Colleges exercise extra caution on COVID-19 with ‘stay in room’ mandates
To help rebuild their campuses safely during the latest COVID-19 surge, a few colleges and universities are imposing shelter-in-place or “stay in room” directives to try to protect their communities and maintain those essential bubbles from COVID-19 outbreaks.
That may sound extreme, but if they can get through the first few weeks of the semester and identify cases and mitigate potential transmission, they believe they will be able to more fully reopen safely for students, staff and faculty.
The University of Pittsburgh and Emerson College in Boston are in the midst of separating students from parts of campuses and each other, as well as requiring routine testing to ensure that cases are identified and isolation and quarantine can occur, if necessary.
Officials at Pittsburgh’s COVID-19 Medical Response Office said: “Students should only leave their rooms or apartments to attend classes, labs or clinicals in person (if in-person classes were approved by the dean); pick up food; exercise safely; study in the library; work when necessary, and shop for essentials and medical needs.”
While not a total shutdown of campus, Pittsburgh is nonetheless telling its students who began arriving last weekend that they will need to comply with the shelter-in-place directive through Jan. 27, when in-person classes are scheduled to begin. Although they will be allowed into academic buildings to use study spaces, they should limit all contacts, wear masks and remain distanced from each other at all times. They should also use virtual communication whenever they can. The university requires vaccines but has not yet mandated booster shots, yet it began disenrolling students who did not comply on Tuesday.
There is one exception to the shelter in place that Pitt says can give students a more welcoming feeling of community. “The next best approach is to establish pods based on those with whom you cohabitate, a hallmark of quarantine or shelter-in-place protocols,” they said. “You could be unmasked in the presence of your pod mates. [But] avoid new close contacts.”
Emerson, in the heart of downtown Boston, is enforcing a “stay-in-room” directive through Jan. 18 after inviting students back to campus last week for remote learning. But like Pittsburgh, there is an allowance of some freedom—such as leaving residences to get food, work or attend medical appointments. But “students should avoid any large gatherings and not leave campus or their residence except for those situations,” officials said.
Emerson, which requires both the first two doses of COVID-19 vaccines and booster shots, instructed students to get tested 72 hours before their return and to provide a negative test 24 hours after arrival. In order to preserve its bubble, Emerson is limiting residence halls to only those who attend the college, keeping its fitness center and the library closed to students until Tuesday, while only opening its dining facilities for grab-and-go food options.
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It is unclear whether either situation will be extended. Currently, COVID-19 positive cases are up more than 200% over the past 14 days. Allegheny County, where Pittsburgh is located, is experiencing more than 3,480 cases per day, an increase of 275%. The Boston area has experienced a rise of more than 180%.
The University of Rochester, noting in its most recent guidance the tremendous spread of the variant which is also above 200% in Monroe County, said it “de-densifying” its campus and telling residential students that they must shelter in place. Those who haven’t arrived yet are being told not to come.
“The volatility of the infection rate in the Rochester region makes it impossible to precisely predict future infection rates, at least until the spike in omicron variant infections subsides,” President Sarah Mangelsdorf, Professor G. Robert Whitmer and Interim Provost Sarah Peyre told the community. “Our strong preference is for students to not return to campus at this time. This is a temporary situation, and we look forward to welcoming everyone back to campus as soon as possible. But for now, we ask that students delay their return.”
Rochester noted in that same guidance that the potential for a full campus at this time might put a further strain on staffing and other resources.
“We decided that to introduce thousands of individuals into this environment at this particular time, under these circumstances, would be irresponsible on our part,” they wrote. “Not only that, we knew it would go against the best advice of our public health and infection control experts.”