Colleges and Universities Brace for the Full Impact of Omicron Variant

Just as plans for in-person learning were on the rise, campuses began bracing for a new challenge: COVID-19’s Omicron variant. Instead of loosening restrictions, colleges and universities are increasing random testing, sustaining indoor mask mandates and, where permissible, upping the requirements for being vaccinated to include booster shots.

As was the case with the Delta variant over the summer, Omicron appears to be rapidly transmissible. While researchers examine whether booster vaccines should be enhanced to address the variants, the ability of existing vaccines to mitigate transmission remains the prevailing scientific advice.

Queensborough Community College has created accessible COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.Queensborough Community College has created accessible COVID-19 testing and vaccinations.Thanksgiving brought a national spike in COVID-19 cases, as it did in 2020. With students soon returning to campuses for the start of the spring 2022 semester, administrators stand on alert.

“We anticipate that there will probably be a mild increase that’s consistent with what we’re seeing across the state, but we haven’t seen that yet,” says Stephen Di Dio, vice president and chief marketing and communication officer at Queensborough Community College (QCC), part of the City University of New York (CUNY). 

As QCC’s CUNY Coronavirus Campus Liaison, Di Dio makes sure the college complies with all the practices and policies that CUNY sets for its institutions.

Fall semester 

“Creating a safe campus environment is all of our responsibility, and all members of the college community are expected to comply with all CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), New York State and local health guidelines,” says Dr. Jennifer M. Lancaster, vice president for academic affairs/academic dean at St. Francis College (SFC), a small private college in Brooklyn, New York.

As is allowable in New York, SFC requires all students, faculty and staff, except those with approved medical or religious exemptions, to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of accessing college buildings. The college’s proof of vaccination form and supporting documentation are required. Mask-wearing is mandatory on campus, regardless of vaccination status and/or the ability to socially distance. 

“In addition, we ask all of our community members to sign a ‘Terrier Pledge’ indicating their commitment to following not only our campus policies and procedures but general health and hygiene guidance as well,” says Lancaster.

Sacred Heart University (SHU), a private university in Connecticut, also requires all students to be fully vaccinated. Students who received either religious or medical exemptions have been required to test weekly. The fall semester also had random testing of approximately 10% of the student population each week and offered it to anyone who wanted it. Early in the semester, there were about 90 positive tests, but numbers decreased throughout the fall semester to single digits and some weeks zero until after the Thanksgiving break, when numbers rose to approximately 21 positive tests.

“We have a 27-room guest house on our campus. We place [students who test positive] there,” says Larry Wielk, SHU dean of students. Lois Elfman Com 9390

Students have 24 hours to make arrangements to go home. If a student is from far away, they are allowed to stay. Roommates or contacts who have been vaccinated do not have to quarantine, but they need to monitor their symptoms, get tested within five to seven days and wear masks. 

Proof of vaccination is required for students at QCC. Faculty and staff must either be fully vaccinated or adhere to a testing protocol that requires that they test every seven days before coming onto campus. Over 90% of faculty and over 80% of the entire workforce have submitted proof of vaccination. There is also a randomized surveillance program for which 5–10% of students, faculty and staff are called each week to test at a CUNY testing site.

Before Thanksgiving, an email went out to everyone reminding them they should not come to campus if they were experiencing symptoms or may have come in contact with someone with COVID, and directing them to connect with QCC’s health services. Individuals who may have been exposed to the virus should get a PCR test before returning to campus. 

Florida A&M University (FAMU), an historically Black university in Tallahassee, has not been able to implement such stringent requirements due to Florida laws that do not allow mask and vaccine mandates. Masks are offered at the entry for sporting events.

“Students that are living in the residence halls, in order to move in we do ask that they present either a negative COVID test that’s been taken within 72 hours or they show that they have been fully vaccinated,” says Tanya Tatum, director of FAMU’s student health services. “We recommend that if they’re not fully vaccinated, they test every other week.” 

FAMU has a large testing site that is open six days a week to the community and all faculty, staff and students. There is also a vaccination site together with the testing site. 

“Most of our messaging says that masks are expected to be worn indoors, but you can’t require it,” says Tatum. “We have an ongoing vaccination campaign.”

Watching and waiting 

A detailed email was distributed at the end of the fall semester asking all SFC students, faculty and staff to be mindful of the latest CDC holiday guidance for traveling or gathering with friends and family. Testing is recommended both before and after travel and gatherings, and the college provided information about local testing sites. 

In early December, New York Governor Kathy Hochul announced a mask mandate for all indoor public spaces unless a business has a vaccine requirement. SFC and QCC will both require proof of vaccination or applicable exemption upon return to campus in January. Weekly testing is required for anyone with an exemption.

For the spring 2021 semester, QCC turned its gymnasium into a vaccination site. When students returned to campus in the fall, there was a vaccination van outside the gates. Efforts are underway to get the booster shots to campus. 

SHU has two definitive instructions in place for the start of the spring semester: (1) have a PCR test within 72 hours before returning to campus in January and, (2) during the week of Jan. 17, the entire undergraduate population will be tested. Faculty and staff will also be tested at the start of the semester.

“If you test positive, stay home, but then we also want to take another baseline of the campus when they get here,” Wielk says. “The third prong that we’re looking at but we have not made a final decision on yet is whether or not to mandate the booster. In the interim, we’ve offered a number of booster clinics on campus.”

FAMU saw a spike in COVID-19 cases in January 2021, and Tatum anticipates the same for January 2022. She says they won’t know right away how prominently the Omicron variant figures into the spike. Students were encouraged to test before heading home for the holidays and again before returning to campus. 

“We’ve asked students to look at this as part of being in a community,” Tatum says. “What we are trying to do is to encourage people individually to make good decisions for the larger community.”

Lois Elfman Com 9641Masks are required for all indoor spaces at QCC. Spectators are not allowed at sporting events, so the college streams video of sporting events to keep the campus community engaged. CUNY tracks all its testing sites and maintains data on COVID-19 and the Delta and Omicron variants. Di Dio says, given the stringent requirements, the rate of positive COVID tests across all CUNY institutions is low. As the COVID liaison, he meets almost every week with officials from across CUNY to discuss the challenges and work toward solutions.

After operating almost totally virtually for the 2020–21 academic year, Di Dio says people returned to campus for the fall 2021 semester. “We have a little bit more than 2,000 people on campus each day,” says Di Dio. “Our staff are working a hybrid work schedule where they’re in the office 50% of the time and remote 50% of the time. The administration is doing the same.”

Remaining flexible

“As our knowledge and understanding of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to evolve, SFC’s plan for the 2021–22 academic year and beyond remains flexible,” Lancaster says. “Our Back to Brooklyn taskforce continues to monitor the pandemic situation closely and relies on the most up-to-date scientific information, public health guidelines, and local, state and federal requirements to make informed decisions about SFC operations and the public situation.”

SFC is in talks with the NYC Health and Hospitals about coming to campus in January to administer booster shots at the start of the semester. SFC’s Health and Wellness Center will be offering testing both on campus and in the residence hall.

At indoor events at SHU, including sporting events, masking is required for all spectators. Student-athletes are tested frequently, regardless of vaccination status. Wielk anticipates an increase in random testing in the spring semester. 

Faculty members at FAMU are allowed to not only wear masks and faceguards but also have a sneeze guard between them and students, which reduces the possibility of classroom transmission. A number of students have been engaged to help with messaging and appeal to their peers. 

Di Dio says QCC only accepts PCR tests, not rapid tests, if someone is returning to campus after previously testing positive for COVID. Before the emergence of the Omicron variant, the college had been planning to increase the number of classes in person from 50% in the fall semester to 70% for the spring semester. 

“We’re going to continue to plan for that, and also be aware that the situation may change,” Di Dio says. “We’ve got to continue to follow the guidance of our public health officials, but if COVID taught us one thing it’s that we’ve got to be prepared for whatever comes our way and be prepared to innovate and make it work for our students.” 

This article originally appeared in the January 20, 2022 edition of Diverse. Read it here.

Premium Employers