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College COVID restrictions have become overkill

For the sake of their mental health, students deserve a path to normalcy.

A face mask on a statue of Andrew Dickson White, cofounder of Cornell University, on Jan. 14. The university moved final exams online in December, and students will attend classes virtually from Jan. 24 through Feb. 4.Ted Shaffrey/Associated Press

Over the past decade, college faculty like us have been frequently reminded that we are “on the front lines” of student mental health. And rightly so. In any given semester, faculty spend a great deal of time with students. We build strong relationships with our students that provide insight into their challenges and triumphs, their stressors and successes. While most of us are not trained mental health clinicians, we are well positioned to recognize when students are struggling.

As faculty on the front lines in January 2022, we see a decline in student mental health that is driven, at least in part, by the policies of our own universities.

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We are sounding the alarm.

We have seen firsthand the toll that pandemic-related restrictions at our Massachusetts universities are taking on students. A burgeoning student mental health crisis existed prior to the pandemic, but there is no doubt that two years of isolation, disconnection, and punitive restrictions have dramatically worsened this crisis. The Globe recently chronicled the heartbreaking situation at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where four students committed suicide in the latter half of last year. It’s clear that the same dynamics are at work nationally. A recent report by Inside Higher Ed confirms that students’ mental health is at an all-time low due largely to the pandemic and the associated restrictions on their ability to socialize with one another and to build relationships with faculty and other mentors.

Nevertheless, many institutions of higher education are recommitting to the same curbs on students for yet another semester — or, in some cases, imposing even stricter ones. Read the policies from our UMass campuses and you might wonder if we are still in the early days of 2020: Students must always be masked indoors, including in dining areas when they’re not actively eating and drinking; they may gather only in small groups; non-UMass visitors are prohibited; students are instructed to have a “Go Bag” packed for when isolation requirements are invoked; and other restrictions. At other institutions across the Northeast, we see recent announcements for “stay-in-room” orders and campus-wide quarantines, closed dining commons forcing students to eat only in their rooms, and strong recommendations for outdoor masking.

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Such policies may have been understandable early in the pandemic, when we possessed incomplete knowledge about COVID-19 and we awaited vaccines. But two years in, we have a much clearer understanding of the virus and its effects, and we have widespread vaccination. College-age adults are at exceptionally low risk for severe disease, and vaccination dramatically reduces the risk of severe disease among more vulnerable people whom college students might encounter. The people at our UMass campuses — like those at many in the Northeast — are more than 95 percent vaccinated, and vaccines are available to anyone 5 and older. But rather than ensure that university policies align with the evolving evidence, many colleges and universities are, sadly, moving in the wrong direction.

For example, some experts now suggest that mandatory masking in a highly vaccinated community is of questionable value, and some students find that masking interferes with their learning, but we continue to require universal masking on many campuses. Just last week, one of our campuses, UMass Amherst, announced that it will require KN95, N95, or double masks for all faculty, staff, and students.

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Meanwhile, many universities across the country have mask-optional policies, and we have not seen evidence of greater COVID-19 transmission at these institutions.

A common narrative with respect to these policies is “students don’t mind; they understand,” but we have seen the contrary.

In university announcements, restrictions on students — which are coming even amid new requirements for students to get booster shots that they may not need, according to the World Health Organization — are often rationalized as part of a wider responsibility to balance the health needs of all their constituents, including faculty, staff, and local communities. Yet students’ mental health appears to be left out of the calculus. Can we justify mandating boosters for students without removing other restrictions like masking, testing, and isolation requirements? Our administrators insist that they are constantly observing the data, but we see a disconnect between evidence and health policy, and a broader unwillingness to recognize the tradeoff inherent in our universities’ policies: potential spread among a community that is already highly vaccinated versus student mental health.

College students have overwhelmingly abided by every request relating to masking, vaccination, classroom policy, and behavior over the past two years. They have done their part. Investments in campus mental health resources are useful, but they will only go so far if university policies continue to exacerbate students’ stress and isolation.

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We are dismayed that much-needed normalcy is not on the horizon for our students. Early in the pandemic, we made tradeoffs that sacrificed the mental well-being of young people; now is the time to bring those tradeoffs back into balance. It is now clear that we will be living with an endemic respiratory virus for the foreseeable future.

We call on university administrators to immediately reconsider the policies that harm student well-being. Our students need a return to normal instructional environments and an engaging college experience now. They need a road map to normalcy. Not in the fall, not maybe at the end of this semester. Now.

Beth K. Humberd and Scott Latham are associate professors of management in the Manning School of Business at UMass Lowell. Carlo Dallapiccola is professor of physics at UMass Amherst. Adrian Staub is professor of psychological and brain sciences at UMass Amherst.