Should colleges shift to endemic mode? Massachusetts leaders say yes

As more institutions open for in-person learning nationwide, state officials say it's time to relax COVID-19 protocols.

Cabinet members from Gov. Charlie Baker’s team have pressed higher education institutions across the state of Massachusetts to return to “near normal” environments, citing the impact of the “twindemic” on students.

In their letter to college and university leaders, Secretary of Education James Peyser and Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders do not reference that twindemic—the term given last fall for the impending perfect storm of COVID-19 and influenza—but a combination of coronavirus and the national mental health epidemic. A recent study from TimelyMD revealed that 88% of college students say the latter is a crisis on campuses nationwide.

Though a few institutions in the state made the move to remote learning earlier this month, most either opened on time or have since returned to in-person instruction. But Baker and his cabinet are calling for more to be done, namely the ratcheting down of stringent masking and testing.

“Early in the pandemic, we made trade-offs and veered on the side of remote learning and isolation,” Peyser and Sudders wrote. “Overly strict protocols that inhibit any level of social interaction are counterproductive at this time. Now is the time to reconsider these protocols to help promote a return to healthy social interactions.”

In addition to fully reopening classrooms, they are imploring college leaders to allow students to be able to gather in group activities while not forcing them to submit to “overly aggressive surveillance testing and mask type requirements.” They instead should put any COVID mitigation efforts toward only those who have health comorbidities, those who are symptomatic or test positive. The two state leaders advise that colleges and universities tell students how to “engage within their community safely” as they return to that new normal.

Baker, a Republican, has clashed frequently with Massachusetts lawmakers over mandates. As case counts have begun to wane across the state—Massachusetts has seen a 57% drop in cases over the past two weeks—he has pressed for less restrictive environments. His team is now making higher ed a top priority and putting the mental health crisis front and center.

“Colleges should continue to increase their investments in mental health services to address the widespread issues of anxiety and depression that have been exacerbated by the challenges of the past two years,” Peyser and Sudders wrote. “Together, we must lean in with individuals who are struggling to find a sense of equilibrium and community. It may take time, but together we can move forward.”

The big institutions in Boston including Boston College, Harvard University and Boston University have mostly reopened this semester, helped by strong vaccine numbers and booster mandates. Northeastern University, which started the semester in person and has a 99.6% vaccination rate, has cut its isolation housing in an effort to embrace a more endemic environment, having students self-isolate in their own dorms if they test positive. During the first three months, NU did not see more than 32 cases in a single day. But since then, its COVID dashboard shows 23 days with 100 or more cases, including four in the past week.

Massachusetts is not the only state with institutions pivoting to a more endemic mode. In Virginia, because of a legal opinion from attorney general Jason Miyares and under new Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, several universities have ended both their vaccine and booster requirements. The University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and George Mason are now simply encouraging them. Still, not every leader is enamored with the change.

“I understand the concept of personal freedom,” George Mason President Gregory Washington wrote to the GMU community. “But we must also understand the need for collective responsibility, and just because we can do something does not mean that we should.”

Across the nation and where students had been either in remote learning or had delayed starts to the semester, many returned to classes with the omicron variant not showing the same severity as delta and cases slowing. That included many of the California universities, Seattle University, the University of Washington, Michigan State University and the University of Texas at Austin.

“Multiple data points, including campus case counts and Proactive Community Testing positivity rates, indicate the situation on and around our campus is improving,” Texas President Jay Hartzell wrote. “This return does not mean that things will always be easy or straightforward.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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