A few months ago, college leaders had hoped the spring semester would herald relaxed COVID protocols on campus, but with the arrival of the Omicron variant in the United States, those plans are on hold and more restrictions are being layered in.
Amid outbreaks this week, several colleges in the Northeast, including Cornell University, Princeton University, and Middlebury College, have gone so far as to move finals online and urge students to leave for winter break as quickly as possible.
No major institutions in Boston have undertaken such steps yet. And though a number of campuses have seen post-Thanksgiving clusters, public health experts are urging university leaders to think twice before they impose severe restrictions.
So far, they point out, most COVID cases on campuses have led to mild illness because most schools require students to be vaccinated, and the experts say limiting social interaction could seriously harm students’ mental health at a time when it is already fragile.
“I am worried about student mental health in places that might become really restrictive in the face of a new variant,” said Shira Doron, an attending physician and epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center and an associate professor at Tufts University School of Medicine.
Boston’s major universities have not detected cases of Omicron yet, officials said. But most have reported a spike in COVID cases since the Thanksgiving break and are urging students to use caution and limit their interactions.
Elsewhere in the country, post-Thanksgiving spikes have prompted more drastic measures.
Cornell reported 903 cases of COVID-19 during the week of Dec. 7 through 13, many of them Omicron in fully vaccinated individuals. The school decided to shut down its campus, move finals online, cancel all activities and athletics, and close the libraries. Cornell said it has not seen any severe illness in the infected students.
Middlebury also moved all classes online last week after 34 new cases brought the campus total to 50 active cases, the highest number ever. It also canceled all athletic events and in-person gatherings, announced an end to indoor dining, and told students to depart from campus for the semester as soon as possible. Princeton also moved finals online this week after seeing a COVID spike — including, officials believe, some cases of Omicron. The university canceled all indoor gatherings with food and told students to leave as soon as they could.
In Boston, experts said the new variant is not necessarily cause for harsher restrictions.
“The data and the science don’t suggest that anything should change based on Omicron,” said Jared Auclair, an associate professor of chemistry and chemical biology at Northeastern who runs the university’s COVID-19 testing facility in Burlington, Mass.
Scientists believe the variant is more transmissible but appears to cause less severe illness. It is unclear yet whether the strain is simply less virulent or whether protection from vaccines, boosters, and prior infections have made Omicron cases less severe. Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s top medical adviser for the pandemic, said Wednesday that boosters of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines offer substantial protection against Omicron.
Auclair said that at this phase of the pandemic, people need to take responsibility for their own health, much like they do with the flu, by getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, and staying home when sick.
“Realistically, COVID is never going to go anywhere; at this point, we are going to have to learn to coexist with it better than we are now,” he said.
Mental health is a top concern now, said Auclair, who added that he speaks openly about his own clinical OCD and other mental health challenges in an effort to destigmatize mental health. Auclair said the mental health of faculty and staff in the higher education industry has suffered, too, even though they don’t talk about it as much.
David Hamer, a professor of global health and infectious disease specialist at Boston University, said that so far BU has not seen any cases of Omicron, but that university officials expect it will arrive at some point, likely after the holidays. Hamer said schools were talking about trying to pull back restrictions in the spring, perhaps testing less often, but the variant put a pause on those discussions.
“Because of Omicron, we’ve all sort of stopped and said, ‘Let’s watch and wait,’ ” he said.
In this new era, in which vaccines and boosters are widely available and people are free to gather indoors, the goal of institutions should not be to prevent all spread, said Doron, the Tufts epidemiologist. A better goal would be to prevent outbreaks associated with severe disease, she said.
“If you react in such a way that restricts people’s lives and bars them from doing things that are important to them, you really do have to think about the risk,” she said.
Nicholas Covino, the president of William James College, which specializes in behavior health, said Omicron creates yet another source of stress not only for students but also professors and staff.
“It’s now chapter three, and nobody knows exactly how that’s going to play out,” said Covino, a psychologist and board chair of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts, a trade association.
Universities should rethink the academic demands they are placing on students at this point, Covino said. The focus should be on checking in on students, working in groups, and giving people the chance to redo work instead of receiving a bad grade. Now is not the time for memorization, high stakes exams, and pressure to produce, he said.
“Everybody’s got a 20-pound weight on their back, and we’re expecting them to run the same way they did two years ago,” Covino said. “We really need to rethink what academic excellence is in this environment.”
The toll the pandemic has taken on faculty is often overlooked with all the focus on students, experts said.
Merry “Corky” White, an anthropology professor at BU who studies food anthropology in Japan, said that this past semester has been trying because the BU administration forced all professors to teach in person. White, who is older, said she wore two masks and struggled to speak and hear. And now, just as another trying semester comes to a close, Omicron looms.
“The indeterminacy of it,” she said. “We thought we were getting to a point where we could breathe, and then there’s a new variant.”
White said bearing the weight of her own stress and that of her colleagues and students can sometimes feel like almost too much. Students’ stress often exhibits as anger or bitterness, she said. White said she just turned in her grades for the semester and is already getting pushback from students who say they deserve higher marks.
“I did not have a good semester,” she said. “We’re not supposed to have stress ourselves because we are the support.”
White said she hopes the situation improves because she has a sabbatical next year and plans to travel to Japan to study the whiskey industry. Instead of looking forward to that trip, she is worrying about whether students will bring the virus back with them from winter break. She is planning to get a second booster in February.
“I just can’t believe that it will be a smooth reentry,” she said.