The Omicron variant of the coronavirus is compounding pressure on college students and administrators, prompting some to announce at least a temporary return to remote learning in January at the same time that many students are feeling more stressed out and exhausted than ever.
This semester, many students had finally gotten into the groove of in-person learning and teaching and finally felt connected to their peers, but in the past two weeks, the variant has begun to tear across campuses.
Harvard graduate student Tanush Jagdish, an evolutionary biologist whose lab also helped Harvard set up its COVID testing lab, said he hopes the university switches back to in-person classes after the first few weeks of the semester.
“It will be really hard to manage classes and research and mental health and just keep going,” he said.
Omicron, which scientists and doctors say is much more transmissible than prior variants, is now the dominant strain in the United States. Scientists are still working to determine how severe it is, but they say vaccines and boosters offer the best protection.
Last week, colleges in the Boston region began to see spikes in case numbers in large part due to Omicron. Northeastern University, for example, had 368 new cases in the past seven days, compared to 154 cases in the seven prior.
“It’s been insane in the past week and a half, honestly, so many people have gotten [COVID],” said Jackson Hurley, a senior.
Worries about the variant prompted several colleges to make changes rapidly, including Tufts University, which hastily moved all remaining final exams online last Friday and urged students to leave campus as soon as possible.
Many schools, however, were already in the midst of finals last week. Some, including Harvard University, announced they will begin the semester remotely next year. Smith College said it will hold its January term remotely. MIT announced modifications to its January term, asking staff to work remotely and students to “carefully consider” whether to return to campus.
Elsewhere in the country, DePaul and Stanford universities also announced they will be remote the first weeks of the semester. Northwestern University announced a similar plan, as did Oberlin College, which will finish the fall semester in January.
Most other campuses have remained steadfast in their commitment to stay open next semester. Leaders said they have the necessary testing and safety precautions in place, and they think it is best for students’ mental health. Many are requiring that students receive booster shots before the spring term.
“Students don’t want to go home, and they don’t want to stay home,” said Mary Beth Cooper, president of Springfield College.
She said schools now have more tools to handle outbreaks than they had last year.
“We are much more nimble than we were in the past because it feels a little familiar,” she said.
Simmons University president Lynn Perry Wooten said the school was able to complete the fall semester without closing early and plans to reopen after the holidays.
Simmons will require a booster shot for all students and employees and will require that students, faculty, and staff test negative before they return and again upon arrival. The school will require nonessential staff to work remotely for the first week of January.
To support students’ mental health, Simmons is working to provide additional resources and identify spaces on campus that can be reserved for meditation and other wellness activities, the president said in a statement.
David Hamer, an epidemiologist at Boston University, said that just a few weeks ago, college administrators in the Boston region had started to think about whether they could reduce the frequency of COVID testing in the spring. Now that Omicron has arrived, they are instead thinking about an even more aggressive testing regimen.
One factor in considering whether to shift to remote learning is the number of isolation beds a school has, Hamer said. Also, he said, contact tracing has become nearly impossible with Omicron because so many people are testing positive. At this point, he said, BU can see as many cases in a day or two as it had previously been seeing in a week.
Hamer said all schools, whether they stay open or go remote, need to consider student mental health, which has suffered due to the long periods of isolation and stress during the past two years.
“Universities really need to . . . try to find ways to engage them so they’re not too isolated,” he said.
Students said that even with the stress, the past semester in many ways has been refreshing, because being on campus has meant they can interact with friends, go to class in person, and join clubs. But in the past two weeks, said Hurley, the Northeastern senior, many people seem to have hit a breaking point. They’re anxious, worried, upset, and sad, he said.
“It’s a lot of fatigue, honestly,” said Hurley, who is from Washington, D.C. “Frankly, people our age . . . in terms of global catastrophes, we’ve been through a lifetime of them already.”
Hurley said he realized this semester how much more he could learn from an in-person class, and hopes the university will continue in person next semester. He said some of his friends who recently tested positive have chosen to stay in their dorms for Christmas rather than take the virus home.
“It certainly makes college less college-y, and more like real life,” he said.
Jagdish, the Harvard graduate student, said he hit his deepest depression of the pandemic in the spring of 2020, when everything went suddenly remote. The joy he used to find interacting with the energetic first-year students in his classes was gone. He began seeing a therapist for the first time, then a psychiatrist, and started on antidepressants.
“You get to a point where it’s like, does it really matter, what I’m teaching online?” Jagdish said.
As the pandemic has dragged on, stress has come from new places. Research has been difficult. Two trips home to India were canceled because of fluctuations of the virus. He was finally able to return home but worried the whole time whether he would be able to return. He is back now, and will spend the holidays with his golden retriever, preparing for the spring term.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide or struggling with mental health issues, help is available. Here are some resources:
Crisis Text Line — Free 24/7 support for anyone in crisis. Text “Brave” to 741-741.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — Free 24/7 support for anyone in suicidal crisis. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Trevor Project — Free, confidential, 24/7. Crisis intervention and suicide prevention services for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) young people. 1-866-488-7386. Text and chat options at thetrevorproject.org.