Colleges credit high vaccination rates, mandates, with near-normal semester

Dec. 21—Dorms are empty, and quads are blanketed in snow now, but colleges around New Hampshire had a lively fall semester — far closer to "normal" than last fall.

After colleges abruptly emptied themselves in March 2020, administrators painstakingly built up testing systems and mask requirements, revising the way they handled sports, performing arts and cherished traditions so they could bring students back to campus. This fall, with high vaccination rates, colleges were able to resume as they had before COVID-19.

For Southern New Hampshire University, this fall was the first time students had been back on campus since March 2020, and the first full semester back since 2019. While most colleges returned students to campus in the fall of 2020 with strict masking and distancing rules, Southern New Hampshire University remained fully remote until the vaccine was available to college students. On-campus students were required to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

"The vaccine mandate was our baseline for trying to start off on a good foot," said Dean of Students Meagan Sage.

Saint Anselm College's vaccine requirement meant most of last year's rules were relaxed, said college spokesman Paul Pronovost. Masks were not required in most indoor settings. Big events like homecoming and family weekend went on as they always had. Students got more leeway to leave campus, unlike last year's attempt to form a "bubble" around the campus.

Almost every private college in New Hampshire had a vaccine requirement.

A state law barred New Hampshire's public colleges from instituting vaccine mandates of their own. Still, vaccination rates at the University of New Hampshire, Plymouth State University and Keene State College all reported vaccination rates over 80%.

Sage said students did not leave Southern New Hampshire University in any significant numbers, suggesting few objections to the vaccine requirement for on-campus students.

Regular testing was still part of life. Campus health workers carefully tracked test positivity rates and warned students to be careful, especially off-campus where fewer people are vaccinated.

Rough landing

As COVID-19 cases rose in November and December, the last few weeks of the semester were a bumpy ride.

"With this new variant...we were fortunate our semester ended when it did," said Saint Anselm President Joseph Favazza. "Because we were staring to see a bit of an increase."

Cases cropped up on campuses after Halloween, more after Thanksgiving. Pronovost said there was much less spread this year — one infected student rarely infected their close contacts this year, he said, where last year one positive test result would lead to 10 or 15 positive cases among close contacts.

Favazza said most of the big events at Saint Anselm were earlier in the fall, but if homecoming weekend had been in late November or early December, he would have canceled.

Campus events at Southern New Hampshire University were scaled down, Sage said. For example, instead of the customary end-of-semester "midnight breakfast" celebration, Sage said, students took breakfast foods to go from the dining hall and participated in virtual activities.

"The fact that we've had a mask mandate ... was the precaution that we felt would keep people the safest."

To line up with the start date for online classes, Sage said on-campus Southern New Hampshire University's students will start class Jan. 3.

But Sage said the university decided most on-campus students would take online classes from home until Jan. 17.

"It basically gives time after the holidays to hopefully make sure everybody is healthy and well before they come back to campus," Sage said.

With cases cropping up even at on highly vaccinated campuses, college leaders are looking to the booster shots to keep the spring semester on track.

Favazza said Saint Anselm is "strongly, strongly recommending the booster" for students, and is weighing a booster requirement once booster appointments become easier to get. In the spring, Favazza said, students who have not yet gotten a booster shot will get tested every week.