By Omar Rashad, Stephanie Zapelli, and Marnette Federis
January 31, 2022, updated February 1, 2022
California college students are headed back to classrooms just as new COVID-19 cases in the state are starting to decline from the peak of the omicron surge. But that doesn’t mean it’s an easy road ahead for the university administrators tasked with keeping them safe.
How many isolation beds are needed on campus? Should in-person classes be resumed all at once, or phased in?
Those are just some of the questions colleges are grappling with as they head into the spring term, after postponing in-person instruction for the first few weeks of January. On the one hand, many public health experts say the virus will soon become endemic: constantly present, but with predictable transmission rates that health systems can manage without being overburdened. On the other hand, face-to-face learning is returning just weeks after the highly-transmissible omicron variant swept through California campuses, straining campuses’ ability to separate infected students from the uninfected.
“If anything, (the surge) taught us that we can’t be complacent with this,” USC chief health officer Dr. Sarah Van Orman told CalMatters.
Some California colleges are looking to increase isolation capacity and are updating masking policies to require surgical, KN95 or N95 masks indoors. Most say they will continue regularly testing students for the virus, on top of requiring booster shots.
At the same time, universities say they are preparing for a new normal in which we all must coexist with the virus.
“It’s unfortunate, but it means this is going to become something we just need to live with and adapt to in an ongoing fashion, similar to what we had to do in the world around influenza,” said Mary Croughan, an epidemiologist and provost at UC Davis.
Universities aren’t out of the woods yet, University of California Health Executive Vice President Dr. Carrie Byington told the university’s Board of Regents at their January meeting. Byington predicted the virus will become endemic, but she believes the timeframe is in “years, not weeks.”