19.

“Our plan has been received very positively,” said Stewart. “I believe our community expected to return to classes and in-person activities due to the fact that we mandated the vaccine to better protect and put our community in the best possible position. I don’t think there was any surprise that we returned to classes and in-person activities.

Plus, she said a face-to-face experience is what students want and expect.

“Otterbein is a small campus, and we are very interpersonal; we believe in the interpersonal educational experience. So for a campus like ours, our students thrive by having this small classroom, this personal interaction with faculty and staff here on campus, ”said Stewart. “If we are not able to provide these opportunities for connection, our students certainly feel it. “

Mitigation strategies

As colleges bring students back, they rely on widespread immunization mandates and plans they’ve been fine-tuning for nearly two years, which often include masking and social distancing.

Malani of Michigan, who is also an infectious disease physician, said she believed COVID was moving from a pandemic to an endemic stage. While the coronavirus may be here to stay, the severity of the disease is not, its impact blunted by vaccines that have lessened the threat of infection.

“COVID is going to be here, it’s going to be in the background, hopefully with milder infections as more of the population gains immunity,” Malani said. “From a practical standpoint, for higher education and for the K-12 space, that means finding ways to do the essential work, which is learning, teaching, and researching, in our case, also health care. “

Many campuses mandate not only coronavirus vaccines, but booster shots as well.

According to C2i data, more than 28% of colleges in its sample require booster injections for students, and nearly 26% require booster injections for faculty and staff.

However, Martin noted that colleges in some states are legally prohibited from mandating vaccines. Often, she said, these colleges focus on other mitigation strategies and encourage students to get the vaccine. C2i data also shows a strong contrast between public and private institutions requiring recalls.

“What we see from our data concerns private institutions, almost half need the reminder for students; for the public [institutions] only about 12% need a reminder for students, ”Martin said.

Another common mitigation strategy, experts say, is to test students upon arrival on campus.

Feedback on in-person instruction

Returning to in-person classes is a move that has sparked uproar and protests on some campuses, with faculty and staff questioning or directly challenging these strategies.

At the University of Michigan, faculty members have pledged to teach online for the first day of classes of the semester in protest. More than 1,000 faculty members have shown their support for this challenge of the university’s plans by signing a letter saying they would teach virtually or pledging to support those who do.

Across the country, members of the United Campus Workers Arizona have pushed back the return to face-to-face classes by sending letters to leaders at Arizona State University and the University of Arizona calling for campuses to operate remotely until to January 28. In addition, the organization demanded that universities provide free high-quality masks, free bi-weekly tests and rapid coronavirus tests, as well as the implementation of vaccination mandates for students.

While the spring semester is already underway at many colleges, it is still on the horizon at others. And if there’s one constant in terms of what to expect, said Martin, it’s change. While many colleges have yet to detail their spring plans, she expects a wave of political announcements in the coming days as the start of the semester looms. Despite their different approaches, the end goal, she suggested, is largely the same.

“Although we have delays… I think the aim of the institutions is to get back to normal as quickly as possible,” said Martin. “This means that in the first few weeks, as students return from vacation, they come back from different states, trying to contain the virus as much as possible. “