With COVID cases reaching record-highs as the Omicron variant rips through New Jersey following the holiday travel season, colleges and universities are faced with the problem of facilitating a safe return to campus.
In South Jersey, most colleges and universities are hoping to operate much as they did before winter break. They say they are ready, however, should they need to move classes online or to a hybrid structure.
Here's the latest on what South Jersey's higher-education are doing for the start of the semester:
Rowan University intends to start the semester “on time and in person,” according to an email sent to staff on Tuesday morning.
“Rowan’s winter break has largely coincided with what is the projected height of the current wave in our region,” said the email. “We are monitoring its progression and impact closely as we plan Rowan’s opening this coming semester ... We will continue to review the data. If we need to adjust, we will.”
Every student living on campus or in affiliated housing must be tested within the first week of arrival through the campus Wellness Center, according to the email. All unvaccinated students will be required to begin their weekly testing during the first week of classes.
Students must complete an absence notification form if they are to miss classes, whether in-person or remote. The university will make accommodations for those who cannot attend class.
The university continues to require all students, staff and faculty, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks when indoors, and suggests small groups of vaccinated individuals not meet for activities like study groups and meetings despite university policy allowing them to do so.
“We recommend such activities are curtailed until after this wave of COVID infections subsides,” said the email.
For the next two weeks, the university will allow employees to work remotely but only if they have either been exposed to COVID or work in a school that has been closed due to an outbreak.
“We’ve been here before, at the start of the spring semester, eager to get back to our studies, friends, colleagues and activities while we continue to fight the pandemic,” said the email. “As we keep doing everything in our power to protect each other and ourselves, we keep making progress that can’t be denied. It looks different from what we’d prefer, of course, but we are still committed as a university community to a safe and healthy Rowan.”
Stockton University plans to operate the spring semester as a “predominantly face-to-face academic experience” with online and hybrid classes available, according to the return-to-campus frequently asked questions page on its website.
All students, employees and visitors, regardless of vaccination status, are required to wear a mask when indoors on campus, according to the page, which a university spokeswoman said was updated before winter break.
All students, whether residential or commuter, and all employees where required to get vaccinated or provide a valid medical or religious exemption during the fall semester. Students who failed to do so were dropped from their fall classes.
During the fall semester, the university reported 155 cases among students and 40 among employees for a total of 195, according to the university's COVID-19 Updates page. Of those cases, 167 were cleared, meaning the infected individual was permitted to resume work or educational activities.
On Jan. 4, Rutgers University announced “significant changes” regarding its return-to-campus plans.
All students are now required to receive a booster as soon as eligible, according to the announcement from Antonio M. Calcado, executive vice president and chief operation officer.
The deadline for students to obtain a booster shot is Jan. 31; students living on campus are “strongly encouraged” to upload proof of their booster by Jan. 15. Students with approved medical or religious exemptions are excused from the booster requirement.
Where possible, in-person classes will be converted to remote instruction through Jan. 30, said the announcement.
Return to on-campus housing has been moved from Jan. 16-17 to Jan. 29-30, according to the announcement. Students will not have access to residence halls until Jan. 29. This does not apply to full-year, Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences and international students, per the announcement. Students returning to campus must have received a booster and are encouraged to take a COVID test within 72 hours prior to their arrival.
Students in on-campus housing who test positive or have a confirmed exposure are “strongly encouraged and — if the university deems it necessary — may be required to quarantine or isolate at home during a quarantine period.”
The university, all clinics, libraries and research operations are still open, but employees will not be returning to in-person work until Jan. 30. The university continues to urge vice presidents, deans and directors to allow employees who can telecommute to do so.
Essential employees will continue to report as scheduled unless told otherwise.
Rutgers’ deadline for employees to get vaccinated or have an approved medical or religious exemption was Jan 4.
The same day, the university announced all employees will be required to receive a booster shot but had yet to specify a deadline. It also announced that it will be following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s revised five-day-quarantine and isolation guidelines when handling cases among employees.
The university anticipates in-person events will resume on Jan. 31, and said that all attendees will have to show proof of vaccination or a negative test within 72 hours of the event.
Proof of vaccination or a negative test within 72 hours also applies to all athletic events. Dining facilities will only be open for to-go service but will resume normal operations on Jan. 31.
“The data and the science surrounding the surge in COVID-19 cases, and the dramatic spread of the Omicron variant, require that we adapt to the evolving situation without sacrificing our goal of returning to a campus experience that is robust, rewarding, and safe," said Calcado. "To do so, we are implementing appropriate contingency plans that rely on today’s best available information and expertise so that we may continue to manage the impact of this virus at the university.”
The university did not release any guidelines specific to its Camden campus as of Jan. 5.
For the week ending in Dec. 18, 43 individuals from the Rutgers—Camden campus were screened, with 40 testing negative and only three testing positive, according to the university’s testing program dashboard.
A previous version of this story included information from a Dec. 20 university-wide update.
Rowan College at Burlington County
Rowan College at Burlington County's return-to-campus plan was "very effective this fall in mitigating spread within our community," said Michael A. Cioce, the college's president, over email.
"At this point, we are offering both in-person and online courses for the winter and spring so that students can select what works best for their learning styles and individual health circumstances," he said. "Should conditions change, we are well equipped to go entirely online very quickly."
The college's most recent guidance comes from its “return to our future” page.
The college encourages people to get vaccinated, but did not have a mandate for most students and staff as of the start of the fall semester. Only students and faculty in Health Sciences programs are required to get vaccinated, according to the return-to-campus page.
“The close nature of clinical experiences, as well as the often-vulnerable position of patients to illness, necessitates that students and faculty demonstrate this measure of protection,” the college's website said.
Masks are required on campus when indoors and social distancing is not possible, regardless of vaccination status, which is in line with the guidance released by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The college’s Public Safety office coordinates how students who are exposed to, are sick with or have tested positive can safely return to campus.
Camden County College
Camden County College is operating under “Stage 4” of its return-to-campus plan, which is “fully open with added safety protocols,” according to the college’s website. Since August, the college has required that masks be worn in all indoor public spaces, except in areas designated for eating and during “events that allow a designated speaker to maintain a distance of at least six feet from other masked attendees.” The college does not have a vaccination mandate, but does encourage people to get vaccinated.
Atlantic Cape Community College
Starting Jan. 3, the college no longer is requiring students, visitors, faculty and staff who are on campus to complete a daily health assessment form, according to the college’s website. Visitors will be required to provide proof of vaccination status or a recent negative test. Students and employees will have to submit their test results or vaccination status through the college’s online portal.
Salem Community College
All in-person activities are “rigorously” monitored to comply with CDC and New Jersey public health guidelines, according to the safe return to campus page on the college’s website, which was last updated on Dec. 21. Everyone entering campus buildings must wear a mask and practice social distancing, per the page.
This story will be updated.
Aedy Miller covers education and the economy for the Burlington County Times, Courier-Post, and The Daily Journal. They are a multimedia journalist from Central Jersey and a recent graduate of the George Washington University.
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This article originally appeared on Cherry Hill Courier-Post: South Jersey colleges, universities adjust return-to-campus plans