‘I’m nervous’: US colleges wrestle with Covid safety as fall semester begins

Many universities now require masks and vaccinations – and some schools have moved instruction online, at least for now

As universities and colleges in the United States open for the fall semester, even those institutions requiring masks and vaccinations are grappling with unexpectedly high rates of Covid.

In one high-profile example, the University of Delaware sent a message to faculty this week, instructing them not to let students know if their classmates test positive for Covid-19 even though cases are rising on campus.

If a student notifies an instructor that they have Covid-19, the instructor is now not allowed to notify the rest of the class they came in contact with a positive case. Instead, instructors should tell students that “given the current incidence of Covid-19 on campus, we should assume that we may have contact with individuals who are shedding Covid-19, perhaps unknowingly,” the email said.

One professor, who asked to withhold her name to protect her job, told the Guardian that she understood the policy as she didn’t want to reveal sensitive health information about some students to others. However, she said, she was concerned that current contact-tracing strategies would not be enough to control the spread of Covid on campus.

“I have had multiple students in my class self-report to me that they’re positive, but the university doesn’t contact me and say, hey, you’ve got somebody positive in your class,” the professor said.

The university said its contact tracing department would notify those who were within six feet of the positive student for more than 15 minutes.

However, the professor said it was not always clear when students are close to each other.

For instance, the professor said, no school officials have asked her for a seating chart in order to notify students of potential exposure. Instead, it seems they rely on the recollections of the student who tests positive – which may be difficult, especially at the start of the school year when many students don’t yet know each other’s names.

Ninety-one percent of the students and 87% of staff are vaccinated, according to the university, and those who are vaccinated are not required to be tested regularly. Proof of vaccination or a negative test is required for all events, including football games. Students who do not show proof of vaccination may apply for religious or medical exemptions and take weekly tests.

In the face of the more contagious Delta variant, the university has instituted an indoor mask mandate regardless of vaccination status.

After reporting only 14 cases earlier in the week, over the Labor Day and Rosh Hashanah holidays, the rates for University of Delaware students shot up to 105 new cases on Wednesday and 136 on Thursday. The rest of the state has seen an average of nearly 400 cases each day in the past week.

Isolation rooms on the Delaware campus are also filling up, which means students may soon need to return home to isolate if they test positive – which could put their families at risk as well.

In a separate email to students, the university attributed the rise in cases to large off-campus gatherings.

On 19 August, a judge ruled that current and former students could hold the university liable for shutting down campus in the spring. “By its statements and history of offering classes in person, the school may have implied a promise to stay in person,” the judge said. Such rulings may make it more difficult for colleges and universities to shut down, even temporarily, in the face of rising cases this fall.

Last year, as some US campuses initially welcomed students back on campus, there were unexpected closures and moves back to remote instruction. Many colleges have struggled to temper expectations of a return to normalcy this school year, especially as some states have prevented them from mandating masks and vaccines.

More than 700 colleges and universities now have vaccine mandates, though they often offer exemptions for religious and medical reasons. Some, like Louisiana State University and Ohio State University, mandated vaccines recently, after the full FDA approval of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

Even so, more than 12 million students will attend institutions of higher learning with no vaccine mandates.

At colleges with no vaccine or mask mandates, professors are worried; one professor in Georgia quit, mid-class, when a student refused to wear a mask. The instructor told the university paper that “whereas I had risked my life to defend my country while in the air force, I was not willing to risk my life to teach a class with an unmasked student during this pandemic”.

Even highly vaccinated colleges have seen outbreaks. At Duke University, where 98% of students and 92% of faculty are fully vaccinated, there were clusters of infections before classes even started.

Cornell University instituted more restrictions, including more surveillance testing, after rates of transmission unexpectedly shot up soon after opening.

Other schools, like the University of Texas at San Antonio, Rice University and California State University at Stanislaus, moved instruction online temporarily in the face of high positive tests on campus and in the community.

But many schools have continued much as they did before.

Jim Clements, president of Clemson University, recently posted a photo of a crowded indoor student convocation. A recent video of massive, largely unmasked crowds at a Virginia Tech football game went viral.

In addition to requiring masks and vaccinations, the University of Delaware professor wishes she had clearer guidance on other ways to protect herself and students. For instance: what masks work best against the Delta variant? Does she need to buy surgical or N95 masks?

Without information like this, and without clear plans for notifying those who may have been exposed to the virus, she’s worried the spike will turn into a surge.

“I’m nervous,” she said.

Melody Schreiber

The GuardianTramp

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