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As the omicron semester starts, online or in person, colleges are tense

The University of Kentucky, like many others, aims to push through the wave of infections

Eric Monday teaches a class at the University of Kentucky in Lexington this month. Administrators decided to remain in-person despite the omicron wave of the pandemic. (Luke Sharrett for The Washington Post)

LEXINGTON, Ky. — By 9 a.m. on the first day of the spring term, 15 or so students in the University of Kentucky’s honors college had settled into their seats here for a seminar on knowledge and society. Eric Welch, their instructor, mused about how to pronounce omicron — with a short or long “o” in the first syllable? — and lamented that he couldn’t see more than half of their masked faces. He told them it would be an easy A if they show up and do the work.

“Your presence in this class matters,” Welch said.

That same morning, Jason Mollica greeted roughly a dozen American University students in his communication course on digital analytics. They were not meeting on the D.C. campus. Students, scattered near and far, logged in through video links from bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms. Mollica spoke from his home in Rockville, Md.

“Sorry that we’re seeing each other again on Zoom,” Mollica said. “But this will, hopefully, be temporary.”

College is resuming this month across America in a tense and bumpy sequence of openings — in person here, remote there — and shadowed everywhere by the threat of the highly contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus. The upheaval began in December with a flurry of shifts to online final exams and canceled campus events.

The future of college after the pandemic is on campus and online

What this surge will mean for campuses in coming weeks remains unclear. Students and professors worry about the public health risks of staying open and the educational risks of pausing.

Yet for all the unknowns, the initial data on this omicron semester suggests that most colleges and universities are sticking with face-to-face instruction. As of this week, about 10 to 15 percent of 500 prominent schools tracked by the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College had announced plans to start the spring term remotely. A smaller share, perhaps 5 percent, delayed openings.

“A lot of campuses are thinking, ‘Hey, we can weather this. It’s going to be all right,’” said Chris Marsicano, an assistant professor of educational studies at Davidson, who leads the initiative. The success of vaccination and mask-wearing campaigns, and signs that the latest variant may not be not as lethal as earlier ones, are driving a new cost-benefit calculus for higher education leaders who earlier in the pandemic were forced to shutter or curtail operations.

The state flagship university here in Lexington enrolls more than 31,000 students. Many come from families of modest means, with parents who have little or no college education. University President Eli Capilouto contends that the health risk of pushing through the omicron surge — on a campus where nearly 90 percent of students are vaccinated against the coronavirus — is minimal compared to the downsides of educational disruption. He worries, too, about student mental health.

College students struggle with mental health as pandemic drags on

“We thought an in-person residential experience was something we could do safely,” Capilouto said. “We had made a commitment to do so to these families and students. If I ever think there’s a day that we can’t do it safely, then we’ll turn in another direction.”

Kentucky has a Democratic governor but a Republican-led legislature. Donald Trump carried the state in the 2020 presidential election by a huge margin. There tends to be more pressure in Republican-dominated states to keep public universities fully open. But Capilouto said he would make any operational changes, if necessary, regardless of politics. “I have not had an elected official insert his or her self into our decision-making,” he said.

Among schools starting remotely are several University of California campuses, as well as Duke, Emory, Georgetown, Northwestern and Stanford universities, all of which, unlike Kentucky, require students to be vaccinated. Officials at these and other schools planned to resume in-person teaching after a precautionary online period of several days or a couple weeks.

Policies can vary within states. At Michigan State University, the semester that started Jan. 10 will be online for at least the first three weeks. But the University of Michigan opened in person on Jan. 5 despite deep divisions in the campus community over the risks involved.

“We’re adapting to the fact that the disease is going to be around for a while, and we’re trying to give up as little as we can,” Michigan President Mark Schlissel recently told the Michigan Daily student newspaper. (Schlissel was fired on Saturday after a university board investigation into an alleged affair between him and a subordinate.)

In the D.C. region, George Washington University plans to resume in-person classes on Tuesday after teaching for a week online. Howard University pushed its start back to Tuesday but will hold classes in person. Georgetown will be virtual through Jan. 30. George Mason University in Northern Virginia and the University of Maryland at College Park will start in person, as planned, on Jan. 24.

At American University, with about 14,000 students, classes will be online until Jan. 31. Officials are concerned about strained hospital capacity and potential staff shortages. “One thing is just basic functionality,” said AU President Sylvia M. Burwell. “Do we have shuttle drivers? Do we have the dining services? Can we clean rooms?”

Some AU students fear virtual learning may last longer. Keighly Butler, 20, a junior from Robbinsville, N.J., is having flashbacks to the remote pivots of 2020 because of the pandemic. At a university where tuition exceeds $50,000 a year, not counting room and board, Butler said it is frustrating to be forced online.

College students are weary of ‘Zoom U’ but trying to make the best of it

“It’s really hard to pay attention, and mental health is something that we discuss quite often because Zoom fatigue is real,” Butler said. She and her friends crave normalcy. “We’ve come to terms with our university experience being completely warped.”

Despite the remote classes, the AU campus in Northwest Washington was not devoid of life when the semester opened on Monday. A trio of students who live off campus came to use the fitness center. A handful ate lunch in the student center. Two young women seeking coffee found a popular cafe closed.

Victor Vernick, 19, a freshman from Philadelphia, was one of about 1,900 students who returned to dorms this month as scheduled. Some of his friends have also decided to move back, making the relative emptiness of the campus more manageable. “I just didn’t feel like being at home,” he said. “I’d just like to continue feeling independent.”

Laura Purkey, 26, a graduate student from Pittsburgh, was the sole student in a third-floor laboratory in a science building. She is researching squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer. In the fall, the lab had as many as 18 people working on various projects, though not necessarily all at the same time.

Katie DeCicco-Skinner, an associate professor and chair of the biology department, said seven will be in the lab this month, assuming they test negative for the coronavirus. “They need to still collect data so they can graduate on time,” DeCicco-Skinner said.

Back in Lexington, the campus was abuzz with students at a time of year when attention turns to their beloved Wildcats basketball.

On Jan. 8, two days before classes opened, the men’s team had beaten Southeastern Conference rival Georgia, 92-77, in front of a boisterous home crowd at Rupp Arena. Fans are supposed to wear masks at games, following the indoor mask rule on campus, but Capilouto acknowledged many do not. “It is not ideal,” he said. “We have more work to do there.”

In classrooms, though, compliance with mask-wearing rules appears to be the norm. The university has ordered 300,000 KN95 face masks and plans to distribute them to staff and students to increase protection from the airborne virus. It also plans to offer cash prizes in lottery-style drawings to encourage students to get vaccine booster shots. The “please do it” policy is a far cry from schools where boosters are required.

Jessica Lee, 20, a sophomore from Port St. Lucie, Fla., popped into a vaccination clinic in the student center to get a Pfizer booster on the day classes started. She didn’t need any monetary incentive. Lee said the booster gave her and her mother peace of mind. And she wants to do everything possible to avoid classroom shutdowns. “I don’t want to go back to online learning,” she said.

Much is riding on the booster campaign. The university, in line with the conservative politics of the state, spurned faculty demands last year for a vaccine mandate. But it has managed through persuasion to get about 89 percent of students and 91 percent of the total university community vaccinated with at least one dose. Unvaccinated students must submit to regular viral testing. Some have been suspended for not following the protocols.

The state as a whole is far less protected: Slightly less than 55 percent of Kentucky’s population was fully vaccinated as of Friday, according to a Washington Post tracker, placing the state among the bottom 20 nationwide. The national average was just under 63 percent.

Colleges are split on coronavirus mandates for students

The university’s coronavirus dashboard showed 468 active cases of infection among students, as of Wednesday, and 89 among employees. Those numbers are likely to rise, officials say, as the virus spreads at the outset of the semester.

But the university said it had plenty of isolation quarters available. Officials were closely monitoring rising virus cases within their hospital system, which serves the region and the state, but they said beds were available if needed.

Faculty members credit the university’s public health record. More than 96 percent of them are vaccinated. But they worry about what will happen if a critical mass of teaching assistants fall sick. Or students, or staff, or family members. Or themselves.

Aaron Cramer, 40, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, who chairs the university Senate Council, barely made it to his first day of class. He caught a mild case of covid-19 during winter break and had to isolate at home until just before teaching duties started. His wife and two of their four children also tested positive, Cramer said. The illness could also disrupt their child care. Cramer wonders what will happen if such situations multiply around the campus in coming days. He is urging the university to be patient and flexible with individual professors.

“Omicron’s going to change things,” he said. “The disruptions are going to be real.” Cramer said many faculty members are skeptical of starting in person. “I think it’s going to be rough waters,” he said. “I don’t know whether it’s the right call or not.”

Kimberly Parker, 49, an associate professor of integrated strategic communication, is nervous. She is fully vaccinated and boosted but also immunocompromised. She double-masks and tries to keep her distance. “I prefer to be in person,” she said during a Tuesday afternoon seminar with graduate students. “I think I’m a better teacher. I think we have a better experience. I think I can teach them more. It’s better for everyone. But I’m not going to deny that I think it’s terrifying every day when I walk on the campus.”

Her students were grateful to be with Parker. But Samantha Pfeiffer, 24, of Allen Park, Mich., said the university should have pivoted to virtual teaching for at least a little while. “I don’t like being online, but I like having covid less,” Pfeiffer said. “Honestly, I’m not, like, super scared of having covid myself. I have had it. It was miserable, but I got over it. But for me, what I’m most afraid of is sharing that with other people around me who are more vulnerable.”

Nursing instructor Tricia Rogers, 49, said she caught the virus last year in between her first and second vaccine shots. At the time, she also tended to her father as he was dying of covid. “I’m glad ’21 is gone,” Rogers said.

On Tuesday she was leading a laboratory class on measuring vital signs — pulse, blood pressure, breathing rate, temperature — although the pandemic prevented students from practicing with thermometers. “We are thankful to be live and in person the entire time,” Rogers said. “We want to be here. This is really the foundation of the practice.”

Camryn Deaton, 19, a sophomore from London, Ky., sat upright on an exam table as classmate Allyson Barcaskey placed a cuff around her upper left arm, inflated it, listened to the sounds of blood flow with a stethoscope and noted her blood pressure. Barcaskey, 20, is a sophomore from Pittsburgh. The two also belong to a sorority here, Alpha Delta Pi, and they were thrilled to be back in class. They can’t imagine learning this through Zoom.

“It’s one thing reading about it and watching a video,” Barcaskey said. “It’s another thing doing it with your own two hands. You can’t be a nurse if you don’t know how to work with people.”

Even as they celebrated the return to class, students were mindful of the possibility of the dreaded pandemic pivot.

Marshall Royce, 21, a junior from Goshen, Ky., majoring in computer science, said many classmates feel a sense of gloom because the pandemic situation seems precarious. Remote learning could be around the corner. “There’s always the threat of they can just drop it on you at any moment, like they did when it first broke out,” Royce said. “And yeah, we know we’d be able to move online because we’ve done it before.”

Lumpkin reported from Washington.

The pandemic’s impact on education

The latest: Updated coronavirus booster shots are now available for children as young as 5. To date, more than 10.5 million children have lost one or both parents or caregivers during the coronavirus pandemic.

In the classroom: Amid a teacher shortage, states desperate to fill teaching jobs have relaxed job requirements as staffing crises rise in many schools. American students’ test scores have even plummeted to levels unseen for decades. One D.C. school is using COVID relief funds to target students on the verge of failure.

Higher education: College and university enrollment is nowhere near pandemic level, experts worry. ACT and SAT testing have rebounded modestly since the massive disruptions early in the coronavirus pandemic, and many colleges are also easing mask rules.

DMV news: Most of Prince George’s students are scoring below grade level on district tests. D.C. Public School’s new reading curriculum is designed to help improve literacy among the city’s youngest readers.

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