US campuses chafing under Covid restrictions

Once a conservative rallying cry, calls to ease protections spread in academia as fast-moving Omicron variant appears less threatening

January 10, 2022
Masked students walk along Hillsborough Street on the North Carolina State University campus early Wednesday evening, August 18, 2021.
Source: iStock

US colleges and universities are beginning the spring semester with growing rebellions against ongoing lockdowns, as both staff and students increasingly question the value of heavy in-person restrictions.

The semester arrives with US higher education experiencing perhaps its widest-yet diversity in pandemic responses. A substantial number of institutions, including Yale University and the University of Chicago, are delaying their semester start dates. Others, including Harvard, Stanford and most of the University of California system, are moving classes online to begin with.

Yet much of the sector – including the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan, Pennsylvania State University, and institutions across the southern US – is sticking to relatively normal reopening plans.

While institutions are facing criticisms no matter what decision they make, the most substantial shift in US higher education appears headed in the direction of demanding pre-Covid routines. Several colleges and universities are hearing protests over revived online formats, restrictions on student movement, and extended isolation periods for those found infected.

Leading examples include Yale, where the Ivy League institution has taken its rules to the point of forbidding its students to eat at off-campus restaurants – even if they are outdoors. More than 700 University of Michigan students signed a petition supporting regular classroom instruction, pushing back against 900 other community members who pleaded for a January delay.

In the early months of the pandemic, with the dimensions of the threat largely unknown, support for more cautious approaches was common in academia. The University of Washington closed its doors when Covid first become widespread in early March 2020 and more than 1,000 institutions followed suit within two weeks.

Covid responses in the US took a deeply partisan tone in the following months, with institutions in more conservative areas of the country fighting back against restrictions. That kind of sentiment is now on the rise, as the Omicron variant appears to be spreading widely but causing relatively few fatalities in a nation with nearly two-thirds of the population vaccinated.

Academic critics include Marty Makary, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University, who argues that institutional leaders have been too slow to calibrate their responses to the recognised level of risk.

The targets of his criticisms include Cornell University, for requiring that its students wear masks outdoors; Princeton University, for not letting its fully vaccinated students leave their county; Georgetown University, for keeping students isolated for 10 days after a positive test; and Emerson College, for twice-a-week testing and stay-in-room expectations.

Universities are losing their reputations as “bastions of critical thinking, reason and logic”, Dr Makary writes in a Substack posting. A person aged 15 to 24 has a 0.001 per cent chance of a Covid-related death, with virtually all such instances occurring among the unvaccinated, he continues. Policies seen at many campuses this coming semester are “nonsensical, anti-scientific and often downright cruel”.

In part, however, Covid-related restrictions on college campuses have been designed to protect academics and other older staff, who appear more vulnerable to the virus even if vaccinated.

While Dr Makary blamed ongoing restrictions on a lack of clear-headed analysis, the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, has announced that it will again move its annual meeting online, originally scheduled for next month in Philadelphia.

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