A Look at Life on Campus With the Delta Variant

The Delta variant of the coronavirus has thrown a new wrench into college life. Here's what to expect on campus this semester at schools around the country.

Earlier this year, we looked to the fall with the hope that students would enter an academic year that would be less affected by COVID-19 than previous semesters—but then the Delta variant happened. With this new strain of the coronavirus and new concerns cropping up, higher education institutions are responding in ways much like they did the first time around. Here’s a look at what college and campus life looks like for students as the pandemic continues, plus some tips to make it easier.

A real-life look at the Delta variant’s effects

As the parent of an international student from India, Melissa Arulappan had reason to worry about her college junior being so far from home during the pandemic. But she feels reassured by the way Southwestern University has handled COVID-19 mitigation measures. “They have all along let their decision be guided by a combination of science, local country advisory and developments, and what’s in the best interest of students and faculty,” Arulappan says. With the Delta variant throwing colleges a curve ball, safety policies are being updated daily. Southwestern, for instance, requires students to be vaccinated, masked in most indoor settings, and tested weekly until vaccination documents are submitted. Liberty University, on the other hand, doesn’t require vaccinations or masks and instead pivoted to online classes via a “campus-wide quarantine” from August 30–September 10. Some colleges have imposed recent mask mandates while others officially require the Pfizer shot now that the FDA has approved it.

The Chronicle of Higher Education keeps a running tally of colleges requiring vaccination, which has reached more than 1,000. Other campuses don’t or can’t mandate vaccines but do recommend them, offering incentives like the chances to win tuition or book scholarships. Fifteen state governors have barred colleges from mandating vaccines, and eight states have banned mandatory masking and, in some cases, even testing. But some universities have mandated masks indoors anyway. Of those attending institutions with requirements, 85% of students have been found to support vaccine mandates and 87% support mask mandates, a TimelyMD survey revealed. At campuses without mask mandates, 70% of students say they plan to wear one anyway.

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What to know about vaccine and mask policies at colleges

If your campus requires a vaccine and you’re not fully vaccinated yet, find out if your campus offers shots and the deadline for uploading documents. Most colleges have systems for demonstrating proof of vaccination, such as uploading your vaccine card to a student health portal. Some campuses have toughened their policies for students who haven’t yet provided proof. Quinnipiac University is fining students by the week for a maximum of $2,275 for the semester for not uploading vaccine information. Students even lost access to campus Wi-Fi and networks if they didn’t comply by September 14. Southwestern University also charges students $35 for weekly COVID-19 tests until vaccine documents are uploaded.

“If students have concerns and are hesitant, there’s a lot of good information to help them parse the misinformation,” says Heather Zesiger, Project Director for the American College Health Association’s Higher Education COVID-19 Community of Practice (HECCOP) initiative. “It’s completely understandable to have those questions, and I encourage them to ask questions of a trusted medical professional.” Many colleges have reinstated masking. If masking isn’t required, Zesiger recommends that both unvaccinated and vaccinated students mask while in indoor public settings anyway. “Unfortunately, we’re seeing in both college and school-age kids that the Delta variant is creating more serious problems than the [previous] variant we were accustomed to,” she says.

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Find out about testing and health screening plans

Campus testing policies vary widely. Some require re-entry testing when students arrive on campus, as well as regular testing, while others may only recommend it if a student is exposed. If you’re vaccine-exempt (medical or religious exemptions are typically allowed), you may need to test once or twice weekly. Bucknell University and Chapman University require weekly tests, for example. Some campuses may also require all students to fill out a daily health screening. Even if your campus doesn’t require testing, you might want to take advantage of it if it’s offered.

Manage discussions with your roommate

You likely haven’t been told by your college if your roommate is vaccinated. “Even if a school can collect that information, it’s generally protected within a medical record and not available to the housing department,” Zesiger says. Students should have conversations with their roommates if they haven’t already. At Western Washington University, which requires vaccination, “We’re encouraging students to talk with each other about all concerns, needs, and comfortability levels with everything surrounding COVID,” says Vicki Vanderwerf, Associate Director of WWU Residence Life. “This includes vaccination status, inviting guests in the space, and sharing of personal items.” The WWU roommate agreement includes discussion questions to jump-start conversations, and students can also reach out to their RA for help. Ultimately, you may need to request a roommate change if you can’t resolve the situation.

Ask what happens if you’re exposed or test positive

Isolating or quarantining is disruptive to your daily life, so you should understand how your campus handles it. According to ACHA, most campuses have set up isolation or quarantine housing on or near campus for students living in campus residence halls. Some campuses may provide hotel rooms or prefer you to isolate at home if that’s feasible. Off-campus students usually are expected to isolate or quarantine at their residence. If a student isn’t able to isolate there, their college might provide campus housing, though some schools may charge extra for it. Find out what your campus provides. And remember, there’s a difference between isolating and quarantining. You isolate for up to 20 days if you test positive, and you quarantine up to 14 days if you’ve been in contact with someone who tests positive.

Create a COVID plan

The ACHA recommends developing a “COVID plan” in advance, including a “go bag” of supplies you’ll need to take with you to an isolation or quarantine room, such as clothing, toiletries, Tylenol/Advil, thermometer, tea, towel, electronics with chargers, individually packaged snack food, and study supplies. Many college websites have detailed FAQs outlining what happens if a student needs to isolate or quarantine. Here are a few questions to ask, recommended by the ACHA:

  • Where will students isolate/quarantine? (If off campus, do students pay?)
  • If a close contact tests positive, how long am I required to quarantine if I’m vaccinated (or unvaccinated)?
  • Will the college deliver meals or handle urgent needs like medication or personal hygiene pickup?
  • Will anyone be checking on me while I’m in isolation/quarantine (for medical or mental health issues)?
  • How does my campus monitor sick students for symptoms? How should I monitor my symptoms?
  • What should I do if my symptoms worsen and I require transport to a medical appointment?
  • How do I obtain medical care when the health center is closed? Mental health care when the counseling center is closed?
  • If I’m feeling anxious, insecure, agitated, depressed, or suicidal, where can I get help?
  • How can I keep up with my classes? Are professors required to provide accommodations to students in isolation/quarantine?

Related: The Importance of Mental Health in a COVID-19 World 

The pandemic has given students a slew of new decisions to consider, and campus policies change quickly as case rates change, so stay current with what your campus expects of you. Also know the local case rates and how quickly the virus is spreading in the community, and be aware of your own risk tolerance. 

Make sure you’re keeping up-to-date on all things coronavirus with our COVID-19 student resources page.

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