Universities Respond to Increasing New COVID Threats

For the fall semester, U.S. colleges and universities had returned to a new normal. After COVID-19 restrictions sent students packing in March 2020, higher education had to quickly pivot to a remote learning model. The 2020-2021 academic year found higher education institutions continuing the blended learning as they began to welcome students and professors back to in-person teaching and learning. Schools continued to enforce social distancing and mask mandates, and many required that students be fully vaccinated before returning to campus. Campus leaders were cautiously optimistic about the future.

And then came Omicron, a new variant of SARS-COV-2, which was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on November 24, 2021, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The first confirmed U.S. case of Omicron was identified on December 1. A CDC report says that only about one-third of the first 43 confirmed cases of the new variant had traveled internationally within two weeks of testing positive or developing symptoms, evidence that Omicron had begun to spread from person to person.

Omicron is proving to be highly transmissible and less susceptible to vaccines than other variants, according to an article in The New York Times. In fact, nearly 80 percent of those who were infected with Omicron were fully vaccinated. And researchers at Harvard found that the new variant is two to three times as likely to spread as Delta – but also seems to be milder in severity and less likely to result in death.

So how does this bode for the spring semester at U.S. colleges and universities?

Some colleges and universities haven’t announced any deviation from their current policies, but they are carefully monitoring the situation and preparing to change to a more remote learning model on short notice.  

For the Fall 2021 semester, Penn State, for instance, resumed full on-campus activities, including in-person teaching, learning and working, while offering some hybrid and online learning as well.  However, the school is warning students and staff at its University Park campus to prepare to quickly switch to remote learning if necessary. Penn State says it expects to begin the semester in person as planned at its Commonwealth Campuses, which have smaller student populations and greater regional health care capacity.

Other schools are trying to operate as normally as possible and haven’t yet announced plans to change to online learning, hoping that continuing to implement protective measures will keep their doors open. Binghamton University, State University of New York, issued student guidance that includes indoor mask mandates, but says it will continue to offer in -person classes with no plans to revert to remote learning. Vaccinations are required, except for those with medical or religious exemptions.

Some institutions aren’t yet restricting in-person learning, but now require boosters. University of Southern California (USC) says it’s considering a remote state to the Spring 2022 semester and will likely ask students to provide proof of COVID-19 booster shots.

In some cases, university officials have implemented policies to get students off campus earlier than usual. Princeton University shifted its fall 2021 semester undergraduate final exams to a remote format and encouraged students to leave campus ASAP. The university cancelled all indoor gatherings with food, and dining halls began offering additional grab-and-go options. Although the school is planning an in-person spring semester, it is instituting a booster mandate for students, faculty and staff and will continue to monitor the situation and adjust plans if necessary.

International travel restrictions continue to be an issue for university students. Boston University warned its international students that because of possible complications to international travel due to Omicron restrictions, they may be required to take a leave of absence if they can’t return to campus in time for the Spring semester. Some students said they will stay in the U.S. over the Winter Intersession to avoid interrupting their education.

And other institutions are taking proactive measures, limiting in-person learning for at least the first few weeks of January, when virus transmission is expected to be especially aggressive. The CDC warns that the number of newly reported COVID-19 deaths will likely increase by the thousands in the next several weeks.

Two schools just announced that they’re playing it very safe for the next month. Stanford moved its first two weeks of Winter quarter classes online and it’s requiring students to receive a booster shot by the end of January. Similarly, Harvard announced that its transitioning most teaching, learning and work to a remote model for the first three weeks of its January term to reduce density on campus in hopes of stemming COVID-19 transmission. Harvard officials say that they’re planning to return to more robust on-campus activities later in January, but will monitor the situation and update students and staff on their plans.

For more articles in this series on how colleges and universities are handling COVID mandates, see:

Colleges and Universities Boost their COVID Booster Requirements

How COVID is Helping Higher Ed Find Technology’s Goldilocks Scenario

Colleges and Universities Vary on Spring Semester Opening Plans