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colleges return to drawing board – again – to fight virus | Economic news

By COLLIN Binkley, AP Educational Writer

Faced with rising infections and a new variant of COVID-19, colleges across the United States have once again been thwarted in their search for a return to normal and are starting to demand booster shots , expand mask mandates, limit social gatherings and, in some cases, bring classes back online.

The threat of the omicron variant comes like a punch to schools that were hoping to relax security measures this spring. Now, many are telling students to prepare for yet another term of masking, testing, and, if things turn bad, boundaries around social life.

After falling with few cases of coronavirus, Syracuse University officials “felt pretty good” about the spring term, said Kent Syverud, the chancellor of the school in upstate New State York.

“But omicron changed that,” Syverud said. “It made us go back and say, until we know more about this variant for sure, we’re going to have to reinstate some precautions.”

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Last week, Syracuse announced that all eligible students and employees must receive COVID-19 booster injections before the spring term. Students will also face a series of virus tests upon their return, and officials are debating whether to extend an existing mask term.

Much is still unknown about the omicron variant and the extent of the threat it poses. In the United States and many other countries, the delta variant is currently responsible for most cases of COVID-19.

But as colleges brace for the worst, many see boosters as their best hope. More than 20 colleges have issued recall requirements in the past few weeks, and others say they are considering it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is encouraging recalls for people aged 17 and older, and Pfizer announced last week that a booster of its COVID-19 vaccine could offer important protection against omicron even though both initial doses appear to be less effective.

Hundreds of colleges are already in need of COVID-19 vaccines, and some say recalls are an obvious next step.

So far, most of the recall mandates have come from small liberal arts colleges in the Northeast, but the list includes some as large as Boston University and as far as the University of Notre Dame in the ‘Indiana and the University of New Mexico.

The University of Massachusetts at Amherst was among the first to demand the recall for students, saying all students should be vaccinated unless they have medical or religious exemptions.

“Boosters are our best protection,” said Jeffrey Hescock, co-director of the university’s Public Health Promotion Center. “It shows that we take public health seriously, and so do our students. “

A recent online petition opposing the recall warrant – citing 97% of students vaccinated and a few cases on campus – drew a few dozen signatures. But Emily O’Brien, a freshman at UMass, said the recall is a reasonable request. She was already planning to get a recall, but said the mandate would likely increase student membership and prevent future lockdowns.

“If the past six months have shown anything, it’s that a lot of people won’t bother to be vaccinated – especially healthy young people – if they don’t have to,” he said. said O’Brien, 18, of Bedford, New Hampshire.

UMass will also require masks at the start of the spring term, and it sends students home with a quick test to take towards the end of winter vacation.

Many colleges that anticipate potential disruption next semester are already grappling with campus outbreaks that occurred in the weeks after Thanksgiving.

Cornell University closed all campus activities on Tuesday and moved final exams online after more than 400 students tested positive over two days. In a campus post, President Martha Pollack said there was evidence for the omicron variant in a “significant” number of samples.

“It is obviously extremely disheartening to have to take these steps,” Pollack wrote. “However, since the start of the pandemic, our commitment has been to follow the science and do all we can to protect the health of our faculty, staff and students.

Middlebury College in Vermont switched to distance education last week amid an increase in cases and urged students to leave early for winter break. The increase in cases at the University of Pennsylvania led to a ban on indoor social events last Thursday.

Tulane University in New Orleans on Friday warned that a peak on campus includes “probable” cases of the omicron variant, confirmed in at least one student last week. In response, school officials reinstated a mask warrant and extended virus testing.

Other colleges that have extended mask requirements for next year include Wake Forest University, West Virginia University, and Penn State.

Some other schools are already postponing the return to campus next month to avoid epidemics. Southern New Hampshire University and DePaul University in Chicago recently said students will take distance education for two weeks before returning to campus after vacation.

In a letter to students, DePaul President A. Gabriel Esteban said the school “will start the winter term cautiously so that we can maintain a strong university experience for the remainder of the school year.”

When Stanford University students return to campus in January, they will be prohibited from hosting parties or other large gatherings for two weeks. They will also be tested once a week and will continue to wear masks indoors so they can attend classes in person. The measures aim to limit the transmission of the virus without going too far by limiting the academic experience, said Russell Furr, assistant vice-president of environmental health and safety.

“This is something that we struggled with throughout the pandemic – how do we get a balanced approach? Said Furr. The aim is to avoid the strict blockages seen at the start of the pandemic, when the mental health of students “really suffered,” he added.

In some colleges there is still a cautious hope of a normal semester. Executives at the University of Central Florida have told professors they can demand an in-person presence in the spring, which was discouraged this fall amid an increase in delta cases.

In a campus post, Acting Marshal Michael D. Johnson warned that if the omicron variant took off, “we may need to change direction again.”

Another concern is the timing of omicron – even without a new variant, there were fears of more outbreaks as colder weather pushes people indoors, said Anita Barkin, co-chair of a COVID-19 task force for the American College Health Association.

The association recently recommended that colleges focus on increasing immunization rates to avoid another wave of cases.

“The message in all of this is that we have to stay vigilant,” Barkin said. “There is definitely pandemic fatigue and people are tired of the pandemic – but it looks like the pandemic is not quite tired of us. “

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