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How colleges are dealing with high COVID case counts on campus

College students return to campus for the Spring semester.
Anke Gladnick for NPR

Cases of COVID-19 on college campuses are on the rise across the country. In the first week of spring semester, the University of Georgia reported nearly 1,000 positive cases, more than any week so far in the pandemic. At Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, the last 7 days saw 1,196 confirmed cases. At Penn State University, the positive case count hit a 12-month high.

Cases are spiking on college campuses because, despite the rapid spread of the omicron variant, most schools are beginning their spring semesters in-person. Just 14% of colleges are beginning the semester online, according to new data from the College Crisis Initiative. This time last year, before there were vaccines, about 40% of colleges started online.

"You feel the stress on campus," says Aisha Ghorashian, a senior at the University of Oregon.

Despite having a student body that is more than 96% vaccinated, her university logged 960 COVID-19 cases in the first week of January as students returned to campus. Ghorashian was one of them.

"People, I think, don't feel safe," she says. "You see that double masking and you see those N95s that I've never seen people wear before."

When NPR spoke with her, she was out of isolation – sporting a blue surgical mask as she sat in the law school building, students milling around behind her. Ghorashian is surprised that things seem to be, for the most part, business-as-usual. And she's not the only one.

"Across the board, the faculty, staff and students were shocked that we decided not to be online," Ghorashian says, "Even though the data showed that there is going to be a surge."

Rising case counts puts pressure on campus resources

In the past two years, colleges have worked non-stop to adapt to the pandemic and return to in-person classes safely. By the fall of 2021, more than 1,100 campuses required vaccines and many more instituted indoor masking policies; the collective sense among schools was they'd cracked the code of living with COVID-19.

Plus, colleges are some of the most vaccinated places in the country. By September 2021, 74% of college students had received one dose of the vaccine – compared to 54% of the general population in that same month, according to a study by the COVID States Project.

You feel the stress on campus ... people, I think, don't feel safe ... you see that double masking and you see those N95s that I've never seen people wear before.

But still, the omicron variant has taken campuses by storm.

"It's a crisis," says Gerri Taylor, co-leader of the COVID Task Force for the American College Health Association. "I think the numbers we're hearing about are, at this point, underreported."

Taylor says the biggest worry for colleges is their capacity to handle "rapidly increasing" case numbers.

"In trying to isolate [students], they need resources in terms of housing, staffing to track them," says Taylor. "They need staff to test them and to record all that ... to have a sense of how many kids on campus are sick."

A big part of Taylor's job is to work with health directors on campus to coordinate their COVID response. One campus director recently told her: " 'We have never, through even this entire pandemic, been in a situation as difficult as this one right now in January of 2022.' "

Colleges are deploying emergency measures as they scramble to deal with the surge in cases. Some schools are using hotels to house students who test positive. At California Polytechnic State University, students who test positive are offered a $400 gift card to the campus store if they move home to isolate.

Students are in limbo as they anxiously watch case counts go up

For students, there's a lot of uncertainty around how this semester will pan out. Senior Sophia Kriz is back on campus at Dartmouth College. The school is requiring all students to get a booster shot by the end of this month. It also implemented weekly testing and moved most of the social activities online, although classes remain in-person.

Even with all those precautions, Kriz is worried the high numbers of positive cases on campus could shut it all down.

"It sort of feels like we're in a state of limbo," she says, "We're all on campus, but you know, we're all just sort of waiting to hear...how things are going..."

Kriz is in the middle of planning rush for her sorority. They know the first round of recruitment events will be virtual, but beyond that, it's all up in the air. So, they're planning for two alternate universes – one where their social life stays virtual, and one where omicron eases up.

For Kriz, a lot of things in the near future are laced with that same uncertainty. As she dives into her final semester of college, Kriz is just glad to be on campus and getting as close to a typical senior year as possible.

"All I can do from there is just hope that, you know, things get a little more normal," she says.

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