On Dec. 1, 2021, the first confirmed case of Omicron, the new COVID-19 variant, was identified in the United States. The learning environments of college students have been disrupted by COVID-19 infections and the fear and unpredictability of the Omicron variant as students return from a turbulent holiday season. Due to this new strain, many colleges across the U.S. have adapted their pandemic policies in an effort to slow down the spread of COVID infections before and after the holiday season.
As of Nov. 26, the World Health Organization (WHO) lists the Omicron variant as a variant of concern (VOC). This SARS-CoV-2 variant, also called B.1.1.529, has a high number of mutations, including about 26-32 concerning mutations in the spike protein. As Robert Bollinger, M.D., M.P.H. said, “There is evidence suggesting the omicron variant is more infectious than the delta variant.” Similar protection measures should be taken when dealing with different COVID-19 variants, including the Omicron strain: hand hygiene, physical distancing, getting vaccinated, and wearing masks.
Colleges in the U.S. have taken the severity of the highly transmissible Omicron variant into consideration as they adjusted schedules before the holidays. Due to evidence of the Omicron variant on campus, Cornell University tweeted that they moved to Alert Level Red and had final exams shifted to a remote format as of noon on Dec. 14. Princeton University also moved all undergraduate final exams to online so that students are able to “leave campus at their earliest convenience” in anticipation of the holiday season.
Many colleges have also prepared a plan to minimize the spread of COVID-19, specifically the Omicron strain, as students come back to campus after the holidays. The rampant variant delayed Harvard University’s semester as the university moved to remote learning for the first three weeks of classes after the holidays. On Dec. 3, DePaul University switched to having the first two weeks of winter quarter (Jan. 3-15) courses be online. Students from both Harvard and DePaul are experiencing big changes in their respective learning environments due to the Omicron variant.
COVID-19 booster shots have also become a common way for colleges to control the spread of the Omicron variant in their learning spaces once students come back after holidays are over. Occidental College recommended their students to get the booster shot, emphasizing that it would be best to get one while at home during winter break. Likewise, for the start of their spring semester, Chapman University encouraged all of their students to receive a booster prior to their return to campus. COVID-19 vaccination and booster shots are required for all students at John Hopkins University as of Jan. 11. George Mason University advised all staff, faculty, and students to get vaccinated and provide proof of the booster shot as soon as they are able to, especially as spring semester classes will begin on Jan. 24.
Through Teen Lenses: What are your thoughts on the Omicron variant?
“We are all aware that the reason the Omicron surge seems so similar to what we experienced during the beginning of the initial COVID-19 surge is because we haven’t changed our approach. Even after experiencing the harsh effects of disregarding guidelines, many continue to hold beliefs against vaccinating and wearing masks that are detrimental to society.”
Nyla Choudry, 16, Junior at Connelly School of the Holy Child, Virginia
“I’m definitely worried about the Omicron variant and I know that a ton of my friends are, too. Someone in my county already contracted this new strain, which is absolutely terrible. It’s like early COVID all over again, except deadlier.”
Sneha Paladugu, 14, Freshman at The Madeira School, Virginia
“I find the Omicron variant to be more dangerous than any other COVID-19 variants due to its increased transmissibility. I hope more people start wearing masks and getting vaccinated, especially because of Omicron’s rapid rise in the United States.”
Aashna Kulshrestha, 16, Junior at The Madeira School, Virginia