How Colleges Dealt with the Omicron Surge and Their Long-Term Strategies for the Pandemic

In response to the Omicron surge in December 2021 and January 2022, colleges and universities announced last minute switches to online instruction, upgraded mask requirements, and tighter travel restrictions.


Gabriel Benois / Unsplash

With remote learning becoming a repeated reality for thousands of students, many colleges and universities are talking about moving from ‘containment to management,’ with hopefully fewer restrictions as the Spring 2022 semester progresses.

As the Omicron variant surge spread across the country, sending COVID-19 case counts to new heights and disrupting daily life during December 2021 and January 2022, some universities and colleges prepared for a new phase of the pandemic — one that acknowledges that the virus is here to stay and requires a rethinking of how to handle life on campus in the months going forward.  

Schools nationwide are now racing to plan out the rest of the Spring term and are asking: Should there still be mass testing? Does there need to be contact tracing? Do schools need to track the number of cases — and how do they distribute this information? And when there is a spike in cases, do classes need to go remote?

So far, a variety of approaches have been adopted. Some colleges and universities tightened mask mandates, introducing booster-shot requirements, or tried to restrict student travel once students returned to campus, during the height of the Omicron surge in January 2022. 

Many universities, including the University of Texas at Austin and multiple California State University campuses, pivoted to virtual instruction for at least the first few weeks of the January 2022 term, in order to delay the start of in-person classes. 

Many universities are still handing out self-testing kits and KN95 masks. And for the most part, they are still following basic protocols for quarantine and isolation, albeit for reduced periods of time, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Upon arrival back at campus in January 2022, Yale University implemented a two-phase quarantine with phase one being an individual in-room quarantine and COVID-19 test, starting when a student arrived and ending when they received the results of their arrival test. 

Phase two was a campus-wide quarantine that ended on February 7th, 2022. Students were asked to avoid local businesses, restaurants, and bars during this time, including outdoor drinking or dining even if their test results were negative. 

As high school seniors across the country and world prepare to attend university in the fall of 2022, COVID-19 and other factors have surely affected their college decision process as well as how they view their first year experience at college. 

Going through the pandemic has made me realize that I don’t feel completely comfortable being too far from home. The lingering idea that I won’t be close to my family when something happens is a bit stressful, so I’ve decided to stick to applying to schools that are nearby!” Amayel Ka ’22 said. 

COVID-19 will have a major effect on my first year at college by depriving me of the full experience of college life. Both social and educational factors are currently limited in college, as students and professors are held back from this virus,” Sophie Wang ’22 said.  

Other universities from Northeastern University  in Boston to the University of California-Davis have begun to discuss COVID-19 in “endemic” terms — a shift from reacting to each spike of cases as a crisis to the reality of living with it daily. And in some cases, there has been backlash towards this shift.

At University of California-Davis, Chancellor Gary S. May faced a strong negative reaction after a statement made on December 30th, 2021 in which he characterized the Omicron variant as “milder” than its predecessors and suggested a shift to “living with COVID-19 at an endemic level.”

Classes were expected to resume in-person on January 10th, 2o22, but a petition signed by over 7,500 people, referencing Dr. May’s update, accused the university of “not prioritizing the immuno-compromised, the disabled, unvaccinated people, children, those who live with people from any of these groups, or the general health of the public.” 

The petition is asking for full online accessibility as well as in-person options for lectures, discussions, labs, all other forms of instruction, as well as non-teaching staff positions at UCD. As a result, UCD was virtual for the first four weeks of the winter quarter, whenever possible, with some non-lecture classes held in-person. 

Some universities are even loosening what were once strict rules for quarantining and isolation. Harvard University is instituting what it calls an “isolate-in-place policy,” meaning that students who test positive would, with some exceptions, stay in their dorm rooms, even with roommates. Students are also expected to conduct contact tracing themselves by notifying close contacts of their exposure. 

The University of Wyoming announced recently that its COVID-19 approach was moving from “containment to management,” abandoning the mass testing it instituted last year. “There’s already good reason to believe that the virus, particularly the Omicron variant, is widespread in our community.” 

UW President Ed Seidel said, “Positivity rates are now growing rapidly, and the risk of creating an environment for further transmission at a mass testing event likely would offset information we would gain from it.”

Other schools held firm and relaunched the Spring semester as planned, with increased testing and other precautions. Dartmouth College began its winter term on January 4th, 2022. With a vaccination rate of 97.8 percent, the school currently had 616 active cases among students, faculty, and staff, according to the school’s COVID-19 dashboard. Nearly one in 10 tests came back positive at that time.

Cornell University, in Ithaca, N.Y., is trying to shift focus away from case counts. The university has been using a color-coded system to flag the rate of infection. After an alarming spike in cases in December 2021, the university shut down part of the campus and moved final exams online.

For this current Spring semester, the university has kept the color-coding but has adapted the guidelines to recognize that almost everyone is vaccinated, including 99 percent of students and 100 percent of the faculty.

A few public colleges are rethinking counting cases.

The University of Florida discontinued its COVID-19 dashboard at the end of 2021 and transferred the data handling to the state, which, as mentioned in an e-mail to faculty, could provide a more “sustainable approach,” as the virus “becomes endemic.”

West Virginia University announced that it will no longer report testing, quarantine, and isolation data for the spring 2022 semester but will continue to report vaccination rates for faculty and staff and students, which as of mid-December, are much higher on campus than the rest of the state: 92 percent for faculty and staff and 82 percent for students compared to 56 percent of the state population being fully vaccinated. 

As the Spring 2022 progresses, current and future students are still finding a way to cope with a new normal. 

Going through the pandemic has made me realize that I don’t feel completely comfortable being too far from home,” Amayel Ka ’22 said.