LISTEN: COVID in College

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By Aditi Balasubramanian, Grace Knoop, Venette Simon, Shana Singh, and Rusty Gorelick
Boston University News Service

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a letter urging Massachusetts colleges and universities to lead the state’s push towards an endemic phase of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

With schools and parts of the state taking steps back to normal, we checked the pulse of Boston University to see how people feel about these changes.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker signed a letter urging Massachusetts colleges and universities to lead the state’s push towards an endemic phase of the COVID-19 Pandemic. With schools and parts of the state taking steps back to normal, we checked the pulse of Boston University to see how people feel about these changes.

The letter, written by the state’s Executive Office of Education and Executive Office of Health and Human Services, stated… “Colleges and universities should accelerate their efforts to transition back to “near normal” conditions, which include focusing on individuals who manifest COVID symptoms and test positive for COVID, and especially those who are particularly at risk for serious illness and hospitalization.” 

BU Chief Health Officer and Director of Student Health Services Judy Platt says that things are trending in the right direction on the city and state level. The university saw an Omicron variant-induced pandemic-high 423 positive tests on January 4th, 2022, but has averaged less than 100 positive cases per day since February 2nd.

“I think we’re already starting to see our campus coming out of this,” Platt said. “And not just our campus, we’re seeing the city and the state as well. Cases are rapidly dropping, hospitalizations are decreasing. So these are good metrics for us to look towards. And I think we are in a good place there. But if you want to speak more broadly about all of the public health implications that COVID has had, we know that when we look at mental health, emotional health and well-being, that has really been a place that students, employees, people in general have struggled.”

Baker and his administration are also keeping an eye out for college students and their mental health as we transition into the endemic way of thinking as they mention in their letter, which said, “Colleges should continue to increase their investments in mental health services to address the widespread issues of anxiety and depression that have been exacerbated by the challenges of the past two years.”

Hessann Farooqi, Vice President of Student Government at BU, also worries about the mental health impacts the pandemic has had and continues to have on BU’s campus.

“Mental health, I think, definitely worsened as the pandemic started,” Farooqi said. “And people are not able to see one another. People are worried about their own health and the health of their family members. Certainly here on campus, this is one of the most important issues, one of the things that we hear from people all the time”

Baker is urging colleges and universities to take the first step in returning to normalcy in order to combat social isolation and the depression and anxiety that can come with that, as his cabinet members state in their letter: “Now is the time to reconsider these protocols to help promote a return to healthy social interactions, including: remote learning, restricting or discouraging group activities, overly aggressive surveillance testing and mask type requirements.” 

BU is already loosening quarantine restrictions, in part to reduce the negative mental health effects quarantining for 10 days had on students. In addition to quarantine time dropping to 5 days per the Center for Disease Control’s recommendation, Back2BU says “On-campus students may need to move to isolation housing, depending on their housing location and room type. We strongly encourage students who are able to return home by a private car and safely isolate at home if possible.” This is a change from the university requiring all on-campus residents to move to quarantine housing after a positive test.

One BU student, Kristina Nicholas, has recently recovered from COVID and has left on-campus isolation housing, detailing her experience. 

“They gave me a phone call a couple of hours after I found out that I tested positive, which worked because I did not have a roommate here at the time,” Nicolas said. “The isolation housing was relatively close to me. But if it wasn’t, they were going to offer transportation. It was different [from] I expected. We had roommates this semester in isolation, which is not what I would have anticipated with COVID. But there were so many people testing positive when they arrived, that there really was no other option than to pair people up. But it was easy. They dropped off food and stuff. And we had a break when we could go outside during the day. But for the most part, we’re just staying inside and waiting out the few days.”

Quarantining students found that they have to advocate for themselves after entering isolation housing because of the influx of positive cases in the first few weeks of the spring semester.

“And I think that it’s challenging when you’re in isolation to sometimes reach out and get necessary help while you’re there,” Nicolas said. “I had an allergic reaction while I was there, and had some difficulty getting help when I had the reaction. It was not a dangerous one, but it was definitely uncomfortable being there and not really having the necessary contact information to get the help you really needed.”

BU student, Maya Shrestha, shared her concerns over the move back to normal with us: “I think it’s obvious everyone wants to get back to normal because nobody enjoys doing Zoom classes or being restricted in your social activities. But I don’t think we’re at the point where we can do that because we’re still interacting with so many vulnerable people and people are still getting sick.” 

Nyah Jordan, President of BU Student Government, has a slightly different perspective. She believes that as more students and Boston residents become more resilient against the virus, Baker has the right idea in moving into an endemic type of world, but individuals still need to stay accountable. 

“[COVID] is still being taken seriously, but even if you get it, it won’t be as bad,” Jordan said. “I still don’t want to get it. I can’t say that when I go to class I’m completely nervous because I think the BU community very much has an attitude of not doing really stupid things.”

Despite the fact that 98.8% of the student population is fully vaccinated, Farooqi shared his thoughts on why he thinks it is important to stay accountable. 

“The ball is in Governor Baker’s court as far as improving the vaccination rate in Massachusetts, which is pretty good, but also making sure we have folks vaccinated across the country,” Farooqi said. “People are always traveling. Especially with a place like Boston, people are always coming in and out, so if people are not vaccinated elsewhere, they’re bringing COVID here. Not only is that bad with the current variants, but the more that people are unvaccinated, and the more that COVID is running rampant among the population, the more variants that we’re going to see. And we don’t know what future variants could look like.”

Platt spoke about how she and the University balance the needs of people ready to move back to normal with the views of community members who are more vulnerable—or who live with vulnerable people—to the virus.

“There was Governor Baker’s announcement [about moving towards an endemic phase], as well as some pretty visible commentary by other professors,” Platt said. “There were professors from UMass that came out very publicly and stated that we have really been conservative at colleges and universities. And I think what’s interesting is that going into the pandemic, higher ed, particularly in Massachusetts, we really help to lead the way with testing, with vaccination mandates, with protocols that we put into place, because we were trying to think of the spectrum of the population that we have here at BU, and certainly at the other universities as well.”

“So you might have someone who is at very low risk of illness, very low risk of hospitalization or death. But you could also have someone that’s at high risk, someone who’s not able to be vaccinated, or someone whose immune system doesn’t respond in the same way. And even if they have been able to get vaccinated, don’t have that same level of protection. 

“So I think colleges and universities, and specifically I can speak to BU, were really thoughtful to think about our entire population. And so what that has meant is that some people feel that the restrictions have been too conservative. And some people have felt like the restrictions have not been conservative enough. And we’re trying to hear all those concerns, while balancing this with the data that we have on our own population and in the city and the state.”

As the Omnicron variant still remains, students still run the risk of testing positive as they move forward in gathering in larger groups and becoming more social as a whole.  Farooqi gave his own advice to students who have tested positive or are worried about entering isolation in the future. 

“Just be calm!” Farooqi said. “I know this can be a very overwhelming and stressful experience: you’ve been diagnosed with COVID. That’s a bad thing. But the good thing is, especially if you’re vaccinated, you will be fine in pretty much every case.”

“So just bear through it. And make sure that you are leaning on the people around you for support, make sure that you’re reaching out to professors or friends in your classes so that you don’t fall behind and so that you also have the support that you need from them.” 

“I think professors will, especially right now, be a little more lenient, as far as giving you a recorded lecture, but also in terms of extending deadlines, or allowing you to miss assignments and such. But all of that can only happen if you ask. And I know that that can be a scary process, as far as like advocating for yourself, like, I still feel that, but that is the best thing that you can do to make sure that you are first of all healthy, which is most important for them, but also that you’re going to be successful academically.”

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