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College students return to Providence to find high COVID-19 case counts, mixed levels of concern

“I think the student body is starting to just live with it normally,” one Providence College junior said.

Students made their way across campus during a change in classes at Brown University.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — Robert Hollander, a junior at Providence College, had made it nearly two years into the pandemic unscathed.

Hollander didn’t test positive for COVID-19 when a spike in cases forced the campus into lockdown during the fall of 2020. H escaped the virus when most of his friends got it last spring. But last month, his luck ran out.

While the Omicron variant began causing record-breaking coronavirus surges across the globe, Hollander tested positive. Inoculated with only one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, he hadn’t yet gotten his booster shot; while he didn’t feel any symptoms, his sister, who also tested positive, felt horrible.

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But now that he’s boosted, Hollander said he isn’t too worried about COVID-19 as he returns to Providence College — and neither are most of his friends. Besides mask wearing and routine testing, students have returned to pre-pandemic activities, like going to house parties and seeing people outside of their immediate social circle.

“I think the student body is starting to just live with it normally,” he said.

Away from older or at-risk family members and among other students who are mostly vaccinated, some students — but not all — say they are less worried about COVID on campus this semester.

Some students kept their masks on outside — Brown University has been distributing KN95s — and almost all were bundled up for the cold but sunny afternoon.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

At Brown University, hundreds of students poured out of lecture halls after the class bell rang on Wednesday, the first day of spring semester.

Some students kept their masks on outside — the school has been distributing KN95s — and almost all were bundled up for the cold but sunny afternoon. Some rushed off to their next class, but many huddled in circles on the green to talk to friends and say hello to classmates they hadn’t seen since before break.

“Even though people are wearing masks all the time, it still feels fun,” said Leo Gordon, a junior at Brown.

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Gordon, 20, has spent most of his college career under COVID restrictions (like many universities, Brown has mandated vaccines and boosters for students), but said right now things feel more like his first year at Brown, pre-pandemic. Students are eating in dining halls once again, unmasked. Wednesday morning, he was in a class “filled to the brim… standing room only,” with masked students who were vying for a seat in the lecture.

Gordon said he is trying to be “as careful as I can while also having just a normal college experience.”

Even though testing, mask wearing, and booster requirements offer a safety buffer, Gordon said, “There’s kind of this, like, sense of inevitability that I feel, like I might get it at some point.” And he’s OK with that, he said — about a quarter of his friends have tested positive for COVID-19 at some point.

Madeleine McGrath, who graduates from Brown at the end of the semester, tested positive around Christmas.

“For senior spring, I just want to be back on campus,” she said. With all the COVID measures, she said, “I feel like it will be fine.”

McGrath acknowledged that she would probably feel differently if she were at home living with her parents or other people who may be at risk for severe infection. Not worrying, she said, is a privilege.

Students passed by signage encouraging ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at Brown University. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

One senior at Brown, who asked not to be named, said that she wished the university had made the first two weeks of classes remote, since even though students are supposed to report their symptoms, many will come to class sick and possibly contagious.

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She said she was more worried when she first returned to campus in the fall of 2020, after campus originally closed, but she still feels that coming back now feels “scary and unnerving.”

At Johnson & Wales, where students began the semester over Zoom before transitioning to in-person learning, senior Lily Stoudt said she has been trying to be more careful during the current COVID-19 wave. She wakes up every morning and monitors herself for symptoms before deciding if she’ll go out or stay in.

Most of her classmates seems to be taking the situation seriously. “I’m kind of shocked that people my age are being so cognizant of it because I have a lot of friends that are choosing to stay in a lot more often and being a lot more safe.”

“Everyone’s just kind of taking a chill pill, a little bit,” she said, until cases are back to a safer level.

Stoudt said she has health conditions that make her more worried about getting COVID, but she also fears not being able to go home to see family, her grandparents especially, if she was infected.

“I get very worried about having COVID and maybe not realizing it, and spreading it to someone who could have a lot more serious damage than I could,” Stoudt said.

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Despite varying levels of concern, most students shared a belief that this won’t be their last semester dealing with some COVID restrictions.

“If I could get one normal year at Providence, that would be awesome,” Hollander said. He anticipates students having to wear masks next year, and another COVID-19 variant could disrupt things further.

“I think every semester going forward from the start of COVID will in some way be a COVID semester,” Gordon said. “There is a clear difference between before COVID and after COVID. That’s not just going to go away.”


Colleen Cronin can be reached at colleen.cronin@globe.com.