After 2 years of COVID-19, local colleges optimistic in getting back to normal

SALVE REGINA UNIVERSITY, like many other local colleges and universities, have updated their COVID-19 policies going into this fall semester where they are less strict than this time last year. / COURTESY SALVE REGINA UNIVERSITY
SALVE REGINA UNIVERSITY, like many other local colleges and universities, have updated their COVID-19 policies going into this fall semester where they are less strict than this time last year. / COURTESY SALVE REGINA UNIVERSITY

PROVIDENCE – Could this academic year finally see almost complete normalcy on local college campuses for the first time in more than two years? Some Rhode Island-based college officials feel that way.

Last fall, full campuses became the norm across the Ocean State once again after the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted all aspects of life in March 2020. However, colleges at the start implemented multiple safety protocols, including mandating masks and requiring students and employees to be tested, vaccinated and boosted in order to mitigate any chance of virus spread, especially when the Delta and Omicron variants ran rampant. There was cautious optimism at the time that colleges would get through the year unscathed.

As the Omicron spread waned in late winter and more people became vaccinated against COVID-19, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and local state elected and health officials began changing policies, such as dropping statewide mask mandates in public places. Colleges then gradually followed suit, updating their policies by decreasing the testing frequency and making masks inside campus buildings a personal choice.

Now, many of those policy changes implemented in the spring will carry over to this fall when students return, bringing back a campus atmosphere that has not been seen since the fall of 2019. Some colleges are also scaling back on requiring vaccinations in order to be on campus, as well.

- Advertisement -

Daniel P. Egan, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island, says both the virus and individuals’ response to it have changed since COVID-19 occupied life in March 2020 and expects that slow step back to a familiar way of life to go all academic year long.

“The trend toward normalcy that we saw take off in the spring will be hopefully what we start with in September and continue through both semesters this year,” Egan said.

THE UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND is one of many Rhode Island-based colleges and universities that are not requiring masks to be worn indoors on campus. / COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND
THE UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND is one of many Rhode Island-based colleges and universities that are not requiring masks to be worn indoors on campus. / COURTESY UNIVERSITY OF RHODE ISLAND

Students at the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, the Community College of Rhode Island, Providence College, Johnson & Wales University, Roger Williams University, Salve Regina University, Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design will not be required to wear masks in most indoor college settings. RWU, however, is “recommending” masks be worn indoors. Some settings, such as health services, college transportation and if professors request masks to be worn in their classrooms, will be the lone exceptions.

RIC and Salve are using a color-coded, three-tier transmission level system – green, yellow and red – similar to what the CDC and the state use to identify community spread, to determine if masks will be required or not on campus. Jim Ludes, Salve’s vice president of strategic initiatives, told Providence Business News that Salve will view what community-spread level Newport County is to make any updates to the university’s mask policy. RIC spokesperson John Taraborelli says because most of the college’s students are commuters, RIC always considers “not just what’s happening on and around campus, but COVID-19 data throughout the state.”

Regarding vaccinations, Brown, RIC, JWU and Salve are requiring both students and employees to be vaccinated to be on campus. Brown – which along with Salve were the first local colleges to require employees to get vaccinated – says in its policy that complying with the vaccination requirement “has been essential” to keeping in-person classes and administrative work active on the Ivy League campus.

JWU Providence Campus President Marie Bernardo-Sousa said the university will still require students and employees to have their primary vaccination process completed going into the fall, but will encourage individuals to receive boosters. She said enforcing booster requirements at JWU was challenging because everyone had their own primary vaccine schedules and did not quite align with the booster deadlines.

“Even primary care physicians are outlining different time frames for the booster, encouraging people to get the booster for the fall as opposed to get it now in the summer because its efficacy may wear off,” Bernardo-Sousa said.

However, PC and URI have new vaccination policies where vaccinations for some students are now optional. PC is not mandating vaccinations, but rather “strongly encouraging” them, for the incoming freshman class, spokesperson Steven Maurano said. He said that with the majority of the campus community already vaccinated, along with the belief that many incoming students are already vaccinated, the college doesn’t feel a mandate is necessary. Maurano also says the newer virus strains seem to be “less problematic” than previous virus strains.

“In many cases, it’s not much worse than the flu or the common cold,” Maurano said. “That played a role in [creating this current vaccine policy].”

URI’s policy “strongly recommends” all students, faculty and staff be vaccinated and boosted. URI spokesperson David Lavallee said the changes were the result of vaccinations and COVID-19 treatments being now widely available, hence no longer needing to require vaccines to be on campus. URI, though, still requires students and faculty to inform the university if they are vaccinated, Lavallee said.

Students and employees can still seek medical and religious exemptions in lieu of being vaccinated at the colleges.

PROVIDENCE COLLEGE is not mandating new students to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The college is now 'strongly encouraging' students to be vaccinated. / COURTESY PROVIDENCE COLLEGE
PROVIDENCE COLLEGE is not mandating new students to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The college is now “strongly encouraging” students to be vaccinated. / COURTESY PROVIDENCE COLLEGE

While the COVID-19 waters are currently placid, many colleges say they don’t view the current status as an endemic. Both college officials and Egan say that institutions are ready to make quick changes if community spread rises. Ludes said the two years of experience in dealing with the virus on campus gives Salve confidence that it can respond and modify things quickly to keep the campus healthy.

“Our own data tracking and surveillance systems give us the fidelity we need to change course, one way or the other, if the data says it’s advisable,” Ludes said.

Local college officials also tell PBN they are all closely watching any reports on new variants and recommendations from the CDC, and are still communicating with the R.I. Department of Health on COVID-19-related matters, but not as frequent as they had early in the pandemic. RIDOH spokesperson Joseph Wendelken says colleges will still be required to report case clusters and outbreaks that may occur on campus so the department can provide needed responses.

All Rhode Island-based colleges except for one as of Aug. 18 had submitted to RIDOH their COVID-19 protocols and plans after the department sent surveys to gather information on those policies, Wendelken said. Colleges sending RIDOH those policies were not treated as a requirement, Wendelken said, and the department will provide any guidance on those policies “where we believe it would be helpful.”

New England Institute of Technology’s and Bryant University’s COVID-19 policies were not fully available. New England Tech Executive Vice President Scott Freund says the college will no longer conduct routine surveillance testing when fall classes begin Oct. 3, but rapid tests will be provided to those on campus who have symptoms or are identified as close contacts.

Even though colleges are ready to respond to COVID-19 again if needed, officials remain hopeful that campus life can resemble what it once was up until the end of February 2020, and the pandemic is getting smaller and smaller in the rearview mirror.

“Fingers crossed,” Bernardo-Sousa said.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

No posts to display