These universities feel better restarting in person, even with COVID-19 raging

Vaccinations and increased testing of students provide an extra layer of protection as new semesters begin.
By: | January 4, 2022
Photo courtesy of Oregon State University

The University of Oregon and Oregon State University kicked off live classes on Monday, two in a long list of higher education institutions that have decided to open 2022 semesters in person rather than online.

Backed by existing health measures and increased protocols, many colleges and universities are nonetheless exercising extreme caution as the elusive omicron variant spreads across the nation. Despite the potential for transmission, leaders believe there is no substitute for face-to-face classroom and residential experiences.

“It became clear that a significant number of students did not thrive and have encountered educational and emotional setbacks caused by the pandemic, setbacks that could be reduced by limiting the isolation associated with remote learning,” said Patrick Phillips, Provost and Senior Vice President at the University of Oregon. “These negative outcomes occurred most frequently among our most vulnerable students. Especially for these students, in-person education is clearly a better alternative for student success.”

Phillips and UO officials say they are watching closely the decisions being made by other institutions who have gone remote, especially those operating in areas where omicron has increased by more than 250% or more in the past two weeks. That includes California, New York, Washington, DC, and Maryland, where universities have moved operations online or delayed starts.

In Oregon, case counts have risen more than 100%. But with vaccinations, testing and masking indoors, state universities feel a bit more comfortable trying the in-person option from the start. “The university’s decision is intentional,” Becky Johnson, Oregon State’s interim president, said. “We are mindful that classrooms, where students and faculty are vaccinated and wear face coverings, have not been a significant source of virus spread. We seek to minimize disruption of student learning and experience and provide predictability for our faculty and university operations.”

Oregon State is requiring booster shots and testing for all those living in residence halls to its campuses, and the University of Oregon has set a Jan. 31 deadline for booster compliance. UO will continue to monitor its cases closely, saying it is prepared for disruptions to occur, the potential for instructors to be “unable to teach in person due to illness or other reasons related to COVID-19 and the possibility of going remote.”

In announcing its plans to fully reopen and drawing on omicron studies that show it might be far less severe than the delta variant, Northeastern University Chancellor Ken Henderson said an institution’s approach now should be far different than in March 2020.

“As we move into this endemic phase of the pandemic, our job is to continue to control COVID effectively, not let COVID control us,” he said in a statement to the community.

Another institution in the Boston area, Tufts University, is also reopening in person, bucking the trend of many others in the Northeast. Tufts is requiring routine surveillance testing to go along with training modules for instructors to ensure they understand the new safety guidelines. It is mandating boosters on a campus that already has more than 90% of its population vaccinated, requiring masks indoors and limiting visitors. It also does not allow indoor dining, but instead has grab-and-go options for students.

Frequent testing and masking have become two of the best options for institutions to mitigate COVID-19 spread and are being utilized widely for those who have not gotten their doses. “We are testing weekly those who are not vaccinated, and we are continuing to require face masks to be worn indoors,” said Eric Barron, President of Penn State University, which is slated to start classes on Jan. 10. “With these measures in place, together with hospitalization data and what we are learning about omicron, we believe we can safely but carefully return to on-campus classes and activities as planned.”

In Florida, where colleges and universities have been prevented from installing vaccine mandates by Gov. Ron DeSantis and where case counts have risen more than 760%, private Nova Southeastern University is requiring masks of all students both indoors and outdoors on campus. Florida State University hasn’t gone that far, but new President Richard McCullough has set a number of expectations for students staff and faculty, including testing before the start of classes on Wednesday and vaccinations.

“Medical-grade face masks, such as N95 or KN95 masks, will be expected on campus,” he said. “Cloth masks are less effective against the highly transmissible variants such as delta and omicron.”

At a Monday press conference, DeSantis said colleges and universities in his state that go remote should refund 100% of tuition to students. Most institutions are following that lead and sticking with in-person reopening plans, but the University of Miami is not, going virtual when it begins on Jan. 18. It will then return to face-to-face learning on Jan. 31. Miami-Dade County is one of the nation’s COVID hotspots, registering more than 14,000 cases per day, outpaced only by New York City and Los Angeles. Nearby Broward County ranks fifth.