As the omicron variant spreads through Richmond — causing an average of 436 new COVID-19 cases being reported daily — University of Richmond students will begin the spring semester on Monday under the Lime Stage of the Physical Distancing Framework. Here’s everything you need to know before coming back to campus:
Before returning to campus…
Students — except those who reported testing positive for COVID-19 after Oct. 12 — must fill out this form to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test before coming to campus, according to an email sent to the UR community on Jan. 3 by David Hale, executive vice president and chief operating officer, Jeffrey Legro, executive vice president and provost and Shannon Sinclair, vice president and general counsel.
Results from PCR tests and rapid antigen tests, including at-home tests, will be accepted by UR, according to the email. The form requires students who choose to take the PCR tests and rapid antigen tests to upload a picture, but it is not required for at-home tests. Whereas those using at-home tests only need to check a box stating that they got a negative result. However, if the information on the form is not accurate, students face a violation of the Standards of Student Conduct.
Those who choose to take a PCR test must do so less than 72 hours before arriving on campus and rapid antigen tests must be taken 48 hours before arrival, according to the email. Students who live off-campus have a deadline to do the same by Monday, according to the email.
Residence halls and apartments will open at noon on Friday after an update prompted by travel concerns, according to an email from the Office of Residence Life and Housing sent to students on Jan. 4. However, the email stated that students who are not traveling far should arrive on campus on Sunday, as previously scheduled.
The rise in cases caused by the omicron variant combined with holiday travel has made COVID-19 tests hard to come by. Hale, Legro and Sinclair acknowledged this shortage in their email to the UR community. They urged students who were not able to find tests to email the COVID-19 Support Center at firstname.lastname@example.org for guidance.
Alexis Rogers, a first-year student from New Jersey, said she was dealing with the shortage of tests firsthand after traveling to multiple stores to find an at-home test because the lines for PCR and rapid antigen tests were hours long.
Rogers is unsure whether she will be able to get a test result in time to return to campus, she said. Regardless of her situation, Rogers said she didn’t think anyone should go back to campus out of fear for the safety of the staff.
“A lot of the custodians that I know and people who work in D-hall are of color and they're older,” she said. “I know that when the pandemic was first taking hold, it was ripping through communities of color.”
Although there is no official remote learning option for students who test positive, faculty and staff will help students keep up with coursework, according to the email. In the case that a student tests positive, they should report it to their college deans and professors, according to the email. Undergraduates and law students should also report a positive test result to the Student Health Center and other graduates should also report a positive test result to the COVID-19 Support Center, according to the email.
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Upon arrival to campus…
Testing upon arrival will only be available to students who are not fully vaccinated on Monday and Tuesday, according to the email.
Senior Maky Espinoza has been living on campus during the winter break and is worried about students coming back to campus from areas with a larger number of cases than Richmond City, they said. Espinoza said all students should be tested on campus.
“It kind of feels like we’re rewarding students who are unvaccinated rather than taking care of the entire campus populace,” they said.
Currently, UR will not be conducting prevalence testing, but it will assess the need for it depending on the number of cases on campus, according to the email. The health center will give priority to symptomatic students for testing. But the health center will also provide testing for students, faculty and staff who are deemed close contacts of a UR member who tests positive, according to the email.
Vaccines and boosters
Even though UR continues to require the COVID-19 vaccine, community members who hold a “personal conviction” can still seek exemption from the requirement, aside from the standard medical and religious exceptions. Most community members have reported their vaccination status – 95.8% of students and 99.3% of faculty and staff, according to UR’s COVID-19 data. Out of those who have reported their vaccination status, 97.7% of students and 93.8% of faculty and staff are vaccinated.
UR does not require community members to get COVID-19 boosters. However, those who have received a booster shot are required to report their vaccination status, according to the email. Undergraduates and law students must upload a copy of their vaccination card to the health center portal and other graduates must fill out this form.
Both Espinoza and Rogers said they would prefer UR to require a COVID-19 booster. Schools across the nation, including Virginia Commonwealth University, are requiring students, faculty and staff to get the booster shot.
“I don't think it's a wise decision or isn't keeping our community safe,” Rogers said of the lack of a booster requirement. “I would feel a little better about going back if booster shots were required but since they're not that adds to a lot of anxiety.”
As the antibodies from the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine start to wear off, booster shots are essential to keep COVID-19 at bay, said Eugene Wu, professor of biology and biochemistry who specializes in viruses. Although he doesn’t have an answer for whether UR should require the booster, Wu hopes students take it upon themselves to get the additional dose, he said.
Isolation and quarantine
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its isolation and quarantine guidelines last week, requiring those who have tested positive to isolate for five days instead of 10. Effective on Tuesday, UR will be following the new regulations set by the CDC if a campus community member tests positive, according to the email. On the sixth day, if symptoms have subsided, they may leave isolation while continuing to wear a mask, according to the email.
Those who are unvaccinated or have not had their COVID-19 booster shot and come in close contact with a community member must quarantine for five days, according to the email. Students who have been fully vaccinated within the last six months or have gotten a booster shot will not be required to quarantine.
The CDC’s decision to shorten the isolation period has drawn criticism from scientists because it could lead to infected people spreading the new variant, according to the New York Times.
When it comes to vaccinated people, Wu said the shortened isolation period made sense because existing immunity from antibodies would help people become less infectious at a faster rate.
Only requiring vaccinated people who come in close contact with someone who tests positive to quarantine if they are symptomatic is not ideal, Wu said. He described the strategy as a reasonable middle ground.
“Ideally, we would keep everybody away from other people who come in contact with a virus,” Wu said. “But if you have, again, some pre-existing immunity, you're going to be probably less infectious and infectious for a shorter time.”
Espinoza said if UR didn’t implement stricter guidelines, cases on campus would rise.
“By not taking these precautions now, at the beginning of the semester, it's going to impact the rest of the semester,” they said. “I don't think that they're thinking that far ahead.”
Wu said he expected cases to start off high as students from different areas return to campus and omicron reaches its peak. While Wu said he felt nervous about beginning classes on Monday, UR’s handling of the pandemic so far made him confident that outbreaks could be contained.
“I think we know what we're doing,” Wu said. “It's just the whole situation around the country, I'm sure has every faculty member pretty worried about starting school next week.”
UR officials also expect an increase in cases when the semester begins, wrote Cynthia Price, associate vice president of media and public relations, in an email to The Collegian today.
“Given high vaccination rates across our campus, our existing health protocols and the capacity we maintain for isolation and quarantine,” Price wrote. “We believe we are prepared to respond to the challenges that may accompany the start of the semester.”
Community members — regardless of vaccination status — will be required to wear masks indoors at the start of the semester. During the last months of the fall semester, UR loosened its mask requirements in residence halls and the Weinstein Center for Recreation. But masks will be required for these spaces in the early weeks of the semester, according to the email.
Off-campus guests will not be allowed in residence halls and apartments, according to an email sent to students on Jan. 5 by Patrick Benner, director of Residence Life and Housing.
Registered events with alcohol will not be allowed, according to Benner’s email. Only small gatherings that follow UR’s policies will be allowed.
Room changes will only be granted by Benner in cases where there are extraordinary circumstances and if there is a space available that will not affect other students’ living accommodations, according to the email.
The communications from UR officials did not state when the new guidelines would be revised.
Contact editor-in-chief Jackie Llanos at email@example.com and copy chief Madyson Fitzgerald at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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