With the omicron variant causing global infection surges, COVID-19 has resurfaced as a major hurdle for higher education as students prepare to return for the spring semester.
The upcoming semester will serve as a litmus test for the long term effectiveness of UNC’s pandemic policies as new variants pose threats to the health and safety of the community.
The transmission of the omicron variant is a prime concern — the level of growth of the variant was similar to what was observed in the early days of the pandemic. This suggests that the variant could infect three to six times as many people as delta could over the same period.
Immunity research suggests that COVID-19 vaccines are effective in preventing severe forms of COVID-19 — but the variant will still cause a surge in cases, breakthrough infections and reinfections.
It is up to the University to avoid an uncontrolled outbreak and a forced return to off-campus living and learning, as we saw in the spring of 2020.
UNC's Faculty Executive Committee has called a special meeting Thursday to discuss plans for the spring semester in light of pandemic developments. In a Nov. 30 interview with The Daily Tar Heel, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said the University would continue assessing the new variant and would provide an update when it was available.
Several universities have already made adjustments to their procedures and plans in response to the new variant.
For example, Harvard and Stanford University both plan on going online for the first few weeks of the spring semester. Other universities, such as Princeton, Cornell and Middlebury, moved their final exams online. In an unprecedented move, Cornell essentially shut down their entire campus after over 880 students tested positive for COVID-19.
Omicron is a very real issue — and one that UNC must be proactive and take actions against before students step foot on campus. Preventative measures taken by university administration now can keep outbreaks from arising on campus in January, and potentially save lives of students, faculty and the community.
Require COVID-19 vaccinations and booster shots
UNC can lead the charge across higher education by requiring booster vaccinations for students, faculty and staff upon return to campus. This will entail offering multiple sites to get the shot across campus.
The move isn't unusual. The University of Oregon and Michigan State University are requiring the COVID-19 booster shots for students.
UNC has never been at the forefront of making sound decisions regarding the pandemic – administration never implemented first and second dose vaccine requirements. However, that can change with this semester as the number of both vaccinated students and those with booster immunizations increases.
Stagger student return to campus
Following in the footsteps of several other universities, UNC should consider moving classes online for the first few weeks of the semester. This provides the opportunity for students who traveled throughout the break to quarantine or stagger their return to campus.
Additionally, once classes have resumed, it’s imperative to implement flexible attendance policies, as well offering hybrid formats for larger lectures. Students and professors should be given greater autonomy over their mode of instruction to fit the health and safety needs of themselves and the class.
Expand COVID-19 testing
Testing, once again, is the answer to preventing clusters on campus. UNC should expand their asymptomatic testing hours and locations, including an off-campus location for students living across Chapel Hill and Carrboro.
Random surveillance testing must be implemented for those, vaccinated and unvaccinated — and the frequency of testing for unvaccinated individuals must increase as well.
Adjust campus activities and practices
Like other elite universities, UNC must make significant changes regarding campus activities — including reducing capacity of locations like the gyms and libraries. Sanitation of frequently used areas, like tables at the library and at the Bottom of Lenoir, must be increased accordingly.
Additionally, mask mandates must be enforced thoroughly. If you look around during a Carolina Basketball game, you’ll see hundreds of people unmasked, packed into an enclosed stadium. Considering the beginning of home ACC play for the team, it’s something the University must crack down on in the upcoming weeks.
Offer resources for students who test positive
In the event that students test positive — which they inevitably will — UNC must offer a variety of resources to prevent asymptomatic transmission across campus. For example, quarantine housing must be offered to students living off campus who can’t safely isolate themselves. Additionally, meals and amenities must be provided to students living off-campus who are isolated and may not have the financial means to order online for delivery.
Preventative measures must be taken in order to prevent COVID-19 cases from spiraling out of control — like we have seen before. With omicron looming in the foreground, UNC can, and should, plan for the next semester early.
Any changes to the academic calendar, attendance policies, course formats and other resources that are available to students should be made as soon as possible. These are items that can and should be discussed at the special meeting called by the Faculty Executive Committee on Thursday.
History is repeating itself – as public health professionals warned us it would – and it’s up to UNC to ensure that we do not mirror the mistakes of the past.
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