For a brief moment early this summer, as vaccination rates rose, it seemed as though the fall season on college campuses might bring a blissful rush of normalcy. Teeming dorms, packed lectures, bustling dining halls, raucous parties.
Now, as students return, the reality is a more subdued version of that dream. Most institutions will have full dorms, side-by-side desks, and in-person activities, but they’ll also require masks, regular testing, and proof of vaccination for students and staff. And a sense of foreboding looms: The Delta variant is extremely contagious, and no one knows what the colder months will bring. Many professors, especially those with unvaccinated children, fear for their safety and that of their families.
“We are not as far as we hoped we would be as a nation in battling the pandemic, and so campuses have to respond,” said Laurie Leshin, president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute who last year led a consortium of institutions that banded together to tackle the pandemic. She continues to meet with a group of private college presidents every two weeks to compare notes on how they are handling this new phase.
In response to the highly transmissible variant, many institutions recently reinstated an indoor mask mandate, including in dormitories. Most will continue weekly testing for students, faculty, and staff, and nearly all schools in the region have made vaccines mandatory for everyone on campus. But none of this is any guarantee of a smooth school year, epidemiologists warn.
“Delta has really changed the calculus, given how much more transmissible it is,” said Ramnath Subbaraman, an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at Tufts School of Medicine. “We moved from a situation where we were backing off of many precautions to one where we are adding back those precautions, and that is wise, until we know how fall is going to pan out.”
Subbaraman said the Northeast is not immune to the major Delta surges that the South has experienced over the summer. While higher than other states, our vaccination rates aren’t high enough to preclude a surge, he said, and we are about to return indoors in large numbers.
Students are brimming with excitement as they arrive on campuses, even if their anticipation is tinged with anxiety about suddenly being around so many people. First- and second-year students are looking forward to their most authentic college experience yet.
“Anything to just be on campus, I’ll take it,” said Alex Norce, a second-year student at Northeastern University from New Jersey. “I just want a normal college life.”
Many schools, including Boston University and Harvard College, have staggered move-in periods to prevent crowding.
Amherst College, in Western Massachusetts, took a more conservative approach, this week announcing stricter guidelines for the next two weeks that include no in-person dining and limited off-campus travel. Administrators hope this strategy will allow the college to isolate and contain any cases, and to relax restrictions soon after.
Not all schools will require masks. Boston College, which did mandate vaccines, will require masks for only unvaccinated individuals, a policy that has worried some faculty. Spokesman Jack Dunn said the campus vaccination rate is around 99 percent.
Yonder Gillihan, a theology professor and president of the BC chapter of the American Association of University Professors, said he has heard from many worried colleagues.
“It would be nice to know the reasoning behind this decision, especially in view of the measures that are being taken throughout the state and at peer institutions,” he said in an e-mail, adding that many people will still choose to wear masks.
Continued testing, an additional cost that many institutions had hoped to shed after the last academic year, will also return to most campuses this year. Epidemiologists stress surveillance testing is crucial for monitoring transmission, even among vaccinated people.
Schools spent millions on testing last year, either by building their own labs or contracting with the Broad Institute, in Cambridge, which last school year charged about $25 a test. The Broad can now process 10 tests for that same price, thanks to a more efficient method known as pool testing, but it is still something schools must budget for.
Despite all the precautions, many faculty members are not reassured. Most professors are thrilled to be back in the classroom, but among those with unvaccinated children at home, some worry how they will be able to do their jobs if their children get sick or need to quarantine.
“There doesn’t seem to be any good reason why you couldn’t move the class to the remote mode temporarily,” said Daniel Star, a philosophy professor at Boston University and co-president of the BU chapter of American Association of University Professors.
BU, like many institutions, has told professors they must hold all courses in person this year, and find a substitute or reschedule a class if they cannot attend.
Many professors at UMass Boston have the same concerns. The school has implemented vaccine and mask mandates but plans weekly testing only for “high risk” students, which includes student athletes, performing arts students, and those who live in dorms. Faculty also question if they will be notified if someone in their class tests positive.
Strict safety protocols are crucially important at UMass Boston because most of its 15,000 students commute from around the Boston region, said Steve Striffler, president of the Faculty Staff Union and director of the Labor Resource Center in the College of Liberal Arts.
“Any of our failures could become Boston’s problem,” he said.
The UMass Boston administration has said it believes a combination of vaccination and masking will keep its community safe. Free on-demand testing is also available through the university, the administration has said.
“As Boston’s only public university, serving largely first-generation college students, in-person education is not only what our students long for but also what they need,” Chancellor Marcelo Suárez-Orozco wrote in an e-mail to the campus last week.
Similar conflicts are cropping up between college administrators and faculty at institutions across the country. Professors at Spelman College, a historically Black women’s institution in Atlanta, refused to teach in person this fall, citing a lack of safety protocols, and then relented after the college implemented new guidelines. Some professors in states with Republican governors or legislatures that have banned vaccine mandates have gone so far as to resign from their positions. However, the FDA’s recent approval of the Pfizer vaccine prompted more schools in states such as Ohio and Louisiana to require shots.
Despite the consternation, it has been hard to suppress the energy that is bubbling up as students finally trickle back into apartments, campus centers, and classrooms.
A recent activity fair for first-year students felt ecstatic, Leshin said. Club officers were shocked by record levels of interest in their organizations, she said. The outdoor outing club had 400 people sign up, what would have been a preposterous number in the past. Masks weren’t required, since the event took place outdoors.
“I can see their smiles now. They are very happy to be back,” she said.
Norce, the Northeastern second-year, lived on campus last year, but it felt like a ghost town. Classes were virtual. It seemed impossible to meet people. Desperate to socialize safely in the cold months, groups of students would hunt for an empty classroom to hang out in.
As Norce prepares to return to campus in a few days, it still feels daunting. She worries about testing positive for COVID-19, even if she is asymptomatic, and having to isolate. But she is also eager to meet new people, attend professors’ office hours in person, invite friends over to her dorm, and attract new members to the mental health organization she helps to run.
“I didn’t have a first year of college, really, so this I’m looking at is like my first year of college all over again,” Norce said.