The Impact of the Omicron Variant on college campuses

Schools across the United States are shutting down and implementing vaccine mandates.

The coronavirus has surged on university campuses once again, shutting down classes and extending mask mandates–this time, spreading quickly as the Omicron variant.

The Omicron variant was first identified in late November 2021 by the World Health Organization, where it was classified as a Variant of Concern (VOC). Ever since Omicron has been detected in 45 states across the United States, Several schools around the country are moving classes virtually, shutting down sports events, and setting vaccine mandates. 

George Washington University has required eligible students and faculty to get the COVID-19 Booster Dose in the nation's capital after the variant was detected on the grounds. "We believe that our vaccine and booster mandate, in combination with the university's indoor mask mandate and routine COVID-19 testing and contact tracing programs, help our community stay well protected," said the Campus Health Update.

In New York City, New York University provost Katherine Fleming announced that final exams were strongly encouraged to be moved to a virtual format. In addition, all non-essential, non-academic gatherings are set to be canceled: the use of residence hall lounges and recreational facilities are suspended as of December 15, 2021. Students are strongly urged to eat outside and use "grab and go" eating to avoid unnecessary contact with other classmates. At the end of the statement, Fleming added, "This is not quite how we expected to end the semester; however, if there is any consistency to the coronavirus, it is its unpredictability… as of now, we anticipate proceeding in the spring semester as we did in the fall: with the cautious, watchful resumption of in-person instruction and the progressive resumption of other activities and elements of campus life." As of December 12, 2021, 99% of eligible students enrolled in in-person or blended courses are fully vaccinated.

Vaccine mandates come from hundreds of schools nationwide, and now many are taking the next step: the booster shot. According to the Washington Post, "Omicron could redefine 'fully vaccinated' to include a booster dose."

The University of Massachusetts in Amherst was one of the first universities to require the booster shot for all eligible students unless they have medical or religious exemptions. The campus holds mixed opinions: an online petition against the mandate has circulated, garnering a few dozen signatures. UMass freshman Emily O'Brien says the booster shot is a reasonable request. "If the past six months have shown anything, it's that lots of people won't bother to get vaccines — especially younger healthy people — if they don't have a requirement to," said O'Brien to NPR.

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on college students' mental health. According to an interview study survey, Effects of COVID-19 on College Students' Mental Health in the United States, "...the prevalence of epidemics accentuates or creates new stressors including fear and worry for oneself or loved ones, constraints on physical movement and social activities due to quarantine, and sudden and radical lifestyle changes." 

A group of college students at a large, public Texas university was interviewed about their stress levels and the COVID-19 pandemic. Out of the 195 participants in the survey, 71% stipulated that their stress has increased due to the pandemic. Statements from the participants showed that they have been worrying more about family, having difficulty concentrating on any given task, falling and staying asleep, and having trouble eating regularly. One student said, "I suffer from chronic depression. [COVID-19] has made it a lot worse, just being in isolation and being home 24/7. It feels like I need to get out, but there's nowhere to go." With the Omicron variant, we can expect to see more of this.

As we move forward into 2022, universities can be expected to move classes partially online and impose more booster mandates for eligible students. Mental health can also be expected to decline as aspects of campus life shut down. Resources from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention can be accessed here.

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