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: ‘It almost feels like groundhog day’: Colleges welcome students back amid delta variant surge

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

Wrong.

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

The availability of the vaccines certainly provides more 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 boon this week when the Federal 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, a professor of higher education at the University of Tennessee

A slew of colleges that had been hesitant to require the shot 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 some are vaccinated. Political debates about whether to hold classes online or in person have been replaced by political debates over mask and vaccine mandates.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, they’ll be continuing the surveillance testing protocol they implemented last year. Those who are vaccinated will be tested once a week and those who are unvaccinated will be tested two times per week. 

“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 the 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, general counsel and vice president for legal affairs at 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 new 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. They’re also mandating vaccines for students and providing $250 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 health care 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 also advocating for similar tactics. For example, Delaware’s governor issued a mask mandate for kindergarten through 12th grade schools 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 are often some of the most visible institutions in their states and public schools rely on funding from state lawmakers.

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 laws. 

In Texas, Governor Gregg Abbott banned public institutions and government entities from issuing vaccine or mask mandates, posing challenges to universities’ efforts to mitigate risk in the state. Full FDA approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech
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vaccine may create room for institutions to require the shot because Abbott’s order was specific to the vaccines authorized under emergency use. 

At the University of Texas-Austin, officials are encouraging vaccination testing — including incentives — and following Center for Disease Control masking guidelines, Eliska Padilla, issues and communications manager for the school, 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. 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 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 state law, the college 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, director of the UT 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 will show up to 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 college will need to test unvaccinated students at least twice per week to prevent a high risk level of 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 then the university will only need to test people with symptoms, the model found, at an estimated cost to the university 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 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 about $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 college 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. Students began attending online courses this week, but in-person classes won’t be in session until October. 

Stanislaus is part of the California State University system, the largest four-year system in the country, which 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 into campus at Stanislaus in August, nine individuals, many of whom were fully vaccinated, tested positive for the virus and 80 people were awaiting test results because they were 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 one student, 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 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 academic year.

This year, school 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 a high number of cases. 

The school is also implementing a 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 the 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 school officials 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.”

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