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The Delta variant is stirring uncertainty on college campuses for fall

Prospective students and their parents touched the Greek Rock while taking a tour of Boston University on Tuesday.
Prospective students and their parents touched the Greek Rock while taking a tour of Boston University on Tuesday.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

In a month, tens of thousands of college students from across the country and the world will once again descend upon Massachusetts, as many universities attempt their first full, in-person semester since 2019.

A nationwide surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the Delta variant, however, has complicated that migration, leaving many schools on the brink of another year without a clear picture of what student life will look like.

“The Delta variant is the wild card all of higher ed is watching now,” Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute and leader of the Massachusetts Higher Education Working Group, wrote in an e-mail. “University COVID response teams across the state are actively tracking and planning for a variety of scenarios.”

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Universities are responding to the uncertainty in different ways. Nearly every college in the state is requiring students to get vaccinated. Some schools — including Harvard University, Boston University, and MIT — have taken the further step of mandating masks indoors regardless of vaccination status.

Many schools also will reprise regular testing among students and faculty members, a tactic that helped spot cases among asymptomatic students.

College administrators say they’re relying on some of the other strategies they used last year when a limited number of students were allowed on campuses — such as staggering move-ins and limiting outside visitors in dormitories — to keep students, employees, and the general public healthy.

The most important tool to mitigate COVID-19 on campus, though, is vaccination, according to new research by David Paltiel, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health who has studied colleges reopening. If schools can get their student vaccination rate well above 90 percent, Paltiel’s research suggests, they can probably ditch other safeguards that were in place last year.

“At that level, it should be possible safely to return to normalcy without any kind of additional distancing or testing,” Paltiel said in an interview.

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A Globe review of Massachusetts colleges and universities found that nearly all of the residential, four-year schools will require students to get vaccinated.

One school that is not mandating vaccines for students is Gordon College, a nondenominational Christian college in Wenham. A Gordon spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment on the school’s policy.

Even for those colleges that will require vaccinations, much remains undecided.

At Springfield College, some policies put in place last year will remain — a scenario administrators hadn’t predicted as recently as a few months ago.

“We thought that it was over,” said the college’s president, Mary-Beth Cooper, “but it’s not.”

The school’s testing center, for instance, and an online dashboard that tracks its positive cases will resume operation. But the private school, home to 2,500 undergraduates, is still deciding whether to require vaccinated students to wear masks inside, Cooper said.

Early in the fall semester, before the weather gets cold, the college will provide outdoor diversions for students, including food trucks and activities on the quad, as it did in the spring, Cooper said. Rules forbidding large indoor gatherings and parties will be eased, though they won’t go away entirely.

Northeastern University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Boston College will not require masks indoors for vaccinated people.

“We intend for the coming year to be as normal as possible but will continue to follow public health guidelines throughout the year,” Jack Dunn, a BC spokesman, wrote in an e-mail.

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With some staples of campus life still up in the air, students are looking at the year ahead with a mix of excitement and anxiety.

Leigh Wilson, a rising senior at Harvard, hopes to resume performances with the university’s orchestra, though he’s prepared for that to mean socially distant and masked rehearsals.

“I don’t think anyone was expecting, like, completely normal,” Wilson said.

Joie Sun, who is entering her fifth and final year at Northeastern, said she is happy with the school’s current policy of optional masking for vaccinated students.

“It makes it easier for working out and stuff like that,” she said.

Jack Carey, a rising senior at BC, said he’s willing to follow his school’s safety restrictions, though ideally he’ll still get to all the activities on his “senior year checklist.”

“I don’t care about having to wear a mask in class,” Carey said. “I just hope I can see my friends.”


Jack Lyons can be reached at jack.lyons@globe.com.