Students struggle adapting to new Covid mandates for spring semester

Photo courtesy of Ramapo College, Flickr.

After nearly two years of remote instruction, most U.S. colleges have welcomed in-person classes for their spring semester. For some, this pivot has provided a sense of normalcy while others struggle to retain safety.

Ramapo College, like Montclair University, followed their reopening on Jan. 18, the same day as several New Jersey’s K-12 schools with vaccine and mask mandates in place. However, other colleges – fairly large ones – like Rutgers University initiated a two-week period of virtual learning upon the start of the new semester. 

“[We want] to deliver on the promise to our students, which is social development, academic development, and overall, holistically, wellbeing,” President Cindy Jebb said in an interview. “We saw that over 94% of our students are vaccinated, soon to be boosted, that we had 89% of our employees vaccinated soon to be boosted.”

Holiday gatherings or New Year’s celebrations are considered superspreader events where the state especially suffered from another peak of confirmed Covid cases. In Bergen County alone, there had been 2,557 cases at its height on Jan. 10, and 1,328 on the first day back from winter break.

As students adjust to the new routine of in-person classes, hesitancy remains abound. Ramapo students, in particular, have responded enthusiastically to the college’s decision, but still tread lightly on campus. 

Though Ramapo has a mask mandate in place, with four offenses listed if violated, the lack of its enforcement has put into question the policy’s effectiveness.

“There are times where I feel very safe, where I see everyone wearing their masks and social distancing. But there are other times where I think this is not really working,” Griffyn Leeds, a senior, said, referring to the dining hall lunch rushes, particularly inside of the Atrium. He described seating to be “jam-packed” in a small space.

Masking implementation can be a daunting task for most instructors, and though it is protocol to enforce the policy, a violation can sometimes be overlooked.

“I'll sit in class and the person next to me will have his mask around his chin. And I don't feel comfortable telling him to pick it up. And I hope the teacher is, but that has not been the case yet,” Leeds said.

Some colleges have also failed to update mask guidelines after the CDC released new information regarding safety levels across varying types of face coverings. Others, like Temple University, began distributing K95 masks to students upon tightening their mask policy.

Last semester ended with three outbreaks – one in November and two in December – while Omicron cases were on the rise.

Jebb and Melissa Van Der Wal, dean of students and chair of the Pandemic Assessment Team (PAT), worked together in responding to the surges by removing the guest policy, enforcing contact tracing and restricting food from gatherings larger than 49. 

“Our last view as a pandemic team on the data is that the unvaccinated are testing positive at a rate of about two to one from the vaccinated,” Van der Wal said. “So that's why we're concentrating on doing surveillance testing amongst the unvaccinated right now. And then, of course, the residents [who are] unvaccinated, are testing two times per week.”

Sanskar Marahata, another senior, sees Ramapo’s decision as a way of improving the quality of education. Semesters of remote learning lessened the learning experience, which the college sought to counter this spring.

Marahata wishes to see more open conversation on campus surrounding vaccine hesitancy, as well as a mask drive for students. Van der Wal recommends that students use the Student Government Association (SGA) as a way of communicating concerns to the PAT and Jebb, who meet with the organization routinely.

“We are constantly evaluating our statistics and looking to see what the transmission rate is of the virus on campus,” Van der Wal said. “And if we need to do anything different to change our health and safety measures, we will.”