For almost two years, colleges and universities have struggled to cope with COVID-19. Now, at the end of the fall term, the terrain is once again shifting.
On Dec. 10, following a substantial spike in coronavirus cases, Middlebury College shifted to remote instruction and sent students home early. The following week, after over 900 students tested positive, many with the Omicron variant, Cornell University moved finals online and canceled all in-person gatherings. In the face of rising cases, New York University also canceled all “non-essential” gatherings, Princeton University moved its final exams online and DePaul University and Southern New Hampshire University both announced they would temporarily shift to remote instruction in January.
It’s time for colleges and universities to rethink their plans for the spring semester. What they do might well be a model for other institutions, organizations and businesses.
While much remains uncertain, early reports suggest Omicron is at least three times as likely to cause an infection among members of the same household as Delta, and twice as likely to infect a close contact. Some analyses suggest Omicron may be less likely to cause serious illness than prior variants, although a recent British study reached the opposite conclusion, and it will likely be several weeks before we know for sure.
If most cases prove mild, colleges and universities might be tempted just to let Omicron move through campuses, much like the flu. This “herd immunity” approach seems risky, however, because we still know relatively little about the long-term risks of infection, and because high rates of transmission might endanger members of the campus community who are immunocompromised or otherwise at high risk.
Conversely, if Omicron turns out to cause severe illness more often than now anticipated, colleges and universities may have to reinstate some of the aggressive mitigation measures employed last year, including frequent testing, a return to physical distancing and even the resumption of remote learning. But that approach would, of course, take a significant toll on student learning and well-being and place a crushing burden on faculty, staff and campus budgets.
We set out here a path that we believe offers the best balance between safety and normalcy.
First, and most important, all students and employees should be fully vaccinated and, if eligible, receive the booster before classes start. Vaccines and boosters lower the risk of infection, protect against serious illness, lessen the probability of spreading the virus and reduce the risk of long COVID. So-called natural immunity from a prior COVID infection is not an adequate substitute, because British researchers have found that “the risk of reinfection with Omicron is about five times greater than that for other variants,” according to The New York Times.
Second, students should be asked to present proof of a negative COVID test, taken if possible within the 24-hour period prior to their return to campus, much as travelers returning to the United States from abroad are required to do. Students should also be tested on or shortly after arrival. The combination will provide a baseline for further testing and limit cases at the outset.
Third, colleges and universities should conduct periodic surveillance testing, perhaps once or twice a week at the start. The goal of such testing is not to eliminate the virus from campus, which may well be impossible, but to alert administrators to outbreaks that might require additional restrictions on campus gatherings and activities.
Fourth, we should think differently about what constitutes an outbreak justifying a lockdown or a return to remote instruction. In a mostly young, healthy population, even a large number of cases may not warrant draconian measures. At Cornell, for example, the recent cases have spread during social gatherings, not in the classroom, and have all been mild.
Fifth, masks should be worn indoors as long as community transmission rates are high.
Sixth, colleges and universities should consider allowing vaccinated students and employees to isolate for less than the currently recommended 10 days. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges that “fully vaccinated people are likely infectious for less time than unvaccinated people.” Some experts think isolation can be cut in half for individuals who show no symptoms and test negative, a protocol Cornell is piloting in collaboration with the Tompkins County Health Department. Even a modest reduction in isolation time would greatly reduce the costs to students in terms of missed coursework and emotional well-being.
Seventh, colleges and universities should re-evaluate their approaches as new information about Omicron arrives. Since many epidemiologists are predicting that Omicron will quickly displace Delta, the first few weeks of the semester are likely to prove crucial.
Finally, in the intense focus on the challenges to physical health posed by yet another variant, colleges and universities should not lose sight of the mental and emotional well-being of students, faculty and staff. The pandemic has exacerbated an already serious mental health crisis for students and placed extraordinary burdens on faculty and staff members. Colleges should do what they can to enhance student mental health services and employee assistance programs.
The pandemic, it appears, has turned endemic. We need to find ways to live with it.