What a difference a variant makes.
A little more than a month ago, I wrote about “COVID’s Disappearing Act on College Campuses,” pointing out how the conventional wisdom was wrong: Instead of becoming petri dishes for the coronavirus, college campuses with high vaccination rates had all but stopped COVID in its tracks.
Unfortunately, that’s no longer the case.
Whether it’s the rapid spread of the omicron variant, the weakening of immunity months after vaccination, or increased exposure to COVID because of Thanksgiving travel, cases at colleges are soaring.
That’s forcing many colleges to move into 2020 mode, already deciding to go online at the beginning of the spring semester.
Have Things Really Gotten Worse on Campuses?
In my earlier column, I highlighted a series of top universities and their tremendous success at containing the coronavirus. I especially focused on the University of Miami, where I teach.
Between August and early November, fewer than 350 people at UM had tested positive, out of more than 33,000 students and employees. UM’s positivity rate was only 0.4% during the first week of November, a small fraction of the national and local rates.
Now, according to UM’s COVID dashboard, the positivity rate has jumped dramatically to 10.5%. As of Monday, Dec. 20, 2021, 983 people have tested positive at UM, almost tripling the total from six weeks ago.
Anecdotally, only one of my 43 students had tested positive throughout the four-month fall semester. Last Tuesday, when I held final exams, a different student couldn’t attend in person because she had tested positive. A half dozen others were feeling sick or had been exposed to someone with COVID.
The good news at UM is that despite the jump in cases, the dashboard reports that nobody is hospitalized, a hopeful indicator of the protective power of vaccines.
Data from universities is generally harder to come by over the holidays, but all the schools profiled in my earlier piece (Emory, Stanford, and Yale) have seen surges in their positivity rates.
Is It Omicron?
The most likely cause of the surge in COVID cases is the omicron variant. The Centers for Disease Control reported Monday that omicron has raced across the country, rapidly outpacing other variants.
In fact, according to the CDC, omicron accounted for 73% of new infections last week, a nearly six-fold increase in just seven days.
Why is that happening? Simple. Omicron is extraordinarily contagious. “It's as contagious as measles, and that's about the most contagious virus that we've seen," CNN medical analyst Jonathan Reiner said Saturday. He warned that a "tsunami" was coming for unvaccinated Americans.
What Does It Mean for Colleges?
A series of colleges have taken immediate action. The Wall Street Journal reports that Princeton, Cornell, and Middlebury are among schools that shifted final exams to remote only, while others, including Tulane, allowed students to finish the whole semester online.
Cornell declared a red alert after 883 students tested positive in the week that ended Monday, Dec. 13.
Middlebury moved its classes and exams online in early December, and a whole slew of universities, including Harvard, Stanford and Yale, have already decided that classes in January will begin as online only.
Are Colleges Overreacting?
Colleges are stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place.
Pre-omicron, I spoke with Professor Erin Kobetz, vice provost for research at UM, who expressed the college conundrum clearly: “There’s tremendous responsibility when you’re worrying about the health and welfare of a university community and especially our students whose parents entrust us to care for them.”
If those students are threatened by a raging pandemic, what is a college to do?
But it’s not that simple.
Plenty of evidence indicates that online learning just isn’t comparable to learning in person.
In the extensive Student Voice Survey released this year, Forbes reports that a majority of college students (52%) said they learned less this in the 2020-2021 school year than in prior years. Only 8% said they learned more. Unsurprisingly, 81% of students said it was either “extremely difficult” or “somewhat difficult” to concentrate during “remote lectures.” Only 17% said it was easy.
I have faced the issue and seen the difference firsthand. As a general rule, the more a student has had to attend class remotely, the more likely that student is to struggle with the material taught.
Finding the right balance between safety and education is an unenviable challenge for university administrators.
Omicron has just made that challenge even harder.
Cover photo: A sign urges the use of face masks for a Cal State Los Angeles commencement ceremony that was held outdoors under a tent on campus on July 27, 2021, in Los Angeles. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
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