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With the transmission of COVID slowing in the spring and millions of Americans getting vaccinated every week, it appeared that colleges could anticipate a near-normal fall semester. But that prospect is changing and not for the better. The 60% more transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19 paired with relatively low vaccination rates in some states have pushed new national cases higher than they’ve been in months. How are the quickly changing realities of the Delta variant surge affecting plans for reopening college campuses for the fall?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says the Delta variant is now the predominant strain in the United States, accounting for 52% of domestic cases reported in a two-week period ending Saturday, July 31. A month ago, the variant accounted for only 10% of new U.S. cases.
The steep rise in coronavirus cases fueled by the Delta variant prompted health officials at the CDC to issue new guidance on July 27. The organization recommends that all individuals regardless of vaccination status wear a mask while in public indoors if they are in an area of substantial or high transmission — a classification that applies to broad swaths of the U.S. This reflects a reversal from earlier CDC guidance in May that said individuals vaccinated against COVID-19 did not need to wear masks in most indoor and outdoor settings.
Three facts educators and students need to know about the Delta variant
Young people ages 18 to 29 have the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rates of any adults. A study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that 24% of young adults aged 18 to 25 are hesitant to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Given these findings and the fact that the Delta variant is pushing the U.S. to a record number of cases, here are three realities that higher ed must help college students understand:
1. The Delta variant is more contagious
The first Delta case was identified in December 2020, and the infectious disease spread rapidly, soon becoming the dominant strain of the virus in India and then Great Britain. According to CDC estimates, the Delta variant was the cause of more than 80% of new U.S. COVID-19 cases by the end of July 2021.
The CDC described the Delta variant as more transmissible than the common cold and influenza, as well as the viruses that cause Ebola, smallpox, MERS, and SARS. The CDC also called it as contagious as chickenpox in an internal document, as reported in The New York Times. Additionally, the CDC says that the highest spread of cases and severe outcomes are happening in places with low vaccination rates, and virtually all hospitalizations and deaths have been among the unvaccinated. The World Health Organization (WHO) called this version of the virus “the fastest and fittest.” The CDC labeled it as a “variant of concern.”
While experts believe most of the Delta variant transmission is from people who have not been vaccinated, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that some fully vaccinated people can spread the disease if they develop breakthrough cases. The vaccines have been highly protective and breakthrough cases are considered rare, but no vaccine provides 100% protection.
2. Unvaccinated people are at risk
People who have not been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are most at risk. In the U.S., there is a disproportionate number of unvaccinated people in Southern and Appalachian states including Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri, and West Virginia, where vaccination rates are low. In some of these states, the number of cases is on the rise even as some other states are lifting restrictions because their cases are going down.
Children and young people are a concern as well. A recent study from the United Kingdom showed that children and adults under 50 were 2.5 times more likely to become infected with the Delta variant than those who are vaccinated. And so far, no vaccine has been approved for children ages 5 to 12 in the U.S. But the U.S. and several other countries have either authorized vaccines for adolescents and young children or are considering them.
3. Vaccination is the best protection
Early information about the severity of the Delta variant included a study from Scotland done last year that showed the Delta variant was twice as likely as Alpha to result in hospitalization in unvaccinated individuals. However, the information could change as experts learn more.
Another question focuses on how the Delta variant affects the body. There have been reports of symptoms that are different than those associated with the original coronavirus strain. It appears that cough and loss of smell are less common. And headache, sore throat, runny nose, and fever are the most common symptoms presently, based on the most recent surveys in the U.K., where more than 90% of the cases are due to the Delta variant.
It’s unclear whether this variant could cause more breakthrough cases — infections in people who have been vaccinated or have natural immunity from a prior COVID-19 infection — which so far have been rare in general. And immunity provided by the mRNA vaccines appears to provide substantial protection. A Public Health England analysis showed that at least two vaccines are effective mitigation against Delta. The Pfizer vaccine was 88% effective against symptomatic disease and 96% effective against hospitalization from Delta in the studies, while AstraZeneca was 60% effective against symptomatic disease and 93% effective against hospitalization. Moderna also reports that its vaccine is effective against Delta and several other mutations.
The most effective way to protect against the Delta variant is to be fully vaccinated. At this point, that means a two-dose vaccine such as Pfizer or Moderna. For both of these vaccines, there is the initial shot and a second booster shot. And with all COVID-19 vaccines, there is a two-week period for those shots to take full effect. Regardless of vaccination status, it’s also important to follow CDC prevention guidelines that are available for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.
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How can school leaders support college students?
College students, their parents, and even faculty and staff are likely to have a lot of questions leading up to and during the school year. Higher education leaders can follow these recommendations to make sure all institutional stakeholders are supported during this time.
Provide clear communication about the institution’s plans
Make sure all communication is consistent, clear, and continual. A crisis, especially one as long as the coronavirus pandemic, limits people’s ability to cope with excessive amounts of information. Continual communication efforts reduce fear, build trust, and guarantee students understand the organization’s key messages over time.
With students exposed to excess negativity from media and social networks, leaders and communicators need to make the messaging as positive, reassuring, and hopeful as possible. Additionally, leaders can make sure to remind the campus community of ways the institution overcame challenges in the past.
Offer hybrid-course options
COVID-19’s impact on higher education highlighted the advantages of hybrid and online classes. A hybrid class can be the perfect introduction to online classes. Students learn how to use distance learning technologies, interact with educators, and stay on top of their coursework while still having the familiarity of in-person instruction.
Hybrid classes appeal to students with busy schedules who want the flexibility of completing coursework online while still having the accountability of meeting in person. They also help learners develop skills they can use when taking fully online classes later. Of course, hybrid courses may not be for every student, so build on lessons learned and gains achieved during 2020.
Equip faculty with resources and education to succeed
Thirty-four percent of faculty describe themselves as “not at all experienced” in teaching online before the pandemic — only 22% described themselves as “very experienced.” As a result of the emergency remote teaching in 2020, nearly all faculty were expected to deliver their courses remotely during the pandemic.
Now, faculty need to be part of a professional development effort to improve on the emergency remote courses, acquiring the necessary skills for developing and delivering online and hybrid courses. Those faculty members who lacked prior online teaching experience before the pandemic will most especially need additional training to engage in online instruction.
Meet students’ basic needs
Students at all types of institutions struggle with basic needs insecurity. While food and housing security are significant basic needs to meet, what students need to be successful goes beyond just these necessities. An inability to access technology, healthcare, and transportation can keep students from being able to achieve academic success. Barriers to these needs exist for many students and the pandemic has exacerbated many of the barriers.
Your campus must make sure steps are taken to help students have basic needs security. To learn how to best equip your campus with the resources it needs to support all students, watch the latest session of the Gen Ztressed webinar series Basic Needs Insecurity and Your Students.
Promote student mental health and well-being
Many students and their families may feel uneasy about students returning in person to campus for the 2021-22 academic year. While some are enthusiastic about going back, others are anxious after hearing about the delta variant. It’s important for administrators to address those anxieties as a part of their comprehensive plan to support the mental health and well-being of their student body.
That’s why The Jed Foundation (JED), a leading nonprofit organization in protecting emotional health and preventing suicide among young adults, created a set of guidelines for addressing student mental health and well-being for higher education institutions reopening campus.
How colleges and universities are responding to new CDC recommendations
Since college and university policies vary across the states, students must pay close attention to their school’s requirements and recommendations for returning to campus. Seven states, including Arizona and Arkansas, banned local school districts from requiring students to wear masks. Conversely, California, Washington, and many other states require masks in public schools but with some flexibility for school districts. Other states have sought a middle ground, allowing districts to set policies but recommending a mask requirement.
Here are several school’s responses to the Delta variant:
- California State University (CSU) and the University of California (UC) both announced plans to require vaccinations for all students, faculty, and staff. Both systems had previously planned to wait to enact a requirement until after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration granted approval to a COVID-19 vaccine but moved up their timeline to mandate vaccination for fall.
- Duke University, which already had a vaccine requirement in place for faculty, students, and staff for the fall, said it was reinstating the requirement that individuals wear face masks while indoors for the upcoming school year in all university-owned buildings.
- Following the new recommendations from the CDC, the University of Memphis announced it would require masks to be worn indoors and in places where social distancing is not possible. The university strongly encourages students, faculty, and staff to be vaccinated but notes that, as a public university in Tennessee, it can’t establish vaccine mandates.
- Emory University in Georgia announced that it was expanding its current vaccination requirement to apply to faculty and staff.
The politics of potentially reinstating campus mask mandates are challenging in some states. The Texas Tribune reported that state leaders continue to prohibit local schools and governments from requiring masks. In May, multiple Texas universities lifted their mask mandates after Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting governmental entities or officials from requiring face coverings. And in Nebraska, Governor Pete Ricketts issued a press release saying that Nebraska’s “return to normal” would not be “interrupted” by the new guidance on mask-wearing from the CDC.
In Florida where Senate Bill 2006 prohibits educational institutions from requiring proof of vaccination as a condition of in-person learning, State University System leaders sent a joint letter strongly recommending students, faculty, and staff to get vaccinated.
Additionally, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that 623 out of approximately 5,300 U.S. colleges and universities require vaccination for students or employees. Of course, that list will fluctuate dramatically in the days and weeks to come as educators track the effects of the Delta variant and plan for back to school.
Supporting student health and well-being during a continued crisis
The health of your college campus has a direct impact on student success. When college students’ health, well-being, and basic needs are addressed, they are empowered to take control of their education and academic success. To learn more about how to support students, customize a health and well-being solution for your students, and integrate it with your campus healthcare resources, contact TimelyMD.