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‘It almost feels like Groundhog Day’: Colleges welcome students back to campus amid delta-variant surge

Just a few months ago, it seemed as if the masked lecture halls, the COVID outbreaks, the rushed pivots to online classes and the TikTok chronicling of quarantine accommodations would finally belong to another era.


With the delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus surging amid the return to campus, we’re already seeing some of those headlines repeat themselves, and there’s a clear risk we could be seeing more. 

The availability of the vaccines certainly provides greater protection against COVID-19 than what was available during the last academic year, and the push to increase vaccination rates on college campuses got a boost this week when the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the Pfizer vaccine.

‘We know that students are going to be back on campus, but there’s a lot of uncertainty about how and what it will look like.’

— Robert Kelchen, University of Tennessee

A slew of colleges that had been hesitant to require COVID shots under emergency-use authorization announced they would now be mandating vaccination as a condition of returning to campus. 

Even so, colleges are still grappling with some of the challenges of bringing thousands of young people back together in close quarters amid a surge in a highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus. Logistical questions about hybrid learning models have been replaced with ones about how often to test students, staff and faculty given that many, or even most, are vaccinated. Political debates about whether to hold classes online or in person have been replaced by political sniping over mask and vaccine mandates.

“It almost feels like Groundhog Day again at this point,” said Robert Kelchen, a professor of higher education at the University of Tennessee. “We know that students are going to be back on campus, but there’s a lot of uncertainty about how and what it will look like.” 

Requiring vaccines and testing

At Delaware State University, even with a vaccine mandate for students, the surveillance testing protocol implemented last year is being continued. Those who are vaccinated will be tested once a week, and those who are unvaccinated will be tested twice weekly. 

“We found that to be very effective last year,” LaKresha Roberts Moultrie, the school’s general counsel and vice president for legal affairs, said of surveillance testing. Though testing will continue, students will notice many differences from last year. 

For one, more students will be living in residence halls. They’ll also be taking more classes in person. In addition, the college plans to host outdoor social events and welcome spectators to athletic events. “These are more opportunities for our students to do something that feels normal and in line with a positive college experience,” Moultrie said.

‘These are more opportunities for our students to do something that feels normal and in line with a positive college experience,’

— LaKresha Roberts Moultrie, Delaware State University

Still, it won’t be college pre-2020. Michelle Fisher, the school’s chief medical officer, calls campus life this year the “now-normal.” 

“We are still in the midst of a pandemic, and now, with the [delta] variant, although we had hoped to be able to relax some of the infection-control practices that we had previously had in place, such as mask wearing, we know that we can’t do that now,” she said. 

The school is requiring everyone to wear masks indoors. It’s also mandating vaccines for students and providing $250 bonuses to employees who provide proof of vaccination. 

Over the summer, school officials have worked to help wary students, faculty and staff become more comfortable with the idea of getting vaccinated through hosting forums with healthcare providers and other members of the community. 

“Like any community, we do have individuals who have vaccine hesitancy,” Fisher said. “You have to acknowledge people’s concerns and fears and try to get them answers from people that they trust.” 

One factor that’s helped the school’s push to mitigate the virus is that state leaders are advocating similar tactics. For example, Delaware’s governor issued a mask mandate for kindergarten through 12th grade earlier this month. 

“It does make it easier when you can say, ‘Yes this is what we chose to do, however, now the governor has also made that decision,’ ” Fisher said. “It does help for those individuals who may want to push back a little bit.”  

Costs of keeping campus safe

Colleges often rank among the most visible institutions in their states, and public schools rely on state lawmakers for funding.

That means in states where the political leadership is hostile to requiring masks and vaccines — or bans mandates outright — colleges have to strike a balance between keeping the campus community safe and not defying state leaders or violating laws. 

In Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott banned public institutions and government entities from issuing vaccine or mask mandates, posing challenges to universities’ efforts to mitigate risk. Full FDA approval of the BioNTech-Pfizer

PFE vaccine may create space for institutions to require shots because Abbott’s order was specific to the vaccines authorized only for emergency use. 

At the University of Texas’s flagship campus in Austin, officials are encouraging vaccination — including through incentives — as well as testing and the following of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention masking guidelines, Eliska Padilla, issues and communications manager for the university, wrote in an email. “We remain nimble in monitoring the situation, and if any adjustments are made we will let the UT community know,” Padilla wrote. 

Classes begin at the school this week, amid a surge in cases in the state. As they prepared to reopen campus, UT leaders turned to scientists at the UT COVID-19 Modeling Consortium to help them determine the right amount of testing to keep the campus safe at different vaccination levels. 

“There really is a lot of uncertainty and some concern about vaccination coverage in our returning student populations,” said Lauren Ancel Meyers, the director of the modeling consortium. By Texas state law, the university can’t ask students about their vaccination status. “That really makes it difficult for us to figure out how much mitigation we need to do in order to prevent a large surge in the coming months.” 

‘There really is a lot of uncertainty and some concern about vaccination coverage in our returning student populations.’

— Lauren Ancel Meyers, University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium

Using data on the vaccination rate in students’ home ZIP Codes, the modeling consortium estimated that between 46% and 64% of students would show up for the fall term classes fully vaccinated. In the first week of the semester, there will be between 187 and 236 UT students infected with COVID, the consortium estimated. 

At a 60% vaccination rate, the university will need to test unvaccinated students at least twice per week to prevent a high risk for infections. That testing will cost the university between $4.3 million and $5 million, according to the model.   

“Testing can be an extremely effective measure for preventing transmission, for catching silent infections before they have time to spread,” Meyers said. “It can be a very effective strategy particularly if vaccination levels are low, but if vaccination levels are high enough then we may not need to conduct such regular testing in our community.” 

If 80% of students are vaccinated, the university will only need to test people with symptoms, the model found, at an estimated cost of between $350,000 and $930,000.  

If, on the other hand, only 60% of students show up vaccinated and the school doesn’t do proactive testing, the costs to the university of dealing with the ongoing pandemic could rise to an estimated $10.7 million. That’s because the prevalence of COVID could reach levels that would require the school to switch to remote instruction and the university would have to spend money on providing students with the equipment they need to learn remotely, maintaining unused facilities and more — at an estimated cost of $100,000 per day.   

“For universities and communities that can at least find out what that [vaccination] coverage is, they’re going to be in a much better situation to do that risk assessment,” she said. “For universities who can go so far as to actually require vaccination, they’re going to be in the best shape of all universities.” 

Starting off remote

But even at universities that require vaccination, the return to campus is complicated. At California State University, Stanislaus, officials made the decision to delay the in-person start to classes earlier this month, amid a surge in cases in the region, said Rosalee Rush, a spokesperson for the school, with campuses in Turlock and Stockton. Students began attending online courses this week, but in-person classes won’t be in session until October. 

The California State University system, of which “Stan State” is a component and which is the largest four-year system in the country, announced in July it would require all students, faculty and staff to be vaccinated to return to campus.

Within a week of some faculty and students trickling onto campus at Stanislaus in August, nine individuals, some of them fully vaccinated, tested positive for the virus, and 80 people were awaiting test results because they had been in close contact with those individuals, Rush said. The delay in in-person classes will provide enough time for community members to provide documentation of vaccination or exemptions and for school leaders to monitor the delta variant and its impact, officials said

The school has been taking other precautions, too, including limiting residence-hall rooms to single occupancy, requiring masking indoors, regardless of vaccination status, and testing those living in residence halls weekly, Rush said. 

“We were looking forward to seeing everyone back on campus, and we know how important it is for our students to have that face-to-face interaction with their faculty and their peers and have that college experience,” she said. “We also want to make sure that they can do that in the most safe environment possible.” 

Using insights from last year

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, officials are using the information they gleaned last year to help inform their approach to mitigation for this school year. The university famously developed its own COVID-19 test and deployed a protocol that required students to get tested twice per week. Despite the robust testing requirements, the school saw an outbreak of cases at the beginning of the 2020-21 academic year.

This year, university officials hope the added protection of vaccinations, which are required for students, faculty and staff, will allow them to curtail the testing protocol a bit from last year. Unvaccinated students will be required to test every other day. Students who are vaccinated will be required to test if they’re symptomatic, if they’ve traveled, if they had known exposure or were identified as a close contact, or if they live in a building with an elevated number of cases. 

The school is also implementing an indoor mask mandate, a step they decided to take amid concerns about the delta variant, said Rebecca Smith, an associate professor of epidemiology, who has worked throughout the pandemic on the school’s response. 

They’re also using the lessons gleaned from last school year to keep campus safe, Smith said. For example, at the beginning of last year’s testing efforts, officials found that students were ignoring isolation demands after testing positive. But following up a positive test with a phone call or text within a half-hour informing students of isolation requirements helped to get people isolated more quickly, Smith said. 

“On the behavioral side, we have learned a lot,” she said. “There’s definitely an interaction between risk-taking behaviors and willingness to participate in COVID mitigation strategies. Those who are less likely to wear masks, also report that they don’t want to get vaccinated and they also have lower frequency of testing.” 

This year officials at the university have a better sense of how to keep students from engaging in high-risk behaviors and how to encourage students to take part in mitigation efforts, Smith said. In some cases, they’d use small incentives or thank-yous — like cookies delivered to a fraternity that had a particularly high testing frequency — to nudge students in the right direction, Smith said. 

But they also figured out what consequences had the most impact.

“If students aren’t participating in testing, fines and suspension were not helpful,” Smith said.

She added, “The one that we found was most effective was actually turning off their Wi-Fi.”

‘It almost feels like Groundhog Day’: Colleges welcome students back to campus amid delta-variant surge ‘It almost feels like Groundhog Day’: Colleges welcome students back to campus amid delta-variant surge

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