Colleges scale back COVID precautions for fall, saying pandemic phase over

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Colleges this fall are no longer treating Covid-19 as an emergency upending their operations, shifting to eliminate mask requirements and mandatory coronavirus testing and letting students who contract the virus isolate in their dorms with their roommates.

With easy access to vaccinations and low hospitalization rates among college-aged adults — even during the latest surge in BA.5 subvariant cases — administrators said it is time to lift or at least rethink restrictions and redefine the virus as endemic, not a pandemic. That means scaling back mass testing, removing bans on large indoor gatherings and preparing for a fall term that more closely resembles life before Covid.

Another issue driving the decisions is exhaustion, according to public-health experts and academics on several campuses. Students and staff have been subjected to two years of daily health checks, weekly trots to a testing center and a roller coaster of mask protocols.

"It really comes down to a change in mind-set," said Ken Henderson, who was co-chair of Northeastern University's Covid-management operations until the group disbanded in January. Citing clinical therapies and the reduced severity of current variants, he said, "We've pivoted significantly to more living with the virus."

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Northeastern is mandating vaccines and boosters for the fall, but already eliminated indoor mask mandates and surveillance testing and no longer offers dedicated isolation space for infected students.

"Campuses are moving in the direction of pretending Covid is no longer an issue," said Chris Marsicano, an assistant professor of educational studies at Davidson College who has been tracking colleges' responses to Covid since early 2020. "When there's a flare-up, treat the flare-up. Don't have restrictions all the time."

Woman student on college campus learning wearing face mask while working on her laptop

That should be fine for most students and staff who are vaccinated and not immunocompromised, said A. David Paltiel, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health. But "indifference to off-campus transmission and transmission to more vulnerable members of the community is a little bit heartbreaking."

Schools said they could still reverse course if variants lead to more-severe illness or local health officials recommend changes.

One of the biggest changes schools are making is dropping surveillance testing of asymptomatic students and staff, and, with that shift, abandoning online dashboards that tracked cases and positivity rates the past two years.

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The College of Charleston in South Carolina isn't requiring students to show negative Covid-19 tests upon arrival this fall, said Alicia Caudill, executive vice president for student affairs. The school did require entry testing last year. She said the college will have thousands of at-home tests and KN-95 masks for students who want them.

"You have to make the best decisions for yourself," rather than relying on blanket policies from the school, Ms. Caudill said.

Georgia Institute of Technology did away with asymptomatic surveillance testing in July and instead will study wastewater to try to detect large outbreaks.

FILE – A syringe is prepared with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a vaccination clinic at the Keystone First Wellness Center in Chester, Pa., Dec. 15, 2021. Pfizer says tweaking its COVID-19 vaccine to better target the omicron variant is safe and boo (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File) / AP Newsroom)

Dr. Paltiel said that approach makes sense, given how quickly the latest Omicron subvariants seem to be spreading, and how virulent future strains might be.

"You're sounding like the generals who are always getting ready to fight the previous war," he said of schools sticking with old approaches, like mandatory weekly testing.

Most schools are maintaining vaccine mandates, but some are adjusting who is covered by the rules or exactly what counts as being vaccinated.

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The board of trustees at San Joaquin Delta College in California voted last month to remove vaccine and booster requirements for students.

"We're trying to be flexible while recognizing that we really do need to provide in-person services," said spokesman Alex Breitler, adding that unvaccinated students previously couldn't participate in hands-on programs.

The State University of New York's Orange County Community College isn't mandating boosters this fall, while the San Diego Community College District no longer requires vaccines for students. The district maintains a mask mandate.

A cyclist crosses an intersection on the campus of Arizona State University on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, in Tempe, Ariz. Officials in college towns all over the U.S. are fretting that off-campus students are being counted in places other than the commu (AP Photo/Matt York)

Schools are often issuing guidance that students who test positive for Covid isolate in place, meaning they lock down in their dorms, even with uninfected roommates, rather than moving to other designated housing while contagious.

In its guidance for the fall, Cornell University recommended that students who test positive "wear a high-quality mask at all times except when eating, sleeping or using bathroom facilities (e.g., showering, brushing teeth)."

University of California, Irvine, set aside 166 beds for isolation housing this fall, down from 362 in the spring. David Souleles, director of the school's Covid-19 response team, said that is partly in response to updated guidance from public-health officials. Cutting isolation beds will also free up more beds for the general student population in the midst of a housing crunch.

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Leslie Bienen, a public-health researcher at Oregon Health and Science University-Portland State University School of Public Health, said that by the time one roommate tests positive for Covid, chances are anyone else they lived with was already exposed.

Moving students into separate housing, she said, "is kind of closing the barn door after the horse is gone."

As in-person classes once again become the norm, schools are scaling back their online and hybrid offerings — including for students who fall ill.

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Georgia Tech, for instance, said instructors should be flexible with Covid-positive students who have to isolate or quarantine, as they would if students were sick before the pandemic. "The method or approach to providing content and makeup work for the students is at the instructor's discretion," the school said.

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