Chaos and Uncertainty: The Past and Present of the Pandemic on Campus

As of Feb. 4, 2022, there have been an estimated 76 million COVID-19 cases in the United States alone. Omicron, the newest COVID-19 variant first discovered last year, has contributed substantially to this staggering number. Due to its high transmissibility, the variant has played a large part in heightening widespread sentiments of uncertainty regarding life during a pandemic. Despite the surge in new cases, a significant number of individuals returned to work and school. Omicron’s existence, paired with this pursuit of normalcy, has resulted in everchanging protocols at Tufts and other universities.

Since the pandemic started, COVID-19 related policies have been in flux. Governments and institutions have implemented an array of evolving mask mandates, vaccine requirements, and isolation and quarantine procedures. In particular, universities have grappled with the question of how to ensure public safety while meeting students’ academic and social needs. 

Like other universities across the country, Tufts has responded with varying answers to this question. In March 2020, Tufts reacted by immediately closing campus and holding classes virtually, a decision in line with actions taken by other universities. However, since Fall 2020, students have been back on campus under regulations such as routine testing, mask mandates, and vaccination requirements. 

Dr. Michael Jordan, the University’s Infection Control Health Director, explained that Tufts’ COVID policies have been characterized by their adaptability and focus on community health. In an email to the Tufts Observer, Jordan wrote, “Throughout the pandemic, we have taken a data-driven approach to our decision making and have focused on flexibly adjusting our policies accordingly, with our top priority being the health and safety of our university community and our neighbors.” 

When campus opened in the Fall of 2020, students were met with policies that limited in-person contact and severely regulated social gatherings. Junior Abby Donaghue said, “I know a lot of students really suffered socially last year because the policies were really damaging to a lot of people’s social development.” 

In August 2021, Tufts fully opened its campuses, allowing students and faculty to enjoy both in-person and virtual classes, as well as amenities like its gyms, libraries, and common spaces. This reopening came with a set of safety requirements, including vaccination and mask mandates. If students tested positive, they were made to isolate in on-campus modular residential units (MODs) for isolation and health monitoring. 

With Omicron, these protocols have evolved once more. On Dec. 16, 2021, just days before the end of the semester, Student Life announced over email that all finals were to be moved online and that students should immediately leave campus. 

In Spring 2022, Tufts introduced more stringent COVID-19 policies, including a virtual first week of classes, a vaccine booster requirement, the banning of cloth face coverings in favor of 3-ply medical and KN95 masks, and an increased testing schedule of three times a week. Despite these heavier restrictions, the number of days that COVID-positive students had to isolate was reduced from ten to five days, due to direct advice from the Center for Disease Control (CDC). 

According to the CDC, this change is the result of an evolving yet still incomplete understanding of COVID-19. However, on Dec. 21, 2021, Delta Airlines’ CEO Ed Bastian sent a letter asking the CDC to reassess the longer isolation period as it “significantly impact[ed]” the company’s operations, with other airlines making similar requests. This development has caused some experts to doubt the safety of the new guidelines, exemplifying the anxieties many endure in the face of evolving policies.

Although there are benefits to having flexible policies, these changing policies can also create confusion. Sophomore Margo Costigan said, “It can be difficult as a student because [Tufts] make[s] changes very quickly. Sometimes they don’t give you information right away. Especially last year, there were some changes with the COVID-19 policies and that can be very confusing as a student.” She added that, “I think they’ve probably done the best they can.” 

The latest change came on February 7, 2022, when COVID Testing Support announced over email that the Tufts testing schedule would be changing from three times per week to two in response to a decrease in COVID-19 cases in the community. In addition to the change in testing, Tufts relaxed other on-campus COVID-19 policies. Most notably, these changes included a return to in-person dining and the reopening of the fitness center.

Dr. Jordan discussed Tufts’ recent changes to COVID-19 policies in an email to the Observer. “Our most recent changes which relaxed some of our guidelines are a reflection of the encouraging data we are seeing, which indicate that the surge is waning. It still is vitally important for our community members to adhere to our testing, masking, and vaccination policies,” Jordan wrote. 

Reflecting on her experience with Tufts’ current policies, Donaghue said, “I think that Tufts is at a place with policies right now [where] we can go about life pretty much as normal, with masks on, and that to me feels like a safe and fair policy.” 

Matthew Winkler, a first-year student at Tufts, said that he thinks Tufts is doing a good job mitigating and implementing COVID-19 procedures. “I’m impressed by how much [Tufts is] testing and how vigilant people are about following the mask mandates.” Winkler added that he has felt very safe both in and out of class at Tufts. Comparing his first semester to now, Winkler said that one of the biggest changes in COVID-19 policies he has noticed is the change in the testing schedule. “I’m glad that we test more when it gets worse. I think that [an increase in testing] makes sense and it’s good to monitor [cases on campus].”

Winkler then went on to compare Tufts’ COVID-19 precautions with those of other universities. “I have a lot of friends at UT Austin, Texas State, and A&M, and COVID-19’s a big problem there. I know a big frustration for them is a lot of their schools aren’t requiring vaccines [and] are never testing. A lot of kids in class aren’t wearing masks and that makes them very nervous about coming to class and [makes it] difficult to learn. I’m appreciative that I don’t have to deal with any of that [at Tufts].” 

Uncertainty and ever-changing guidance from health officials has resulted in differing university protocols across the country. Some universities, similarly to Tufts, have implemented tightened COVID-19 policies and restrictions in response to the Omicron wave. According to Amherst’s COVID-19 website, Amherst students must wear only KN95 masks, are required to get tested three times a week, and must receive a booster shot if eligible. 

Other universities have implemented relaxed COVID-19 policies even amidst the recent Omicron spike. A New York Times article titled, “Some Colleges Loosen Rules for a Virus That Won’t Go Away,” elaborates upon the contrasting COVID-19 regulations found at educational institutions across the country. The article cited the example of Harvard, who in Spring 2022 relaxed their rules for quarantine and isolation. “Harvard is instituting what it calls an ‘isolate-in-place policy,’ meaning that students who test positive would, with some exceptions, stay in their dorm rooms, even with roommates,” the New York Times wrote. 

According to the New York Times article, some universities have even changed the way they are thinking about COVID. “Universities from Northeastern in Boston to the University of California-Davis have begun to discuss COVID in “endemic” terms—a shift from reacting to each spike of cases as a crisis to the reality of living with it daily.” This shows that universities are not only shifting their policies, but their conception of what the current COVID situation means. 

The evolving state of COVID-19 has greatly informed the safety guidelines of Tufts and other universities across the country. As of late January, the most recent peak is on a decline, a development that has directly influenced the loosening of recent protocols. While universities have been quick to adapt throughout the past three years, it is the lack of cohesion of universities’ responses that marks the uncertainty and chaotic nature surrounding the virus. The fluctuating nature of case surges and virus variants is one that leaves students at the mercy of everchanging guidelines unique to their individual institutions. These ongoing changes are a reality that will continue to exist as long as the virus does.